Meeting the Family Communication Needs of Migrants

A volunteer with No More Deaths helps a migrant call their loved ones.

A volunteer with No More Deaths helps a migrant call their loved ones.

Story by Danielle Rudolph, International Services/SAF Specialist, Phoenix, Arizona; and
Elissa Maish, International Services Volunteer, Tucson, Arizona

Gang violence, drug-related crime and poor economies in Central America and Mexico, are among the major factors contributing to increased migration along the United States border with Mexico. In addition to these “push” factors, there are “pull” factors.  Many migrants have families in the US and lived with them prior to separation. Their desire is to reunite with their loved ones.

While the Arizona border comprises 20% of the total southern international border, it can be among the most treacherous place to cross. Arid desert, perilous mountain terrain and violence along the migrant routes pose dangers to those who are already ill-equipped to make the journey. One can only imagine what might be going through the minds and hearts of loved ones at home who have not received any news from a family member. Even worse, the person making the journey has profound desires to have meaningful exchanges with their families before embarking on the desert crossing, not knowing if this might be their last chance to hear their loved ones’ voices.

Fortunately, there are excellent organizations that provide humanitarian relief, when and where possible, along the migrant routes. Even with 100,000 square miles of desert, volunteers place themselves in harm’s way to strategically place life-saving water, treat injuries and illnesses, and provide sustenance and clothing. They also conduct search and rescue or recovery missions. In October 2012 and in subsequent visits with representatives of these organizations, it was identified that there was a serious need to restore communication between family members.

A shrine at No More Deaths pays homage to the migrants who have lost their lives along the journey.

A shrine at No More Deaths pays homage to the migrants who have lost their lives along the journey.

Under the worldwide Restoring Family Links program, the Tucson Chapter initiated a new partnership with No More Deaths (No Mas Muertes) to facilitate communication between loved ones using cell phones. No More Deaths operates a medical camp about 15 miles from the border near Arivaca, Arizona. When migrants appear at the camp, they usually suffer from conditions such as exposure, dehydration, foot injuries, insect stings, snake bites, malnutrition, ankle sprains and more. If their conditions are critical, volunteers call 911. Their physical needs are addressed and now, with the Red Cross cell phone service, migrants are able to place much needed health and welfare calls to their loved ones who are desperate for news. As witnessed by volunteers, the reaction of reconnected family members is emotional and indescribable. Only few can know.

The onset of the cell phone program was challenging, but fortunately, the volunteers at the No More Deaths camp were well aware of communication deficits in the desert. The camp is surrounded by mountains. There are not many service providers. The ability to obtain a signal is inconsistent and volunteers and callers had to climb adjacent hills and bluffs to place that call home. Volunteers also needed to be trained in how to effectively manage the program, including the cost. 

The American Red Cross and No More Deaths were able to overcome the challenges and learned how to manage the service more effectively and economically.  We also provided limits to the number and length of calls to ensure that more people can take advantage of the service to connect with family. With the success and expansion of the No More Deaths program, we began looking into other areas along the border where the family communication needs of migrants could be met.

Migrants cross through rugged terrain along the US-Mexico borderlands.

Migrants cross through rugged terrain along the US-Mexico borderlands.

In El Paso, Texas the American Red Cross has collaborated with an organization, Opportunity Center, to provide them with our phone services for migrants. They are a homeless shelter with ten locations for specific populations. Migrants from around the world walk through the Center’s doors seeking shelter while they decide the next steps in their journey. The most comforting way for them to make these decisions is by speaking with their loved ones. The Center’s staff can offer them the American Red Cross phone that will allow the chance to call both domestically and internationally. Due to this partnership with Opportunity Center, migrants are able to receive consolation from a safe roof over their head and the sound of their loved ones voice.

As the United Nations recognizes International Migrants Day and many around the world continue their work to provide humanitarian assistance to migrants, it is important to remember the family reconnection needs of migrants. Backed by the principles of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, migrants can trust that the phones are provided by a neutral organization whose mission and principles are rooted in alleviating human suffering.