Forgotten Crises – Forgotten Suffering (Panelist speech)

Bram Frouws, Director of the Mixed Migration Centre, was a panelist on the panel “Forgotten Crises – Forgotten Suffering” at the 6th Humanitarian Congress Vienna on 16 June 2023. Below is his recorded speech and transcription.

Speech by Bram Frouws

As my focus is on migration, I would of course like to discuss the notion of forgotten crises in relation to migration and raise a couple of points for reflection and discussion. Maybe to start with a main observation. When it comes to migration, like with anything else, whether it gets a lot of attention, or might be forgotten, really depends on where it’s happening. Or in the case of migration: where it’s going to.

When it’s about migration towards Europe, migration is far from a forgotten crisis. You could even argue it’s the opposite of forgotten. It’s over publicised, it’s vivid, it’s overrepresented, and already called a crisis, especially by media and politicians, before you could even reasonably argue it is a crisis.

But the further you get away from Europe, that is where often the real crisis takes place. The crisis of migration is not when refugees and migrants arrive in Europe, usually in totally manageable numbers. The crisis is further away, also for those who may be heading towards Europe. Think about Afghans, who are killed at the border with Iran. Think about the thousands of migrants ending up in detention centres, for example in Libya. Think about the deaths during the Sahara crossings, in the Sahel.

In 2016, for the first time, we published numbers and estimates, concluding that a lot more people die during these kinds of overland crossings, as compared to the Mediterranean crossing. But that’s not what we focus on. There’s an out-of-sight, out-of-mind dynamic – or maybe should I say tactic? –  at play here. The further you push these migration movements away from your borders – which tends to be the direction of a lot of migration policy making – the more likely you make it a crisis, but also the more likely you make it a forgotten crisis.

Even more forgotten are the migration dynamics that are not heading towards Europe, or the United States at all. Think about Mayotte  – where the sea route from the Comores is one the most deadly migration routes globally. Think about what we call the Southern Route from the Horn of Africa towards Southern Africa, where migrants may also die while in transit, and are met with a lot of violence and xenophobia in South Africa.

Now another aspect I would really like to zoom in on here, in the context of forgotten crises, is the situation of migrants and refugees in countries in conflict. They are among one of the most forgotten groups. Right now, think of the millions of refugees and migrants who were already in Sudan when the recent fighting started, like the many Eritreans. Or the Eritrean refugees in camps in Tigray, when the war started there. Or migrants and refugees in Libya.

But a key example I would really want to draw attention to is Yemen. For more than a decade, an average of 8,000 migrants, mainly from Ethiopia, have been crossing from the Horn to Yemen, mainly to reach Saudi Arabia. Their situation seems to be getting worse and worse. They experience an endless cycle of violence, abuse, exploitation, trafficking, slavery and killings all along this route, at every step of the way. On a scale probably only comparable to Libya, with one striking difference in the case of the Saudi-Yemen border, where migrants are deliberately, killed directly by Saudi Arabian state officials. Yet, they are even more forgotten than migrants in Libya, presumably because it’s far away from Europe, and the final destination of these migrants is not in Europe. This case of migrants in Yemen is really a forgotten crisis, within a forgotten crisis. As Yemen itself is already a forgotten crisis.

Before I stop, I would likely to also reflect a little bit on the word crisis in relation to migration. What I just described, the situation of migrants in Yemen, or Libya, yes, that’s a crisis, for the migrants themselves. But this word crisis is also used too easily in relation to migration, and we have to be careful there. It creates a sense that things are out of control.

Linked to this is the use of big numbers. We’ve seen a lot of statements and advocacy around reaching more than 100 million displaced people last year, without good explanations that the majority are IDPs and that less than a third are refugees who crossed a border. Then we see a minister in the UK using this figure and saying there might be 100 million refugees coming to the UK. So that’s how this kind of advocacy backfires.

Or take climate change and migration. When it’s about people who might be displaced by climate change, it’s always the highest side of a massive margin that will end up in media headlines, and with an automatic assumption that they will primarily move from south to north. It all creates a fear of migration and a sense of helplessness. It feeds into a crisis narrative, where that’s unhelpful, might backfire and might become a self-fulfilling prophecy. And the result is an even more forgotten crisis, where there’s a real migration crisis.

Now my focus area is migration. So of course here I’m talking about how migrants and refugees tend to be forgotten. But: there’s also clearly a mobility bias. We focus a lot on people who are moving, especially those moving cross-border, but we also know that in almost every conflict and crisis situation, the most vulnerable are those who are not able to move. This is true in conflict situations, but also in the case of movement due to climate change effects. So that’s not about migration but gets us back to forgotten humanitarian crises more generally. That’s probably a good moment for me to stop, and hand it back to anyone else with a broader perspective.

But just before I stop, some last reflections on the guiding questions of what can be done about this issue of forgotten migration crisis. On migrants in countries in crisis, there’s actually a good initiative, but it’s a bit of a forgotten initiative, which is called the Migrants in Countries in Crisis Initiative. MICIC provides guidelines and examples of good practices, so that’s something that should be activated whenever a crisis erupts in which migrants get caught.

We, also as humanitarians, have to be careful, in our own advocacy, to not feed into a crisis narrative where it’s not needed or might backfire, and also, to keep on raising awareness on forgotten crises. Our colleagues from the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) have this annual overview of neglected crises, which is a good initiative.

Finally: to a large extent, these crises are not so much forgotten by decision makers. Yes, maybe they are by the general public, but the decision makers are generally well aware. The problem is, how to mobilise the right attention and funding to adequately respond, which is also very much a political issue; an issue of political will. That defines what becomes a crisis, what doesn’t, and what becomes a forgotten or neglected crisis and what doesn’t.

To end with something the EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Johansson said a few months ago: the refugee flows from Ukraine are maybe not even a crisis. A few hundred thousand refugees and migrants from further away, are quickly called a migration crisis. Million of refugees from Ukraine, and it’s not a crisis. The difference is the political will to respond in a certain way.