Smart practices that enhance the resilience of migrants

“People do not leave their homes without reason. Fleeing your country is a measure of last resort, when staying behind is no longer an option. They leave behind everything and endure huge risks because hope lies elsewhere, away from their situations of risk and vulnerability.”

Elhadj As Sy, Secretary General of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies


People migrate in pursuit of a better life for themselves and their families. As described in the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies’ (IFRC) Policy on Migration, “migrants are persons who leave or flee their habitual residence to go to new places – usually abroad – to seek opportunities or safer and better prospects. Migration can be voluntary or involuntary, but most of the time a combination of choices and constraints are involved.” While there are common reasons for migration, each person migrates for unique reasons and frequently only makes the decision to leave their home when staying is no longer a good option. Many migrants might encounter risks during their journey, some of which can be life threatening.

Working with and for vulnerable migrants throughout the world is one of the longstanding priorities of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. As people throughout the globe are increasingly moving across borders, there is a demand for humanitarian assistance to meet the needs of these populations along the migration trail, and the Movement has a role in providing humanitarian protection and assistance to those in need, irrespective of their legal status. The IFRC, which coordinates humanitarian activities undertaken by the 190 National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, has repeatedly highlighted migration as one of the great humanitarian challenges facing the world. As stated in the 2009 IFRC Policy on Migration: “In engaging in the area of migration, National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies have the purpose – individually and together with the International Federation and the ICRC – to address the humanitarian concerns of migrants in need throughout their journey. They strive to provide assistance and protection to them, uphold their rights and dignity, empower them in their search for opportunities and sustainable solutions, as well as promote social inclusion and interaction between migrants and host communities.”

“The report is intended as a knowledge base that helps National Societies and other actors design, adapt and implement smart practices that are appropriate to their specific situations.”

The IFRC commissioned this report as part of its mandate to share knowledge and skills and to ensure that all National Societies have the knowledge, resources and capacities to support vulnerable migrants. This report is based on interviews with over 70 people representing 30 countries, five country missions, and extensive desk research. It compiles 59 smart practices that address the needs of migrants across their journeys. It also presents 13 smart operational enablers, which help National Societies and other actors to ensure they have the right human, technical and financial capacities to identify and address migrants’ needs. The report is intended as a knowledge base that helps National Societies and other actors design, adapt and implement smart practices that are appropriate to their specific situations. This report does not provide a comprehensive list of all smart practices, and can therefore not be used to develop a gap analysis. Neither does it make recommendations or provide guidelines on how to address specific needs of migrants, but rather, provides examples of how other actors have addressed similar needs. The report is not intended as a thorough needs or vulnerability assessment of migrants, but uses common needs of migrants as a framework to present smart practices. This is a living document; the IFRC will continue to identify and share smart practices, as National Societies and partners test, implement and scale up new initiatives.

Responding to the needs of migrants

This study’s methodology – and all of the Movement’s work – is anchored in the needs of the people served and aims to reduce their vulnerabilities by enhancing their resilience to unexpected events. As stated in the IFRC Migration Policy, “the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement strives to adopt an integrated and impartial approach, combining immediate action for migrants in urgent need with longer-term assistance and empowerment” (Principle 1). Resilient migrants will be better prepared to face the risks and overcome the unexpected shocks that may befall them during their journey. The analysis considered six intertwined dimensions of resilience:

  1. regulatory safety (i.e., laws, policies and practices by state actors that respect the rights of migrants)
  2. financial capital (i.e., adequate financial resources during the journey and access to basic financial services)
  3. physical capital (i.e., shelter, food, health, water and access to sanitation, etc.)
  4. human capital (i.e., education to support integration and access to information to make informed decisions)
  5. social capital (i.e., social networks including family links, friends, people from same origin country, other migrants, host community etc. to enable inclusion in society)
  6. natural capital (i.e., biodiversity, water, land and forest conditions that improve living conditions).

In the analysis of migrant needs and vulnerabilities, the study found common patterns at each stage of the journey. Throughout their journey, migrants require different types of external support. For example, once a migrant decides to leave his/her country of origin, the regulation of borders and access to information is of paramount importance. When s/he attempts to cross international borders, is waiting in a migrant camp, or is arriving in a new country, physical capital such as shelter, food, and access to healthcare, becomes more important. At the final stages of the journey, when the migrant is integrating into a new society or returning home, the ability to earn an income (including both education and the possibility to work) becomes critical. This pattern of needs is common to migrants irrespective of why they are migrating or where they are migrating.

However, the pattern of common needs is heavily influenced by the personal characteristics and circumstances of each person. The unique combination of intrinsic and extrinsic characteristics and circumstances will determine the vulnerabilities of a person, and may call for an augmented need for external support. For example, a young healthy male who is travelling for economic reasons during summer, with a larger group, will likely be less vulnerable than a minor who is escaping conflict during winter, and travelling alone. While both migrants are vulnerable and require external support, the depth and breadth of support needed will differ, in line with their specific characteristics and circumstances.

Smart practices included in the report

The study followed four steps to select the smart practices to be included in the report.

  • First, the study considered six steps in a migrant’s journey: first steps at origin; transition across borders; potential stay in migrant camps; potential regularization of status when arriving to a country; long-term stays in countries of destination (or intermediate countries); and potential return to the country of origin.
  • Second, it considered six different dimensions of resilience.
  • Third, it considered four types of services provided: assistance, protection, awareness raising, and advocacy.
  • Fourth, it considered alignment with the IFRC Migration Policy: all smart practices focus on the needs and vulnerabilities of migrants (Principle 1) and should be aligned with at least one other migrant-centred design principle (Principles 3 and 4) or an effective implementation principle (Principles 2, 5, 6 and 7). The smart practice might, in addition, be a type of response in a desired area (Principles 8, 9 and 10).

The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement has the knowledge, capacities and resources to improve the lives of vulnerable migrants. The study identifies smart practices from every region, during each phase of a migrant’s journey, and for every dimension of resilience. The 59 smart practices profiled in this study represent a wealth of ideas that can inspire National Societies and partners to develop new approaches for meeting migrant needs. Specifically, the report includes the following types of smart practices:


  • Phase in the journey. Most interventions found in the study occur during long-term stays in a country of destination or intermediate country (25), followed by interventions on arrival (10), in migrant camps (six), and during transition across borders (six). There are fewer examples of support at origin (five) and return (four). There are also three examples of smart practices that cut across multiple steps in the journey. The nature of support often varies depending on the step in the migration journey. In most steps (origin, migrant camps, arrival, long-term stays and return), most smart practices identified are stable and constant, and focus on providing long-term solutions. Most of them, with the exception of most smart practices at arrival, also focus on engaging migrants in the solutions. When migrants transition across borders, interventions tend to focus on providing short-term solutions through dynamic and flexible solutions. During transition across borders, in migrant camps and at arrival, smart practices often provide direct support.
  • Dimension of resilience. The study includes a large number of practices that support human capital needs (~34 per cent of total) and physical needs (~29 per cent of total), but fewer that address social capital (~15 per cent of total), financial capital (~12 per cent of total) or regulatory and governance systems (~10 per cent of total). When considering the specific needs within the dimensions of resilience, there are multiple examples of practices that address practical information, education and vocational training, income generation, and physical health, but fewer that provide shelter, food, non-food items, safety-nets, or water, sanitation and hygiene.
  • Type of support. Most smart practices identified focused on awareness-raising (21 practices), followed by assistance (16 practices) and protection (16 practices). Fewer focused on advocacy (six practices).
  • Regional Distribution. Of the 59 smart practices profiled, six were from sub-Saharan Africa, seven were from the Americas, eight were from Asia-Pacific, 28 were from Europe and ten were from the Middle East and North Africa.
  • Alignment with principles. All 59 smart practices focused on needs and vulnerabilities of migrants (P1); 26 on building partnerships for migrants (P6); 21 on supporting aspirations of migrants (P3); 16 on responding to displacement of populations (P9); 15 on recognizing the rights of migrants (P4); eight on working together along migratory trails (P7); six on linking assistance protection and humanitarian advocacy for migrants (P5); four on assisting migrants during return (P8); and three on including migrants in humanitarian programming (P2).
  • Type of partnership. With a few exceptions, most of the smart practices identified for this report work with partners within the country. There is a large potential for more cross-border initiatives, particularly at origin, transition, arrival and return.
  • Targeted or integrated. Most of the smart practices identified for this report are targeted (as opposed to integrated in pre-existing responses). This might be because actors who provided inputs for the study probably prioritized sharing targeted initiatives. It is likely that more integrated initiatives exist at origin, during long-term stays and at return. If not, a migration lens should be further mainstreamed across existing initiatives.
Pathways to enhance migrant resilience

To be able to effectively implement a smart practice, National Societies need a set of enabling factors. These factors will allow National Societies to prioritize migration, among other competing priorities. As a preliminary step, National Societies must understand the unmet needs of migrants. Conducting a comprehensive and insightful vulnerabilities’ assessment requires human, technical and financial capabilities. Once there is a clear understanding of unmet needs, the National Society must possess human, technical and financial capacities to address them. Moreover, they will benefit from political, social and cultural contexts that are favourable to addressing the needs of migrants.

National Societies can learn from each other and accelerate the establishment of these factors by adopting smart operational enablers. These include having clear roles and responsibilities, up-to-date information, adequate skills and resources, and support from the government. Examples include early warning systems, training and preparing volunteers, creating networks and a collaborative structure, etc. 13 examples are provided in the report.

The IFRC can further support National Societies to overcome the obstacles by continuing to strengthen each of the five enablers. First, the IFRC can further encourage and support National Societies to conduct more comprehensive needs and vulnerability assessments of migrants in their country which will enable the National Society to better understand the type and diversity of needs and priorities that the migrants have.

In addition to continuing to share examples of how other actors strengthen the enablers, the IFRC can:

  • Share relevant guidelines and tools; develop staff secondment mechanisms (human capacity).
  • Facilitate access to internal and external experts; mainstream migration into tools and guidelines (technical capacity).
  • Provide technical and financial support for resource mobilization; coordinate joint appeals; develop a migration trust fund (financial capacity).
  • Increase support for advocacy; increase efforts to coordinate a common message; lead with a strong unified global voice on migration at global level (political context).
  • Increase support for awareness raising at national level and within the Red Cross Red Crescent (social/cultural context).

Migrants across the trail can benefit immensely from help, and the Red Cross Red Crescent has a distinct value proposition through its Fundamental Principles, more than 17 million active volunteers, global presence, and access to communities. Moreover, together with their partners, National Societies bring a wealth of experience. This experience should continue to be nurtured and shared with sister National Societies to further enhance migrants’ resilience.

The 59 smart practices and 13 smart operational elements included in this report only represent a fraction of the wealth of experiences that National Societies and partners have. There are opportunities to further share smart practices or to develop them.

Working in the migration space, however, has some challenges. The Red Cross Red Crescent can benefit from increased coordination in at least five areas:

  • Advocacy. National Societies see value in having a strong and unified voice on migration under which they can work.
  • Implementation. There is an opportunity to develop more cross-national, cross regional and even global responses.
  • Information. There is an opportunity to enhance the overview of what National Societies do, their impact, and other key statistics of the needs of migrants, in order to provide a global picture of what the Red Cross Red Crescent does in migration.
  • Knowledge. There is a desire for a stronger knowledge base on migration, including through global research on needs, trends and other common factors of migrants.
  • Learning. While sharing of learning occurs through regional networks, there is an opportunity to further share learning across regions. The IFRC is in a unique position to strengthen coordination across all five areas and drive the response at regional and global levels.