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Nexus dilemma: mixed migration as a humanitarian emergency or a development challenge?

By Chris Horwood and Fran Beytrison / Ravenstone Consult

  • 26 Aug 20

Blog Post

Mixed migration related emergencies are not straightforward. Mixed migration itself is characterised by complexity, various drivers, routes and people involved, and confusion when it comes to who can assist and how.

As defined by the Mixed Migration Centre, and adopted by the Migration Emergency Response Fund (MERF), “mixed migration” refers to cross-border movements of people including refugees fleeing persecution and conflict, victims of trafficking, and people seeking better lives and opportunities. Motivated to move for a multiplicity of reasons, people in mixed migration flows have different legal statuses, as well as a variety of vulnerabilities. Although entitled to protection under international human rights law, they are exposed to multiple rights violations along their journey.

Those in mixed migration flows travel along similar routes, using similar means of travel—often travelling irregularly and wholly or partially assisted by migrant smugglers. Critical needs and crises may become apparent, affecting a few hundred people on the move or tens of thousands, in sudden flashpoints or continuous, longer-term situations. Some populations are stranded, stuck or trapped in dire, dangerous conditions while others remain on the move but face severe harm on an ongoing basis.

During the recently completed research piece conducted for the Start Network on the work of the MERF, a number of tensions were revealed that go to the heart of the problem of humanitarian interventions in mixed migration situations. One is what we are calling the "nexus dilemma" where, when designing a response to specific or general mixed migration crises, it is not clear how exactly to categorise the needs, who should fund the response, and who is best placed to carry it out.

“The contexts where the MERF is operational tend to be predominantly development, with a limited humanitarian portfolio in many cases. Yet the MERF design is distinctly humanitarian, particularly in terms of the timeframes. Greater flexibility was built into the MERF, but the decision-makers rarely permitted projects to extend to three months. I think that the MERF is an example of a funding mechanism that sits across the humanitarian-development-peace building nexus, and needs to be designed accordingly. And this is incredibly challenging without compromising on some parts, which the Start Network and its humanitarian purpose are unlikely to do easily.” -Online survey respondent from the MERF research piece

Contexts of chronic, persisting needs, often resulting from crises borne out of protection gaps and rights violations, cannot simply be addressed by assistance alone as the underlying causes and drivers remain unresolved. Feedback from interviews conducted, as well as the online survey, described the funding challenges of responding to mixed migration and the contradictions practitioners faced, particularly in contexts of protracted internal and transnational forced displacement.

The funding sources available tend to reflect the silos of humanitarian or development mandates and budgets. Whilst the scale of needs on the ground may be viewed as no longer sufficient to deploy the full weight of a humanitarian response, conversely, those affected typically fall through the cracks of development programmes.

While in many humanitarian crises, the broader response system effectively acts as a safety net to the most vulnerable individuals, in more stable contexts or contexts where humanitarian agencies have moved on to a post-crisis response, this role often falls to governments or local civil society who may not have the capacity or the inclination to support vulnerable migrant populations. Due to the nature of mixed migration flows, these routes commonly pass through and become blocked in a variety of countries, often those without other ongoing emergency activities such as Tunisia and Morocco, or those such as Greece and Italy. In yet more extreme situations, the worst violations and highest risks that migrants and refugees face may occur in remote geographical situations such as crossing the Sahara desert or be unreachable in the midst of conflicts, such as in Yemen and Libya.

Responding to mixed migration situations requires actors to rethink their approaches and tools, and acknowledge that one single approach is rarely sufficient. In this, there is much to be learnt from so-called "triple nexus" thinking. This is where joined-up responses draw on humanitarian, development and peacebuilding approaches with, ideally, an ability to flex up or down to accommodate the proportions of each according to context and change. [1] The approach seeks to capitalize on the comparative advantages of each sector and seek to reduce need, risk and vulnerability.

Humanitarian principles are vital to humanitarian actors and humanitarian financing facilities like the MERF and the Start Fund operating effectively, leveraging their comparative advantage and securing the humanitarian space. Problems and limitations arise when short-term funding is being offered in situations where protection concerns are more systemic and relate to policy positions of national governments or multi-national blocs—not just in one country but along a whole migratory route.

The Start Network is not entirely new to this challenge: since its creation, the Start Fund has been navigating tensions between its two acknowledged "niche" roles, defined as (a) Start Fund’s ability to complement other funding mechanisms and funding streams by virtue of being faster to act and (b) its specific intent to deliver funding to under-served/neglected emergencies. As such, there is already considerable organisational learning in terms of the balance to be struck between the two that could be applied to mixed migration contexts, including those where needs are chronic and where Start Fund projects can draw attention to funding gaps, humanitarian or otherwise.

The Start Network’s crisis anticipation window, launched in 2016, has also allowed the Start Fund to explore preparedness in a range of contexts, including conflict, which could also be relevant in anticipating and preparing for humanitarian needs in mixed migration contexts.

Respondents and participants in the recent MERF research piece were unanimous that the future will bring many more mixed migration situations where significant humanitarian need will be required. The Start Network needs to find a way to adapt and adjust the Start Fund and the MERF (or any future iteration of a dedicated migration emergency fund) to respond to mixed migration emergency needs in different scenarios. Context-sensitive responsiveness will be important, as well as flexibility based on the nature of the needs, and will enable Start Network and its members to continue to be important actors in future crises and to ensure that the nexus dilemma becomes a nexus opportunity for mixed migration.


[1] A development from the earlier iteration called the "double nexus" considering the humanitarian-development divide - the approach was originally focused on removing the unnecessary barriers hindering the collaboration between humanitarian and development actors at all levels.

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