This summer I was the migration justice intern at the Unitarian Universalist UN Office. As I began my internship in June, the New York Times broke the story about migrant children being held in horrid, overcrowded, and unsanitary conditions at the U.S. border. Headline after headline revealed the inhumane realities that the American immigration system creates for countless adults and children. I couldn’t help but think: These are only the stories that we know about; what about the others?
In the first few weeks of my internship, I found myself sitting in on various migration-related meetings in the UN world, ranging from ECOSOC meetings, NGO committees, to special events. Discussions varied, often very technical and detail-oriented, but every time I would look around and wonder: Where are all the young people? Why aren’t they in these spaces? Don’t these policies affect them? Imagine if instead of keeping migrant youth in detention centers, we invited their perspectives in policymaking spaces. For this reason, I designed a project to document the stories of migrant youth and compile their recommendations on how governments, the UN, nonprofit organizations, and/or companies can best support them. While decision makers argued over what migrant youth need, I wanted to give migrants a platform to voice their needs directly.
Soon, I formulated guiding questions that I wanted to use to interview youth migrants. I kept them broad, creating room for the people I was interviewing to direct the conversation and highlight what was most important to them. Then I began outreach to various NGOs that worked directly with immigrant communities, eager to listen to anybody who was willing to share their story.
Four migrants generously related their experiences to me. Some of them were heartbreaking stories of hardship and violence, and others were uplifting stories of upward mobility. Nonetheless, each was complex, emotional, and impactful.
One particular story I want to highlight is that of Migrant A, or Yonas. He was eager to tell me his story because he had never shared it with anybody before. We spoke for more than an hour and he told me of how he escaped Eritrea, detailing a journey filled with imprisonment, torture, being held hostage, and other atrocities. He explained with frustration that he has been waiting three years for his refugee status interview with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), but it seems to be postponed indefinitely due to “a lack of officers,” leaving him stuck in Egypt. Despite various protests and accusations of corruption, Yonas says there’s no way to know if his interview will actually take place. He concluded our conversation by saying, “Even if you did nothing for me, at least I get healed from talking. This is my first [time] that I am sharing my history with you. I didn’t share my history before with anyone. I was really in need of this. Just to talk, at least I can say I shared my problems with someone.”
After speaking to Yonas and comparing all of the interviews, I was able to find some common themes throughout the migrants’ stories and policy recommendations. I concluded with with five major insights that I detail in my report, though there are likely many more.
- Migration is often the only option. Every single migrant, regardless of background, wished that people understood that leaving one’s country is “often the last resort,” birthed out of necessity and filled with hardship.
- There is a [false] promise of the ‘West'. All of the migrants alluded to a ‘promise’ of a better life in ‘Western’ countries that appeared to be unachievable elsewhere. However, the migrants that have since lived in either the United States or Europe find some degree of falseness to this promise.
- Prioritize job opportunities & safe migration: they often go hand in hand. Many of the migrants articulated a need for policy that acknowledges the mutual benefits of migrant labor for migrants and the host country. Policy that focuses on the benefits of migrant employment would likely also create much safer pathways for migration.
- Families should not be separated.
- Experience translates to expertise: migrants are experts on migration issues. Notably, two migrants use their migration experiences to inform their NGO work. Their migration journeys uniquely position them to anticipate migration related issues in a way that most non-migrants would likely be unable to.
These recommendations are not all-inclusive, but rather, I hope they set a precedent of including stakeholders at the decision-making table. Each migrant I spoke to had important, unique, and complex opinions about migration policy. Moreover, as called for by the UN World Youth Report, it’s crucial to create a more accessible, inclusive way for vulnerable migrant youth to be involved in the policies that affect them.