Monday, February 26, 2024
InterviewOn the frontlines of the migration crisis

On the frontlines of the migration crisis

Bruce Mokayo Orina, a seasoned humanitarian with over 25 years of experience at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), currently holds the crucial position of Head of Delegation to the African Union (AU) and International Organizations in Africa.

Stationed in the vibrant city of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Orina brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to his role. With a commendable academic background, including an MSc in Economics and Management from the prestigious London School of Economics and Political Science, he possesses a unique blend of skills in Cooperation, International Relations, Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), Civil Society, and Humanitarian Assistance.

Before his relocation to Ethiopia five years ago, Orina played a pivotal role as the African Deputy Director at the ICRC headquarters in Geneva, where he oversaw operations across the African continent. Since assuming his current position, his primary mission has been to foster strong alliances with governments while actively championing humanitarian causes of utmost importance.

Migration, a pressing issue of global significance, has become a topic demanding collective action from all stakeholders. In light of this, The Reporter’s Abraham Tekle recently sat down with Orina for an insightful conversation, exploring the multifaceted concerns surrounding migration and the far-reaching consequences it entails. Excerpts:

The Reporter: Migration has become a global phenomenon, encompassing a myriad of reasons and carrying profound consequences. Tragically, countless migrants face perilous journeys, resulting in their untimely disappearances. Could you kindly highlight some of the primary drivers behind migration and the alarming factors contributing to these disappearances?

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Bruce Orina: The most common reason for migration is the inability to stay in contact or communicate with family members due to imprisonment. When individuals disappear under such circumstances, it becomes impossible for their loved ones to maintain communication.

Another contributing factor is the restrictive nature of travel and migration laws. Many people seek to move without being noticed. Unfortunately, engaging in clandestine activities exposes them to individuals who cannot ensure their safety and well-being. Consequently, when communication is lost, these individuals become missing, their lives in the hands of criminals or human traffickers.

These are the primary causes of migrant disappearances and missing individuals during travel. Tragic incidents like boat accidents while crossing borders can be seen as unfortunate circumstances migrants face, leading to potential permanent loss. Some have perished during border crossings and were buried in deserts, leaving their remains forever unaccounted for.

As part of the ICRC’s efforts, we prioritize the establishment of secure migration procedures that enable migrants to leave traces of their journey. In this regard, we have implemented a practical solution by setting up phone booths along key migratory routes. These phone booths serve as vital communication points, allowing individuals to stay connected and in contact while on the move. This strategy has proven particularly effective for migratory routes leading to the southern region of South Africa.

Additionally, we advocate for governments to implement proper documentation systems for migrants. This ensures that individuals can be identified and their whereabouts known throughout their journey.

What is the ICRC’s insight on its definition of migrants, which emphasizes their vulnerabilities rather than their legal status, in contrast to the varied terms, laws, and policies used by different countries to address migrant and refugee issues?

At the ICRC, we embrace a broad understanding of the term “migration.” This is because we recognize that people’s movements can be either voluntary or forced, driven by a combination of factors such as internal conflicts, environmental conditions, or economic concerns. These key concepts form the foundation of our definition.

If we were to categorize individuals who relocate solely for economic reasons as migrants and exclude those who are forced to flee and seek refuge or better living conditions, we would overlook an important group.

In terms of how countries handle incoming immigrants today, there is a divergence in legal status. We have observed that countries enforce strict regulations regarding the admission of migrants. Consequently, even though migrants may have international protection, their legal situation often becomes more challenging than the circumstances they fled. The concept of a safe pathway or regular mobility has become exceedingly difficult to achieve since country regulations make it nearly impossible for the majority of migrants to transit from one country to another. This indicates a significant increase in the requirements for entry.

Therefore, the ICRC firmly believes that a human rights approach, focused on protection and entitlement, should serve as the starting point for anyone who chooses or is compelled to relocate. A restrictive definition would disregard the human aspect inherent in the act of moving from one place to another. Hence, it is crucial to emphasize the protective nature of individuals who have exercised their right to migrate autonomously. Understanding this can help differentiate between migrants who are refugees, asylum seekers, or economic migrants.

To what extent have the laws, regulations, or legal status influenced the challenges you encounter when addressing migrant issues?

To address your question, I will focus on one of the most significant humanitarian consequences. The criminalization of rescue efforts stands out as a critical aspect that raises considerable humanitarian concerns when mobility is viewed through a security and criminal lens. The situation witnessed in the central Mediterranean Sea is not only a deterrent to authorities’ risky operations, but it also represents a deliberate mishandling of the migrant issue, contravening the universal commitment to safeguard migrants.

Unfortunately, numerous migrants have lost their lives while awaiting authorization for rescue operations or planned evasions. These are the most urgent concerns faced by migrants, in my opinion. The next aspect involves access to detention facilities where migrants are held.

Many nations argue that applications for legal status fall under the scope of their national or criminal laws, accusing migrants of disregarding legal procedures and exploiting the country’s legal principles. Consequently, they are denied access to essential humanitarian care and their right to it.

Furthermore, migrants fleeing conflict or persecution often face refusals of asylum and may be forcibly returned to the very countries they are trying to escape from. Additionally, they may endure inhumane conditions during detention, although some governments lack adequate resources to address these issues.

What are the variations in migratory contexts across different regions and countries worldwide?

The human rights issues faced by migrants globally are largely shaped by the rules and regulations implemented by individual nations when addressing migration matters. However, a crucial aspect to address in this context is the establishment of bilateral collaborations that facilitate reciprocal free movement of individuals, akin to the free movement protocols observed by many African nations.

Embracing such practices would not only make it easier to mitigate the associated risks but also provide migrants with the safety and security they require.

What are some of the primary human rights challenges experienced by migrants on a global scale?

Migrants have the inherent right to access essential amenities while in transit. However, irregular migrants often face the denial of crucial human rights, including the right to work, education, housing, and healthcare. They may also be susceptible to arbitrary detention, exploitation, and violence.

When migrants relocate to another country, it is imperative that they receive the protection they deserve. Nations are obligated to provide them with necessary assistance, as explicitly stated in international migration conventions and agreements.

These requirements represent basic human rights. However, migrants who experience discrimination may encounter barriers when it comes to employment, housing, education, and healthcare. They may also become victims of verbal and physical abuse or fall into the hands of traffickers who compel them into exploitative situations, such as the sex trade or agricultural labor.

Consequently, the denial of essential human rights services has become a pervasive global issue faced by migrants in today’s world.

How does the global migration crisis affect countries in terms of economic and political affairs, considering the perspectives of origin, transit, and destination nations?

Migration can lead to a depletion of skilled workforce and brain drain in the countries of origin, imposing pressures on government services such as education and healthcare. Moreover, migrants passing through transit nations may face challenges like overcrowding, inadequate sanitation, violence, and a lack of essential amenities. Despite their potential to contribute to the host country, they can also become targets of exploitation by smugglers and human traffickers.

Migrants may also encounter prejudice and xenophobia, barriers to employment, housing, and education. Consequently, the issue is often framed as a security concern, leading to the criminalization of migrants. Even in some European countries, anti-migration policies have influenced the selection of their leaders.

The global migration crisis is a complex challenge with no easy solutions. However, regardless of their legal status or nationality, it remains crucial to protect the human rights of all migrants. This entails ensuring access to basic necessities such as food, water, and shelter, as well as safeguarding them from exploitation, abuse, and the right to seek refuge.

It is essential to view migration not as a threat, but as a source of strength and diversity. Promoting a more positive and inclusive perception of migration is necessary. Through these actions, we can work towards ensuring that all migrants are treated with dignity and respect, and that their human rights are upheld.

In terms of its societal implications, could you offer insights into the profound impact on families when thousands of migrants go missing each year?

From an African perspective, there are high expectations placed on all stakeholders to address the complex and extensive societal impacts of migration. Among these impacts, one of the most significant is the effect on migrant families. When a migrant goes missing, it inflicts a devastating blow on their loved ones. The uncertainty surrounding their fate and the enduring grief can have profound psychological consequences for the family, lasting for many years.

The disappearance of a migrant can have severe financial repercussions on the family as well. If the migrant was the primary breadwinner, the family may face significant struggles to meet their basic needs. Consequently, the impacts of a migrant’s disappearance can have long-lasting and far-reaching effects.

It is crucial to provide comprehensive support to the families of missing migrants, addressing both their emotional and financial needs. Additionally, greater efforts are necessary to prevent migrants from going missing in the first place.

What measures does the ICRC undertake to assist migrants who are either missing or detained in various regions across the globe?

The ICRC visits migrants in both criminal and dedicated immigration detention facilities in transit and destination countries. The organization’s objective is to ensure that detained migrants can maintain contact with the outside world while monitoring the conditions of their detention and advocating for improvements.

In addition, the ICRC assists migrants in staying connected with their families, even when separated by borders or detention, providing information and assistance, helping migrants register their families with the appropriate authorities and providing contact details. It also takes on the task of tracing missing migrants, employing various methods such as collecting and analyzing information, offering forensic support, and collaborating with authorities and other organizations to search for them.

An illustrative example of our work is the collaboration with South African authorities on approximately 5,000 unclaimed bodies in mortuaries during 2017/2018. The South African government has done an excellent job keeping record of migrants’ identities, which allows us to work with neighboring countries to establish their origins by matching DNA with their loved ones during the repatriation process.

So, by undertaking these efforts, the ICRC plays a crucial role in safeguarding the rights of migrants, ensuring they are treated with dignity and respect.

What role does the ICRC play in addressing the issue of missing migrants, and what accomplishments has it achieved in tackling the challenges faced by migrants?

One of the most significant breakthroughs has been the implementation of family-link programs, which have played a crucial role in helping migrants reconnect with their relatives. We perceive this as one of the ICRC’s most substantial contributions in addressing the migration crisis.

Additionally, efforts have been made to enhance the capacity for targeted rescue operations, particularly in countries of departure like Djibouti, Tunisia, and other key routes.

The ICRC collaborates with authorities in countries of origin, transit, and destination to locate missing migrants. This involves disseminating information about missing migrants and coordinating search activities. Furthermore, the ICRC endeavors to raise awareness about the issue of missing migrants, emphasizing the hazards associated with migration and the importance of family tracking.

Despite the various constraints, including state commitments, we consider these activities as significant contributions.

What additional missions or mandates does the ICRC have in the African Union (AU) and specifically in Addis Ababa?

One of the primary objectives of our office is to establish connections and advocate for the African Union (AU) by engaging with institutions and organizations, aiming to influence their perspectives on critical humanitarian situations across the continent.

Africa represents our largest operational focus globally, and collaborating with the AU is essential due to their involvement in both security and humanitarian issues, playing a vital role in promoting peace on the continent. Consequently, we participate in significant areas of the peace process, exert influence, address legal matters concerning international humanitarian law, and actively engage in key areas facilitated by the AU.

In Ethiopia, the ICRC is actively involved in facilitating processes and has played a collaborative role in the Pretoria peace agreement between the federal government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. We provided transportation services to the mediators, offered technical support to the agreement’s participants, and actively encouraged the dialogue process.

The ICRC’s efforts were instrumental in ensuring the success of the agreement.

Promoting peace processes across the continent and acting as a neutral intermediary is one of our organization’s overarching goals, in addition to providing humanitarian assistance to those affected by conflict and other violent situations. This assistance encompasses provisions such as food, water, shelter, and medical treatment.

What measures have been implemented thus far to prevent migrant disappearances, and could you provide insights into effective practices for addressing the migration issue?

Migration should be approached from a perspective that focuses on regularizing mobility rather than treating it as a criminal or security concern. You address migration when you have clear procedures and documentation for migrants.

The initial step involves ensuring proper documentation to manage the consequences of migration and to view mobility as a positive development challenge. By taking these measures, numerous issues surrounding the matter can be effectively resolved.

Governments, international agencies, and civil society organizations are enhancing the exchange of information related to migrant travel plans, contact details, and identity information.

This collaborative effort aims to detect, locate and assist in finding missing migrants, who may be lost or stranded in various parts of the world.

Can you share with us some of the most difficult cases you have encountered or the most fulfilling moments you have experienced while advocating for migrants’ rights?

I have dedicated numerous years to providing social services, addressing migrant concerns, and studying socio-public policy backgrounds to effectively fulfill my responsibilities. During my journey, I encountered a challenging situation involving actual migration intertwined with criminal enterprise. Resolving such cases requires perseverance and expertise.

These types of cases, along with others of similar nature, stand out as the most challenging experiences I have encountered.

However, nothing compares to the immense satisfaction I feel when witnessing individuals overcome their hardships and reunite with their families.

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Video from Enat Bank Youtube Channel.

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