Published: July 10, 2019
This study explores the ethical challenges that the International Rescue Committee (IRC) faced in its work with detained migrant and asylum-seeking populations in Greece and Libya over the past 4 years. It is intended not only to examine IRC’s engagement with humanitarian principles in those two locations, but to offer a foundation upon which IRC can explore how principled humanitarian action may be pursued in the face of constraints in other operational contexts where the agency works with populations in detention or detention-like circumstances.
IRC’s work in Greece and Libya was driven by a sense that the humanitarian imperative necessitated it engage with the populations exhibiting the most severe needs in each location: in both countries detained migrants and asylum seekers were deemed to fall in that category. IRC also felt that it had to have proximity to them to be able to advocate in the most effective way on their behalf, that presence among them was essential to advance larger, global advocacy objectives related to migration management policy change. On the other hand, such desires bumped up against concerns that working within the detention systems could indirectly contribute to the harm of those being served; could legitimize and expand global migration management policies which were deemed harmful in their own right; could expose IRC staff to harm themselves; that the detained populations were only small subsets of much larger underserved communities who also needed assistance and protection; and nagging questions about the quality of care that any interventions could reasonably be expected to achieve under the “inhumane” detention conditions which existed in Greece and Libya.
In both locations the decision to work with detained populations was fraught, challenged certain humanitarian principles, and raised tensions between those principles and other organizational objectives. Most if not all of the challenges IRC experienced fall into one of the categories Hugo Slim has identified as the “persistent ethical problems” of humanitarianism.2 In the case of Libya, for example, the horrific health conditions in detention centers posed acute risks to IRC medical staff as well as detainees, confronting IRC with the problem of finding the right balance between reaching detainees deemed to have the most severe needs and fulfilling its organizational duty of care to its own employees. Such tensions are not, in themselves, unique to detention or detention like settings. Yet in some cases it was the context-specific dimensions of each detention environment that provoked or exacerbated the ethical problems IRC faced. For example, the IRC’s reluctance to engage in the Moria “hotspot” on Lesvos, Greece, was closely linked to the role that it played within the European Union’s (EU) 2016 agreement with Turkey regarding the management of asylum seekers, elements of which were seen as harmful to refugee, migrant and asylum-seeker rights and well-being. In Libya, the extreme forms of harm perpetrated against migrants in detention centers raised particularly discomforting questions about potential complicity in abuse and exploitation.
These tensions played out such that IRC’s engagement with detained populations in Greece and Libya was consciously kept to a small portion of each country’s program portfolio. Judged by most metrics- number of people served; the proportion of the country program budget; the number of staff employed- IRC’s work with non-detained populations, be they urban migrants and conflict-affected host country nationals in Libya, or asylum seekers and refugees on Lesvos not residing in Moria or who have been able to leave the islands to the Greek mainland, typically far outstripped its detention focused portfolio in both countries.34 The report is organized as follows: First it analyzes the concept of detention in general terms, introducing a broad understanding that enables potential application in other contexts. It then examines what detention means in both Greece and Libya, acknowledging the terminology employed to describe the ways in which migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers’ liberties are restricted is often obscured by the use of euphemisms.5 In Greece, for example, the situation populations in “hotspots”-or “Reception and Identification Centers (RICs)”- find themselves approximates detention, even though the term isn’t uniformly employed, whereas in Libya, the characterization of the regime in which migrants and refugees are exploited, tortured, and sold as chattel as “detention”- whether “official” or “unofficial”- imputes a degree of formality, legality, control, and purpose which can be argued to be both lacking and misleading. The report then provides a short overview of the IRC’s work with detained populations in both countries. It identifies some of the key decisions and actions which provide a basis for further analysis from an principled perspective. It then proceeds to outline the ethical tensions that IRC navigated in its work with detained populations in both countries which fall broadly into eight categories:
Limits to the quality of care: How far from minimum standards is too far?
Fears of being, or being perceived to be, complicit in harm;
Risks of substituting for or absolving duty bearers from their responsibilities;
Emphasizing advocacy within the overall response despite questions around its efficacy and potential negative impact on field access;
Constraints on organizational independence, in practice and perception;
Understanding and operationalizing impartiality in terms of the severity and proportional scale of need;
Balancing a duty of care to staff with the imperative to deliver aid in risky environments; and 8) Interrogating the meaning of “humanitarian” action in situations which deny humanity by design or default.
The paper concludes with a reflection on the potential implications of the study for IRC. A summary of them is presented below:
In Libya it was further entwined with international criminal human trafficking networks. It was these contexts, as much as the specific national immigration and detention policies and practices of each country, that stoked some of the most serious ethical concerns about complicity for IRC.
Semantics matter and can obscure the real purpose or function of detention. In both Greece and Libya the semantics of detention obscured their purpose and function. Calling something a “reception and identification center” conveys as sense of welcome and hospitality. Migrants and asylum seekers residing in Moria and Vial experienced little of these. In Libya “detention” doesn’t truly convey the exploitation and commodification that is arguably the foremost purposes of the places where migrants are held. Calling something a “forced labor camp” or “slave market” instead of a “detention center” could engender a different moral evaluation of what is happening within them, and what a humanitarian agency should be saying or doing in response.
Complicity is not the same as moral taint, but there is a fine line between them. IRC feared that its engagement in detention systems in Greece and Libya could inadvertently contribute to the harms being perpetrated by the architects and administrators of those systems. It made extensive efforts to mitigate this potential through its pursuit of explicitly harm-reducing interventions and vocal condemnations of the systems and perpetrators of the harms. IRC was not silent and it cannot rightfully be depicted as consenting to the wrongs the systems inflicted on those under its control. It would thus not be right to state that, at present, IRC is complicit in these harms. What IRC seemed to be grappling with is a sense of moral taint, or the potential for its moral integrity and reputation to be polluted, by its association with the detention regimes in both countries. Yet it remains incumbent on IRC to continue all efforts to understand the risks of its engagement, take action and exercise voice to mitigate those risks to prevent a slide into more morally responsible forms of complicity.
The importance of placing limits around risky associations. The ICRC, the leading authority on detention, has long recognized that its work in prisons can be criticized for lending undue legitimacy to harsh regimes which exploit the ICRC’s presence to give a false impression that the detention system is good because they are working with the ICRC. In response, one of the ICRC’s criterion for engagement which enables it to live with the potential accrual of misleading legitimacy afforded by its presence is that it must see signs of improvement in detention. As Slim notes in his review of its work with detainees, “ICRC’s ethical judgement on the rights and wrongs of a dubious association hinged on their operational freedom and practical effectiveness weighed against the risk of… the false legitimacy that ICRC’s presence and association might create.” The Refugee and Migrant Platform’s recently developed Principled Framework for Intervention in Detention Centers7 is a very important step in the evolution of the inter-agency response in Libya. It tackles the risks to principled humanitarian action brought about by association with the detention system head on, setting out limits to engagement based on the conditions which obtain from one detention center to another.
The centrality of advocacy. Advocacy played a critical role in IRC’s operations in Greece and Libya. It provided an impetus for IRC to get involved in the provision of direct services to detainees in order to establish a presence among that could amplify IRC’s voice on their behalf. It served as a moral marker, enabling the organization and its staff to provide services without appearing to be complicit in the harms that detention was causing. It helped keep IRC’s moral integrity intact. Advocacy was also a conscious pathway to policy reform that it was hoped, if not fully realized, could expand the scale and impact of the albeit limited services being provided to the relatively small numbers of detained migrants and asylum seekers in both countries.
Balancing proportionality and relative severity of need. In both Greece and Libya IRC assessed detained migrants and asylum seekers as populations having some of the most extreme needs in each country. The organizational and personal drive to alleviate suffering where it is most acute pulled IRC, despite grave apprehensions, to work with them. Yet while the severity of their needs was extreme, the scale of need was small compared to other populations that IRC desired to serve. IRC’s work in both countries raises a challenging question for all humanitarians: How does one compare the value of an intervention whose most fundamental impacts may be an unquantifiable expression of solidarity with the most downtrodden, or the amplification of their voices through denunciation of the system causing them harm, with more easily counted material assistance benefits?
Has the IRC pushed itself as far as possible to reach those most in need in Libya?
The contour of IRC’s detention programming footprint is similar to the rest of the humanitarian community in that all assistance has been directed towards “official” detention centers under Libyan Department for Combatting Illegal Migration (DCIM) control. The reasons advanced by IRC and other humanitarian actors to explain why they are not working in “unofficial” detention centers are comprehensive and sound. But the illicit, illegal, or non-state character of the actors running “unofficial” centers shouldn’t be a barrier, per se, to humanitarian negotiation to try and gain access. The humanitarian imperative should drive attempts to reach those most in need, wherever they may be. Is the humanitarian community displaying risk aversion? Have all best efforts been made to provide aid to those that some believe may be the most needy among the migrant population in Libya?
A note on methodology: The research consisted of a review of secondary literature on humanitarian action with detained populations historically and globally. It also reviewed the specific detention contexts in Greece and Libya. Primary sources supplied by IRC examined for the study included, but were not limited to, Strategy Action Plans; donor funding proposals and reports; assessments; advocacy reports and press releases; and internal email communications.
The consultant interviewed approximately 40 members of IRC staff and representatives from peer and partner agencies working in or supporting IRC’s work with detained populations. They included regional and country management, program service delivery, advocacy, operations and technical advisory positions. Among these groups were representatives from IRC country programs in Uganda, Iraq, North East Syria, Thailand, Myanmar, and the USA where IRC works with populations in detention or detention-like circumstances. Some interviews were conducted as focus group discussions, others as key informant interviews. Interviews were conducted on a confidential basis. As such quotations are not directly attributed to individually named respondents. All interviews were recorded on Skype with the interviewees’ permission. A complete list of interviews is included in Annex 1.
The study is not an audit or performance measurement exercise. While it may raise questions about the extent to which IRC’s decisions or actions can be considered to have embodied various humanitarian principles, it does so without passing judgement on the “rightness” of them. Rather it is hoped this analysis will shed light on the thoughtful, deliberate and ethical calculus that IRC employed to navigate these difficult questions: Indeed this analysis demonstrates that achievement of a purity of principle is rarely, if ever, possible. source