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Exploring migrants' trust in humanitarian organisations, March 2021

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Executive summary

Humanitarian organisations aiming to provide support to migrants in transit on the Central Mediterranean Route face significant challenges accessing potential beneficiaries. As transit migrants are usually focused on continuing their journey to North Africa and Europe, the window of time in which they can access humanitarian services in any given location is often limited. There is also evidence that migrants actively avoid detection, often making them an ‘invisible’ population who may not be willing to access services. Past IMREF research on access has shown that a lack of trust in humanitarian organisations affects migrants’ willingness to seek available assistance. However, evidence on the factors shaping migrants’ trust in humanitarian actors and how organisations can effectively mitigate this access barrier is limited.

This study seeks to inform migration programming in the Sahel by providing an improved understanding of how, when, and why migrants trust humanitarian organisations, and how this affects access to migrants. Findings are based on a desk review of 39 sources, 16 key informant interviews with field workers, and qualitative indepth phone-based interviews with 90 transit migrants (including 30 women) in Agadez and Gao.

Trust in humanitarian and development organisations

• Out of 90 respondents, 30 said they have no trust in humanitarian organisations, 25 said they have high levels of trust, and 20 said they either had mixed trust or were unsure. Migrants who described themselves as having mixed levels of trust or as unsure often voiced negative perceptions of assistance, suggesting important limitations on their levels of trust. However, unlike the 30 migrants in the sample who report a complete lack of trust, these migrants are often willing to access organisations under specific circumstances. This suggests that organisations may be able to build trust with them.

• The extent to which migrants trusted organisations depended on the nature of the concerns they had in accessing assistance. Migrants who expressed a complete lack of trust linked it to perceptions that organisations work with the police to deport them or seek to prevent them from migrating, or concerns that accessing assistance would delay their journeys. Perceived collaboration between organisations and the police or the national government—who most migrants did not trust—amplified these concerns.

• Migrants who voiced negative perceptions of assistance and limitations on their trust in organisations generally felt support lacked relevance and that organisations do not treat aid recipients equitably. Migrants often assessed the relevance of assistance based on whether it met their needs against their priorities at different stages of their journey, with many highlighting a fundamental gap between their priority to travel safely to Europe and the types of services offered. A number of migrants who had previously accessed assistance in Agadez and Gao also felt that their trust was negatively affected by a perceived lack of responsiveness to their feedback, despite a stay long enough to receive a response. Migrants who believed organisations do not treat beneficiaries equitably felt that current criteria for beneficiary selection are arbitrary and not based on objective needs.

• More migrants in Agadez than in Gao expressed a lack of trust in organisations. While migrants in both locations voiced concerns around risks in receiving support from organisations, respondents in Agadez more frequently said they had negative experiences with humanitarian organisations or heard from other migrants that available assistance would not meet their needs.

• There was no clear difference in trust patterns between men and women. However, their reasons for (mis)trust differed: women tended to attribute low levels of trust to negative interactions with organisations’ field staff, while men focused on the risk that their journey would be halted if they approached humanitarian organisations.**

Humanitarian organisations aiming to provide support to migrants in transit on the Central Mediterranean Route face significant challenges accessing potential beneficiaries. As transit migrants are usually focused on continuing their journey to North Africa and Europe, the window of time in which they can access humanitarian services in any given location is often limited. There is also evidence that migrants actively avoid detection, often making them an ‘invisible’ population who may not be willing to access services. Past IMREF research on access has shown that a lack of trust in humanitarian organisations affects migrants’ willingness to seek available assistance. However, evidence on the factors shaping migrants’ trust in humanitarian actors and how organisations can effectively mitigate this access barrier is limited.

This study seeks to inform migration programming in the Sahel by providing an improved understanding of how, when, and why migrants trust humanitarian organisations, and how this affects access to migrants. Findings are based on a desk review of 39 sources, 16 key informant interviews with field workers, and qualitative indepth phone-based interviews with 90 transit migrants (including 30 women) in Agadez and Gao.