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Archive for the ‘migration’ Category

Photo from Wikipedia.

As I’ve written before, I moved from El Salvador to Rhode Island in 2001 with my 2 kids. Their father is Salvadoran and they look an awful lot like him.

A few years after we moved, when my daughter Clare was about 7 years old, one of the checkout ladies at the supermarket we frequented said to me, “Your daughter is such a nice child. She’s always so helpful. Where did you get her?”

“Um,” I answered, a little confused, “…I gave birth to her?”

“Ooooohhhhhh! OK,” the lady said. “I thought you had adopted her from somewhere.”

I was annoyed with the lady, at first, for the assumptions she was making. I let it go, however, realizing that it didn’t really matter whether I had adopted my daughter or not. I would love her the same, regardless.

People often ask these kinds of questions without meaning any harm. They say things like “Oh, she’s your daughter? She doesn’t look like you. What is she?”

This question always stumps me. “What is she?” I know that people are asking about her ethnicity, but I find the phrasing odd. So I usually feign confusion or make a dumb joke like “Um, what is she? She’s…. a human?”

Clare is 17 now and she’s been getting into slam poetry. Here is her take on it.

An open letter to the woman at the grocery store that asked my mom “where she got me.”

Home grown.

Sitting on the shelf next to the Autocrat Coffee Syrup and the Del’s Lemonade.

I have made my place here.

I do not belong in the exotic fruits section. The Latin foods section.

It is not for you to decide where I call home.

The sticker on my forehead labeling me “IMPORTED” should not be the only thing you see about me.

I am also organic, fair trade original.

I am my own woman. Not a further perpetuation of the idea that the only way to have such an exotic being is to have taken it. As if to fill a space in your collection.

AND HERE WE HAVE CLARE RAMIREZ RAFTREE. ALL THE WAY FROM EL SALVADOR.

To those who ask, “What are you?”

I am anything I want to be.

(Published with Clare’s permission)

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If you’ve been reading this blog regularly, you’ll know that I have a strong connection with El Salvador where I lived during the decade of the 1990s. Every so often I get nostalgic or something triggers me and I get the urge to write about those days or how they still impact on me and my kids. The Central American child migration situation is in the news every day now, with varying explanations and huge amounts of political manipulation, so it’s something that’s been on my mind a lot lately.

I migrated to El Salvador for love in 1991 and back into the US with my kids in 2001 to get out of a country that was increasingly sinking into terrifying violence and where I could not envision a future for myself or my kids. The very week we left El Salvador, the 9-year-old son of a man who owned a small mechanic shop (eg, not someone who was uber wealthy) was kidnapped and then killed by his captors when the police attempted to rescue him. My son Daniel was also 9 at the time.

Still, leaving El Salvador was the hardest decision I’ve ever made — and I had a plane ticket, family support in the US, spoke the language, had a job, and already had US citizenship, as did my kids. I cannot imagine sending my children on their own, by foot. I cannot imagine having to make the choice between the known day-to-day violence of one kind and the potential yet very real violence of another.

My ex-husband made the journey into the US in the early 1980s when he was 18. It took him four months to make it. He tells of hunger, of sleeping outside, of looking for short-term work in Mexico to replace the money that the police had stolen from him, and being chased through the fields by a man with a machete. He traveled with the clothes on his back and not much else. The heartbreak and fear involved in a decision to send a child on that journey alone is something I can’t fathom. But I know that El Salvador is no place to try to raise children right now either. Even in the 1990s, every time I left the house I wondered if I would return that evening or if I might be caught up somehow in the senseless violence that runs wild in the country. It’s something you learn to live with, and you don’t realize how stressful it is until you wake up somewhere where you feel safe.

Our decision to migrate back to the US continues to be difficult sometimes, as I wrote in this post about my daughter’s experiences dealing with family separation. It’s never easy for families to be separated, and it enrages me when the family bonds, of “others” or of “the poor” are imagined to be less strong or less meaningful than those of more privileged people or of the current citizens of a particular country. Sending a child to walk across a desert is not a decision parents make lightly. Why do people seem to understand that when it’s the “Lost Boys of Sudan” and not when it’s children of Central America?

Yesterday, my son Daniel wrote about his experiences for a newspaper called Brasil do Fato, where he’s interning for the next 3 months as part of a human rights grant he received from his university. He doesn’t elaborate about his childhood in El Salvador in this version, but his original version talked about the joy of growing up in the Barrio where we lived, playing in the alley and the rubble of an abandoned building down the road, and how things have changed since then.

Daniel’s piece gives a quick history of the US’ involvement in Central America and why it’s not an isolated issue, free of history and a broader global context. He also reflects on “how much a person’s fate is determined by the country and family into which they are born and where they fall in the order of social forces that structure the world.” It’s something he understands well, because he’s had the best of his two worlds.

Here’s the original article published on July 24, 2014, in Brasil do Fato (in Portuguese), and I’ve pasted in an English translation here:

Human Rights here and in the wider world

by Daniel Ramirez

I am Salvadoran, on my father’s side. Which means that I share, at the very least, a common history and memories of life in a Salvadoran barrio. In the barrio, I grew up alongside many children living in very difficult circumstances, just like the children who are seeking to flee the country today.

Our lives, however, turned out very differently. I am privileged to be a college student at the University of Chicago, and currently in São Paulo working as an intern for Brasil de Fato thanks to a grant from my school’s Human Rights program. This highlights for me how much a person’s fate is determined by the country and family into which they are born and where they fall in the order of social forces that structure the world.

Throughout the 20th century — especially after 1932 when the Salvadoran government put down an attempted peasant insurrection led by the Partido Socialista Centroamericano, killing up to 40,000 indigenous people in a massacre known as “La Matanza” — economic tension between the Salvadoran oligarchy and its working classes continually increased.

This conflict hit a high point during the global economic crisis of the 1970s, and in 1979 an attempted coup d’etat sparked the Salvadoran Civil War. The United States saw this as an opportunity to ensure communism would not take root in El Salvador, as it already had in Nicaragua, and funded the Salvadoran military’s campaign against popular resistance. On the left, the guerrilla militia named Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (in honor of Farabundo Martí, the leader of the 1932 insurrection) was organized to fight for the Salvadoran people.

It was a brutal war that lasted until 1992. Thousands were killed and human rights were grossly abused on a massive scale. To escape this, many Salvadorans migrated to the United States, including my dad who escaped to the US in the early 1980’s. In 1990, my dad was deported back to El Salvador, and my mom went with him.

I lived in El Salvador until I was nine, then I moved to the United States with my mom and sister.

Since I left, I’ve gone back to visit El Salvador once every couple of years. Now, my old friends have grown up. They work hard for little pay and already have families, and we’ve grown apart. There are still kids hanging out outside, but they’re older, and it seems to me like the character of their activities has become more serious.

The barrio has changed. It now “belongs” to the 18th Street gang. There’s more violence around, some of it between rival gangs, and my dad tells me to be careful who I talk to. The kid who lived directly across from us back in the day was shot and killed along with his mother right in the alley in front of my old house. If I’d been born ten years later, my childhood would not have been the carefree, playful existence that it was.

Violence, Hope and Reality

This is the type of social climate that is causing children to leave for the United States. And if we follow the chain (if not totally causal, then at least telling) from US military funding, to an intensified civil war, to refugee migration, to Los Angeles gangs, to deportation and finally to the pervasive power of gangs throughout El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, we can see how much current migration into the US from Central America has been shaped by the United States’ influence.

Right now, on the United States’ side of the US-Mexico border, thousands of children are arriving at immigration detention centers, most looking to escape violent conditions in their home countries. Meanwhile, President Obama is looking for the power to deport them as quickly as possible, intending to send Central Americans the message that the US will not aid immigrants arriving en masse to its borders, even if they are children.

United States foreign policy in Latin America extended and fueled a brutal civil war in El Salvador. Its domestic treatment of immigrants, refugees and low income communities bred gangs who then committed crimes and who then were deported back to a Central American economy and society that had no room or place for them to reintegrate in a healthy manner.

The United States is a major historical cause of the current influx of child immigrants. It would be just for United States society to take collective responsibility for the harm it inflicted in the past, and do what it can to help remedy the crisis in Central America. But, as can be seen by looking at how United States society treats its African-American community, as a country, it is not very good at taking responsibility for past crimes.

Why I’m Here

Now, I’ve come to Brazil with a critical eye in order to understand the interconnections between my Salvadoran barrio, my experiences in the United States, and the periphery and the social movements in Brazil, specifically in São Paulo, where I’ve come to live these three months.

I hope to see how diverse groups of people organize to fight for themselves. My goal is to consistently articulate my insights, and track the progress of my thinking on the theme of human rights. I’m not sure where this project will go, but I’m excited to go along with it and take it wherever it leads.

 

 

 

 

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Migration is central to the current political debate as well as to the development discussion, especially in conversations about the “post 2015” agenda, the ‘youth bulge’, and youth employment. Prevention work is not likely to end migration, regardless of the organizations and governments working to improve the well-being of children and youth in their home communities. In fact, improved economic capacity may actually enhance people’s capacity to migrate.

Our Technology Salon on January 16, 2014, discussed the role of ICTs in child and youth migration, ways ICTs are influencing migration, how ICTs could make migration safer and more productive, and ideas for mobile applications that would be useful for child and youth migrants. We welcomed Ravi Karkara, United Nations Inter-agency Network on Youth Development; Lucas Codognolla, Lead Coordinator, Connecticut Students for a DREAM; and Michael Boampong, Migration and Development Consultant, UNDP, as our lead discussants.

Some areas on where and how ICTs are playing or could play a role:

  • Sending money / remittances / mobile money. Costs to transfer money need to be reduced. Some studies have shown that the African diaspora pays up to 20% for money transfers. More needs to be done to extend mobile money services, especially in rural areas.
  • Finding a job. Many youth use ICTs from the very start of the migration process to look for work. They may also use ICTs to find work in their home countries if they return.
  • Getting a visa to migrate legally. Most legal immigration processes require making appointments with Embassies via the Internet and the ability to communicate via email.
  • Identifying migration routes. Often, youth who migrate irregularly investigate routes online before their departure. GPS can also help during transit. One program in Mexico is developing a “safe migration map” that provides crowd-sourced, near real-time information to migrants on which areas are experiencing high crime or other dangers so that they can migrate more safely.
  • Reporting abuse. Child help lines are expanding their services across many countries and providing support, advice and help to children in case of emergency or abuse, including during migration. Many help lines are experimenting with text messaging.
  • Connecting with other youth in similar situations.  Youth who have an irregular migration status are able to find others in the same circumstances and feel less alone. They can also connect with peers and organizations who can provide support, help and advice.
  • Keeping in touch with parents/family. ICT are useful for children and youth keep families informed of how they are doing, and to ask for support and help. The African Movement for Working Children and Youth works with telecoms operators to provide a free number to children and youth who migrate in West Africa. Parents and children can remain in touch that way while children are moving from one town to the next.
  • Sharing information on migration rights. Organizations like Connecticut Students for a DREAM use ICTs and social media to reach out to youth who have an irregular migration status to provide support and to engage them in organized advocacy activities. The organization encourages sharing of stories and a safe space to discuss migration difficulties. The “Pocket DACA” application helps young migrants understand the deferred action law and apply for it.
  • Engaging, organizing, and influencing government. Youth in the US are organizing via Facebook and other social media platforms. In some cases, government officials have reached out to these groups for advice on legislation.

Participants pointed out that:

Children/youth are not always victims. Often the discourse around children’s movement/migration is centered on trafficking, protection and vulnerability rather than rights, power and choices. More needs to be done to empower children and youth and to provide opportunities and participation avenues. At the same time, more needs to be done to create opportunities at home so that children and youth do not feel like their home situation is hopeless and that migration is the only option.

Children and youth are not a homogeneous population. When thinking about ICTs and children/youth, it’s important to know the context and design programs that are relevant to specific children and young people. Age, wealth, sex, literacy and other aspects need to be considered so that ICT applications are useful. Both traditional communication and ICTs need to be used depending on the population.

ICTs can widen generation gaps. In some cases, ICTs increase the communication divide among generations. Older people may feel that youth are working in a medium that they are not skilled at using, and that youth are not considering their input and advice. This can create conflict and reduce levels of support that might otherwise be provided from community leaders, elders and government officials.

The role of the State needs more thought. Often irregular migration happens because legal channels are difficult to navigate or they are prohibitive. The role of ICTs in influencing or facilitating legal migration needs more thought, as does the potential role of ICTs in advocating for change. The State may not always be friendly to migration, however, so the topic is controversial. States may also use ICTs for surveillance of youth or migrating populations, especially in places where there is political or ethnic conflict, so ICTs may put people in extreme danger.

Risks need to be considered. There are serious risks associated with using ICTs in general, and especially with vulnerable populations. These include everything from online grooming and risks of being lured into trafficking or sex work, to scamming sites that take advantage of youth, to political aspects such as surveillance and targeting of certain populations of youth by the State or other armed groups. ICTs could be a way to help break conspiracies of silence and to report and speak out about human rights abuses, but care needs to be taken that people are not put at risk when they do so.

ICTs need to fit local contexts. Rural areas are less connected and so other forms of information and communication are often more common. Both online and offline means need to be used when working with children and youth. In addition, different social media tools and platforms are used in different places. For example, though the end of Facebook is heralded by some in the US, because youth are reportedly fleeing as older people join the site, Facebook is taking off in Latin America, where many organizations use it for engaging youth and helping them to organize and get informed about their rights.

Not much is known about children, youth, ICTs and migration.  The area of child migration is relatively weak in terms of research. The upcoming World Youth Report centers on child and youth migration and has been a highly controversial process. Migration needs to be considered from an evolving age perspective, with focus on aspects that impact on children, adolescents and youth differentially. A gender perspective needs to be included. There is also a difference between children and youth who migrate for employment and those who move due to conflict or who are seeking asylum, and deeper knowledge is needed in all of these different areas.

Recommendations for future efforts included:

  • More youth voice and support for youth movements in the area of migration
  • More involvement of youth in the debate/dialogue on migration and ICTs
  • Micro-grants for youth who want to work on migration initiatives, including those that use ICTs
  • More nuanced research and understanding of the role of ICTs in child and youth migration with specific lenses on age, sex, ethnicity, and other factors

Resources on ICTs and child/youth migration:

Salons are held under Chatham House Rule, therefore no attribution has been made in this post. Many thanks to our lead discussants and to ThoughtWorks for hosting and providing breakfast.

If you’d like to attend future Salons, sign up here!

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The scars you have. The wounds you inflict. The knots wrapped up in your perceptions and the memories that cross generations….

We are using Skype to call a landline in San Salvador. That side — a father and a grandmother — doesn’t understand how it works, doesn’t realize that this side – a son, a daughter, an ex-wife – is gathered around the computer, all listening.

One-third of this side, the daughter, has dissolved into a heap of tears. Hyperventilating, choking sobs. The fact that we left 12 years ago for the US has punched her in the gut, and she’s destroyed upon hearing the deep, gravelly voice of her abuelita, who cared for her unconditionally when she was small.

Typical Skype, the connection is not good.

Alo? Alo? No se oye bien. Aqui no se oye. Alo? 

She had buried it. Every mention of facing it or trying to resolve it met with tears. With fear and resistance. With avoidance.

Her recent post-Thanksgiving twitter feed confesses: I’m late but thankful for my dad’s selfless decision to not ask for joint custody (c) 

…And to let my mom bring us to the US. If I were there I wouldn’t have any of what I have now.

He comes on the line, and his voice, his loss, his sacrifice become tangible. She sobs. He tries to reach out.

Why doesn’t she wanna talk? Ahhh, it’s ok. I know how it is…. She can hear me? Then both you kids know I am proud of you. I love you….  She still crying? Bueno, it’s ok. She gets that from me. I am a cry baby too. A cry-man.

The magnitude of his sacrifice hits her. She imagines what it felt like for a father to lose a wife, a son, and a small daughter to the United States. She wonders how he could handle it. Meanwhile she is living her life carefree, like nothing. She knows it’s not her fault, but the guilt is still there. Somehow until now she has not understood or appreciated it.

Maybe causing hurt can feel worse than being hurt. But even that is preposterous and selfish. The fact is that only some people have the privilege of being able to leave, to come and go as they please, to move on freely to better opportunities.

We hang up and have dinner and try to talk about it. We change the subject. We watch a movie about the time El Salvador’s national team made it to the World Cup. It was 1982 and the country was deep in civil war. The team had no funding and arrived through pure grist, themselves wondering what they had done to achieve such greatness. The players talk about how they were bathed in their reputation upon arrival to la Copa Mundial: A country at war. A country of assassins. A country full of poor people and violence.

On the field, the team won the record for having the most goals scored against them: 10 goles metidos. They returned home ashamed. But the players understand the context that led to their failure, and they also talk about el orgullo del pobre — their pride in themselves, their people and their country.

It strikes me that ‘la gente humilde,‘ (humble people) is the polite term sometimes used to describe ‘the poor’ in El Salvador. I keep thinking about what that means.

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Migration has been a part of the human experience since the dawn of time, and populations have always moved in search of resources and better conditions. Today, unaccompanied children and youth are an integral part of national and global migration patterns, often leaving their place of origin due to violence, conflict, abuse, or other rights violations, or simply to seek better opportunities for themselves.

It is estimated that 33 million (or some 16 percent) of the total migrant population today is younger than age 
20. Child and adolescent migrants make up a significant proportion of the total population of migrants in Africa (28 percent), Asia (21 percent), Oceania (11 percent), Europe (11 percent), and the Americas (10 percent).

The issue of migration is central to the current political debate as well as to the development discussion, especially in conversations about the “post 2015” agenda. Though many organizations are working to improve children’s well-being in their home communities, prevention work with children and youth is not likely to end migration. Civil society organizations, together with children and youth, government, community members, and other stakeholders can help make migration safer and more productive for those young people who do end up on the move.

As the debate around migration rages, access to and use of ICTs is expanding exponentially around the globe. For this reason Plan International USA and the Oak Foundation felt it was an opportune time to take stock of the ways that ICTs are being used in the child and youth migration process.

Our new report, “Modern Mobility: the role of ICTs in child and youth migration” takes a look at:

  • how children and youth are using ICTs to prepare for migration; to guide and facilitate their journey; to keep in touch with families; to connect with opportunities for support and work; and to cope with integration, forced repatriation or continued movement; and
  • how civil society organizations are using ICTs to facilitate and manage their work; to support children and youth on the move; and to communicate and advocate for the rights of child and youth migrants.

In the Modern Mobility paper, we identify and provide examples of three core ways that child and youth migrants are using new ICTs during the different phases of the migration process:

  1. for communicating and connecting with families and friends
  2. for accessing information
  3. for accessing services

We then outline seven areas where we found CSOs are using ICTs in their work with child and youth migrants, and we offer some examples:

Ways that CSOs are using ICTs in their work with child and youth migrants.

Ways that CSOs are using ICTs in their work with child and youth migrants.

Though we were able to identify some major trends in how children and youth themselves use ICTs and how organizations are experimenting with ICTs in programming, we found little information on the impact that ICTs and ICT-enabled programs and services have on migrating children and youth, whether positive or negative. Most CSO practitioners that we talked with said that they had very little awareness of how other organizations or initiatives similar to their own were using ICTs. Most also said they did not know where to find orientation or guidance on good practice in the use of ICTs in child-centered programming, ICTs in protection work (aside from protecting children from online risks), or use of ICTs in work with children and young people at various stages of migration. Most CSO practitioners we spoke with were interested in learning more, sharing experiences, and improving their capacities to use ICTs in their work.

Based on Plan Finland’s “ICT-Enabled Development Guide” (authored by Hannah Beardon), the Modern Mobility report provides CSOs with a checklist to support thinking around the strategic use of ICTs in general.

ICT-enabled development checklist developed by Hannah Beardon for Plan International.

ICT-enabled development checklist developed by Hannah Beardon for Plan International.

We also offer a list of key considerations for practitioners who wish to incorporate new technologies into their work, including core questions to ask about access, age, capacity, conflict, connectivity, cost, disability, economic status, electricity, existing information ecosystems, gender, information literacy, language, literacy, power, protection, privacy, sustainability, and user-involvement.

Our recommendation for taking this area forward is to develop greater awareness and capacity among CSOs regarding the potential uses and risks of ICTs in work with children and youth on the move by:

  1. Establishing an active community of practice on ICTs and children and youth on the move.
  2. Mapping and sharing existing projects and programs.
  3. Creating a guide or toolbox on good practice for ICTs in work with children and youth on the move.
  4. Further providing guidance on how ICTs can help “normal” programs to reach out to and include children and youth on the move.
  5. Further documentation and development of an evidence base.
  6. Sharing and distributing this report for discussion and action.

Download the Modern Mobility report here.

We’d love comments and feedback, and information about examples or documentation/evidence that we did not come across while writing the report!

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birds 2I spent the weekend working on a paper about “Children on the Move.” I’m not even close to done with it yet, but the topic is fascinating. Some reports say that 1/3 of migrants are between the ages of 12 and 25, including millions of children under the age of 18. The number of children and youth who migrate is difficult to pin down with certainty, given that migration is often within country, seasonal, across porous borders, and because most child migrants don’t have legal means to migrate or they lack identification, leaving them under the radar and uncounted.

Children move for all kinds of reasons, from and into all kinds of situations. The push-pull factors that cause them to migrate vary a great deal from situation to situation. Often the movement of children is lumped under trafficking and child labor, and all children who move are considered victims, and all those who support children to move are labeled criminals or traffickers and all parents who allow their children to move are lambasted for not caring about them. If you read what children and parents involved in migration say, it’s clear that this is not the case.

One person I interviewed for the paper noted off the record that sometimes those working with children who migrate are forced to put them in the category of “trafficked” or “at risk of trafficking” because there is no real category (or funding) to support children who are “seeking better opportunity” or “fleeing domestic violence” or “scared for my life because of the gangs in my community, and traveling across several countries up to the US seems like less of a risk.”

Just like adult migrants, children often move of their own will to seek opportunity in other places. Their movement in and of itself is not negative, but moving without protection mechanisms and support can indeed put them at risk. Policies and systems that don’t talk to each other also put children and youth in peril, whether it is when children themselves move, or when their parents move with them.

For the report I’m doing, I’m looking at how ICTs are being used by children and youth to make their journey safer, and ways that communities, local child protection committees, institutions, governments and NGOs are using or could use some of these new ICT tools to better support and protect children and youth who move for any reason.

Some interesting efforts are happening, including some ingenious local networks in West Africa that work across communities to help ensure children’s paths and travels are as safe as possible; and a radio and SMS project in Tanzania that is building up a pro-child protection constituency by encouraging people to tell stories about when and where they have supported or helped a child.

It’s been heartbreaking to read about Afghan youth who are forcibly returned to a country they can barely remember because they have turned 18 and are no longer supported by the UK child welfare system, yet at least a tiny bit encouraging that a UK organization is working on a mobile app that could provide these youth with at least a map and some information about their ‘homeland’ so that they know where to go for help when they step off the plane in what is now a foreign country.

Reading about migrant parents in the US losing their children to foster care because they have been detained for migration violations and are unable to show up to court to keep their children, or they lack critical information about how the system works, or they are not allowed more than one phone call makes my blood boil. Having been married to a Salvadoran, I’ve experienced my own fair share of migration difficulties and horror stories. They are not pretty, and family separation hurts, no matter what color or nationality the family is. It seems that the root of some countries’ inability to deal with migration in a dignified way is an underlying devaluation of people from other places and an inability to see them as human. Can ICTs play a role in changing attitudes at the broad scale? Or can we at least enable migrants in detention more communication with families so that they don’t lose contact with their children? A few initiatives are looking at storytelling as a way to bring more humanity into the migration debate.

As both Duncan Green (Why is migration a Cinderella issue in development) and Owen Barder (Is migration too toxic for development) have written recently, migration has not been a hot topic on the development agenda, and it’s only now starting to get some play.

Why is that? I think Owen’s comment is pretty good to spark some thought:

Migration is a Cinderella issue in development because there is nobody to speak for the people who are disadvantaged by the current rules.  Domestic civil society organisations which work on migration are mainly focused on the rights of immigrants, not on improving the impact of migration on development or creating opportunities for people in poor countries. DFID is largely in retreat from non-aid issues. The big development NGOs at best speak for their own visions of development, and at worst promote the aid industry of which they are part. As a result, people in developing countries are denied some of the most powerful and inexpensive ways in which they could improve their lives.

We need to find a way to look at all angles and aspects of migration, including that of child migration, in a holistic way that involves all these different actors. I think that one reason migration is not talked about  enough in the development debate is because it is a touchy political issue that might make a donor base freak out. It also tends to makes agencies that work with children a bit uncomfortable – If we protect children who migrate, will we be seen to be encouraging illegal migration? Will we be seen as supporting child labor? Are we liable if we give children safety tips or information, and then something happens to them? How can we do no harm? What about unintended consequences?

More recently, many child-focused agencies have started to better come to grips with the realities that children are going to migrate, and it’s altogether possible that staying in their home community is actually not in their best interest. These are thorny questions, however, that are difficult to deal with, especially in the open when the political debate around migration has been so traditionally ugly.

Perhaps framing migration as an economic issue will help bring it into the debate, but I do hope we don’t lose touch with the human side of migration.

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The November 14, 2012, Technology Salon NYC (TSNYC) focused on ways that ICTs can support work with children who migrate. An earlier post covers the discussion around Population Council’s upcoming ‘Adolescent Girls on the Move’ report. The current post focuses on the strategic use of data visualization for immigration advocacy, based on opening points from Brian Root and Enrique Piracés of Human Rights Watch (HRW).

Visualizing the US Detention Network and the transfers between detention centers.

The project

The HRW initiative used data to track and visualize the movement of people through the US immigration detention system after noticing that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was moving people very freely without notifying their families or attorneys. HRW was aware of the problem but not its pervasiveness. The team obtained some large data sets from the US government via Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. They used the data to track individuals’ routes through the immigration detention system, eventually mapping the whole system out at both aggregate levels and the level of individual. The patterns in the data informed HRW’s advocacy at the state and federal levels. In the process, HRW was able to learn some key lessons on advocacy and the importance of targeting data visualizations to specific advocacy purposes.

Data advocacy and storytelling

The data set HRW obtained included over 5.4 million records of 2.3 million people, with 10-12 variables. The team was able to connect these records to individuals, which helped tell a meaningful story to a broad audience. By mapping out all the US facilities involved and using geo-location to measure the distance that any individual had been transferred, the number of times an individual from Country X in Age Range X was transferred from one facility to another was visible, and patterns could be found. For example, often people on the East Coast were transferred to Texas, where there is a low ratio of immigration lawyers per detainee.

Even though the team had data and good stories to tell with the data, the two were not enough to create change. Human rights are often not high priority for decision makers, but budgeting is; so the team attached a cost to each vector that would allow HRW to tell decision makers how much was being spent for each of these unnecessary transfers.

They were also able to produce aggregated data at the local level. They created a state dashboard so that people could understand the data at the state level, since the detention facilities are state-run. The data highlighted local-level inefficiencies. The local press was then able to tell locally relevant stories, thus generating public opinion around the issue. This is a good example of the importance of moving from data to story telling in order to strengthen advocacy work.

HRW conveyed information and advocated both privately and publicly for change in the system. Their work resulted in the issuing of a new directive in January 2012.

FOIA and the data set

Obtaining data via FOIA acts can be quite difficult if an organization is a known human rights advocate. For others it can be much easier. It is a process of much letter sending and sometimes legal support.

Because FOIA data comes from the source, validation is not a major issue. Publishing methodologies openly helps with validation because others can observe how data are being used. In the case of HRW, data interpretations were shared with the US Government for discussion and refutation. The organization’s strength is in its credibility, thus HRW makes every effort to be conservative with data interpretation before publishing or making any type of statement.

One important issue is knowing what data to ask for and what is possible or available. Phrasing the FOI request to obtain the right data can be a challenge. In addition, sometimes agencies do not know how to generate the requested information from their data systems. Google searches for additional data sets that others have obtained can help. Sites such as CREW (Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington), which has 20,000 documents open on Scribd, and the Government Attic project, which collects and lists FOI requests, are attempting to consolidate existing FOI information.

The type of information available in the US could help identify which immigration facilities are dealing with the under-18 population and help speculate on the flow of child migrants. Gender and nationality variables could also tell stories about migration in the US. In addition, the data can be used to understand probability: If you are a Mexican male in San Jose, California, what is the likelihood of being detained? Of being deported?

The US Government collects and shares this type of data, however many other countries do not. Currently only 80 countries have FOI laws. Obtaining these large data sets is both a question of whether government ministries are collecting statistics and whether there are legal mechanisms to obtain data and information.

Data parsing

Several steps and tools helped HRW with data parsing. To determine whether data were stable, data were divided by column and reviewed, using a SHELL. Then the data were moved to a database (MySQL), however other programs may be a better choice. A set of programs and scripts was built to analyze the data, and detention facilities were geo-located using GeoNames. The highest quality result was used to move geo-location down to the block level and map all the facilities. Then TileMill and Quantum GIS (QGIS) were used to make maps and ProtoViz (now D3) was used to create data visualizations.

Once the data were there, common variables were noted throughout the different fields and used to group and link information and records to individuals. Many individuals had been in the system multiple times. The team then looked at different ways that the information could be linked. They were able to measure time, distance and the “bounce factor”, eg.., how many times an individual was transferred from one place to the other.

Highlighting problematic cases: One man’s history of transfers.

Key learning:

Remember the goal. Visualization tools are very exciting, and it is easy to be seduced by cool visualizations. It is critical to keep in mind the goal of the project. In the HRW case the goal was to change policy, so the team needed to create visualizations that would specifically lead to policy change. In discussions with the advocacy team, they defined that the visualizations needed to 1) demonstrate the complexity 2) allow people to understand the distance 3) show the vast numbers of people being moved.

Privacy. It is possible to link together individual records and other information to tell a broader story, but one needs to be very careful about this type of information identifying individuals and putting them at risk. For this reason not all information needs to be shared publicly for advocacy purposes. It can be visualized in private conversations with decision makers.

Data and the future

Open data, open source, data visualization, and big data are shaping the world we are embedded in. More and more information is being released, whether through open data, FOIA or information leaks like Wikileaks. Organizations need to begin learning how to use this information in more and better ways.

Many thanks to the Women’s Refugee Commission and the International Rescue Committee for hosting the Salon.

The next Technology Salon NYC will be coming up soon. Stay tuned for more information, and if you’d like to receive notifications about future salons, sign up for the mailing list!

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