Photo credit: DW/Mostqfigur Rahman
Photo credit: DW/Mostqfigur Rahman

The world’s largest humanitarian network has warned that some governments are trying to reduce immigration by restricting migrants’ access to aid. It’s calling on countries to keep policies on migration separate from access to food, shelter and health care.

While European and world leaders are struggling to find common ground on migration policy, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) has issued a warning note: There is no policy goal that can ever justify the suffering of vulnerable people, including migrants.

Speaking in New York during the final round of negotiations of the Global Compact for Migration, Francesco Rocca, the head of the IFRC, said a person’s immigration status had no bearing on their right to receive basic services and humanitarian assistance. 

“There is no need to mistreat people to have proper border control. Preventing access to adequate food, basic health care, and legal advice about their rights is completely unacceptable. Everyone has the right to be treated with dignity and respect,” Rocca said.

In its report, New Walled Order: How barriers to basic services turn migration into a humanitarian crisis, the IFRC describes some of the ways in which migrants are prevented from accessing support. Some of these are overt, like outright exclusions. Others, the report says, are more subtle, such as fear of being harassed, arrested or deported, and language barriers.

“All migrants, even those with no claim to asylum, have rights”
_ International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies

In some cases, restricting migrants’ access to support is part of a strategy specifically designed to “reduce and deter migration,” the IFRC says. This is not only morally wrong, it also makes bad economic sense. The organization cites as an example studies in Germany and Greece which have found that giving irregular migrants access to prenatal care can save up to 48 percent compared with the cost of using emergency health care.

Another example of governments preventing access to humanitarian assistance, the report says, are the laws being enacted in some parts of the world to criminalize aid, including search and rescue assistance to undocumented migrants at sea.

The IFRC’s demand on this point is simple: Ensure humanitarian assistance is never deemed unlawful.

Create ‘firewalls’

Even where migrants have the formal right to access services, particularly healthcare, they’re often too frightened to go to the doctor. This is because some countries have laws requiring doctors to disclose the migration details of the people they treat to the authorities.

This is one of the first things the IFRC says needs to change. It suggests creating firewalls – impenetrable information barriers – between public services and immigration enforcement.

If rules requiring health care providers and aid agencies to report on the people they assist were abolished, the IFRC says, money, and certainly lives, would be saved.


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