New Walled Order: How barriers to basic services turn migration into a humanitarian crisis

Our Message

While there is room for disagreement about migration policy, the humanitarian imperative means that we must never needlessly sacrifice the survival and dignity of any vulnerable people, including migrants.

Around the world, migrants, especially irregular migrants, increasingly face barriers to accessing essential services that are indispensable to their survival and basic dignity, such as health care, shelter, food and legal assistance. There are a range of factors that prevent this access, including outright exclusions but also more indirect factors, such as fears of arrest, detention and deportation, prohibitively high service costs, and language issues.

Some claim that limiting access to essential services are justified by an interest in removing the “pull factor” for migration or ensuring law and order. Some states have sought to discourage, and even criminalize humanitarian service provision. Such restrictions violate migrants’ human rights. Migration can be managed more effectively when we do not compromise the safety and dignity of vulnerable people. States and humanitarian actors should be working together to ensure access to essential services for all vulnerable migrants.

The Global Compact on Migration is an opportunity to ensure that all people migrating, regardless of their status, have access to the humanitarian assistance they need. States can adopt a range of measures to achieve this, including building “firewalls” between immigration enforcement and public services.

Executive Summary

Migrants often have considerable challenges in accessing the assistance they need, in particular those deemed “irregular”. In some circumstances, they are not eligible for state-provided services that can be of life-or-death importance (such as emergency medical care). This can be due to laws that restrict access based on immigration status, where services are unaffordable and migrants are not eligible for state subsidies provided to citizens, or where policies in place require fulfilling impossible pre-requisite criteria for services, such as providing a national ID card or other form of identification which migrants may have trouble obtaining.

There are also many informal barriers preventing migrants from accessing the services they need. This can include a lack of information about their rights and entitlements, as well as language and costs barriers. Irregular migrants may fear approaching service providers to access assistance or report abuse due to the possibility of arrest or deportation. Access to assistance is further limited when there are restrictions placed on the provision of humanitarian assistance by humanitarian actors, whereby humanitarian activities benefitting irregular migrants are discouraged and in some circumstances even criminalized.

States laws, policies and practices can have the effect either of creating or reducing the barriers preventing migrants from accessing assistance. States must ensure that lack of legal status does not become a barrier to the basic protection of life and dignity. The process to develop a Global Compact on Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (the Migration Compact) offers a unique opportunity for states to agree together to meet the basic humanitarian needs of all migrants, irrespective of status. The following recommendations are therefore very relevant to the deliberations of the Migration Compact, but they are primarily offered with domestic application in mind.

States have a sovereign right to control their borders, subject to their obligations under international law. However, minimum standards in terms of meeting basic humanitarian needs must nonetheless be upheld to ensure that legal status does not become a barrier to the basic protection of life and dignity. Any work towards a Migration Compact needs to further this goal of meeting the basic humanitarian needs of all migrants and not lower the bar on the protection and assistance owed to and provided to migrants in vulnerable situations.