Humanitarian Aid

A Social Service Program for Migrants by Migrants

Bolstering support networks to help migrants access the services they need

Latin America is facing one of the largest displacement crises in the world. Every day, an estimated 5k Venezuelan women, men, and children leave their country—escaping violence, political turmoil, and a basic lack of food and medicine. Despite efforts to meet migrants where they are, the rapidly changing landscape makes it difficult for host countries to adapt; and without support systems, capital, and documentation to make the transition, migrants struggle to navigate an already fragmented, bureaucratic, and nebulous ecosystem of social services. 

Leaving is like a stampede. In the middle of a stampede you can't think of anything.

Venezuelan Migrant and Service Provider in Colombia

The Interamerican Development Bank (IDB) partnered with IDEO​.org and government entities across Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Peru to reimagine the way that migrants access a wide range of social services—from healthcare to education to livelihood opportunities—when they arrive in their host country. The goal is to create a one-stop-shop which reduces some of the physical access barriers, removes administrative hassles with more centralized data collection, and lends migrants an overall more holistic and human experience.

Migration is not an act of going from one place to another. It’s journeying from uncertainty to autonomy. ALÍA, a mobile service center—staffed by migrants or members of host communities who have empathy for the migrant experiences—helps newcomers overcome the language, information, and digital barriers that currently prevent them from accessing the services they need to gain autonomy.

An entrypoint that’s just-official-enough 

There was an opportunity to reach migrants soon after arrival in a new country, but we first needed to understand some of the key barriers and opportunities that exist in people’s journey today. For the most vulnerable migrants, the fear of deportation prevents them from asking for help altogether. It became evident that the first point of contact with a service needed to be official enough to be trustworthy but not so official it could come across as threatening. There is also an overwhelming sense that government officials and service providers extract more than they give. They request information, resources, documents without acknowledging the courage it took for a person to ask for help in the first place. It’s important for services to not only bring dignity and warmth, but also seed generosity. Many migrants are fleeing countries where there is mistrust in institutions, so a moment of generosity can go a long way in setting a new precedent for what they can expect from authorities. 

A Venezuelan passport is equivalent to 36 monthly minimum wages of 10,000,000 bolivars.

The real one-stop-shops 

Over the course of our interviews, a pattern started to emerge. We originally set out to design a single-window service—be it physical or digital—where migrants could access everything they needed to establish themselves in a new home. But we discovered a transformational, yet overlooked role in the experience of many migrants. Migrants who managed to settle in had an encounter with what we would later call an interlocutor’ or cultural translator. This is someone who clarified an opaque system, lent holistic support, and accompanied migrants in their journey. In one case, the interlocutor was a cab driver, who dropped a migrant off exactly where they needed to be; in another, it was someone who had already gone through the process themselves; or a kind onlooker, who guided a pregnant couple to the clinic where they could receive a free ultrasound. 

What made these interlocutors so effective? They connected migrants to formal services; they understood how to speak their language, cutting jargon and leading with empathy; and ultimately, as members of host communities, they offered continuity in a time of uncertainty. 

Building on the discovery of the role of interlocutores, the team created ALÍA, a mobile service center that leverages trained migrant hosts to help newcomers gain autonomy in a new place. The program consists of three core components.

The first is a mobile service pop-up event that takes place in communities with a high population of migrants. The goal of this pop-up is to extend services to hard-to-reach communities. Once migrants arrive at the ALÍA pop-up, they are greeted by a brigade of interlocutors. These interlocutors are migrants themselves or members of host communities who have deep empathy for the place that vulnerable migrants find themselves in. The interlocutors use the third component of ALÍA— a simple diagnostic tool that includes basic, non-threatening questions—to identify the services most suitable for a migrant, be it a specific kind of visa, a work permit, or humanitarian assistance. By creating a non-threatening, last mile onramp to social services, we are increasing access to the most vulnerable, who are least likely to approach official venues with questions for fear of exposing themselves to deportation or punishment.

The team just finalized a prototype phase in Costa Rica and is proceeding to prototype ALÍA across Colombia, Ecuador and Peru in January 2022.

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