Interview: Migration crisis in Colombia

Sofyen Khalfaoui, Head of Protection at Save the Children Switzerland, has recently visited a project in Maicao, Colombia. In an interview he tells what Save the Children is doing there, how we can protect children on the move and what global dimensions this migrations crisis has.


Sofyen Khalfaoui, Head of Protection at Save the Children Switzerland, you have been to Colombia recently - could you give a short overview where you were, what you were doing and what is Save the Children's role there?
While being in Colombia, I undertook a project visit in Maicao in Northern Colombia, at the Venezuelan border. It is one of the main sites where Save the Children implements activities to serve both Venezuelan and local children and families. As the border near Maicao is one of the main entry points for Venezuelan migrants, we focus there on the delivery of projects to prevent, and respond to, risks and issues families face in their journey such as the lack of access to health, nutrition, protection, education and cash services . At the beginning of the humanitarian response, cash distribution was instrumental to build trust in beneficiary communities, since it was a direct, tangible action that could help families restore some type of normalcy in a new environment. The implementation of interventions in other sectors then followed in order to fulfill the most urgent needs.
Interestingly – though sadly – all those emergency actions respond to one of the most acute migration crisis in the world. I tried my best to support the team in bringing a bit of a spotlight on their important work.

I must also say that it is a very complex context since there are many simultaneous issues and parallel priorities, in an unpredictable context. For example, families are moving along informal migration routes. Therefore, the planning of formal and settled interventions is often not possible. As a child rights organisation, we must think though of new ways to operate and encourage innovation to enable children who are on the move to fulfill their rights. It is for us to adapt to the present context and give everything it takes to protect Venezuelan and Colombian children at risk of exploitation, abuse or neglect. We are also facing cases of children being unaccompanied who need a very tailored type of assistance, while certain issues children are exposed to may be invisible at first sight.

You visited the maternal health clinic in Maicao. What is Save the Children doing there?
Yes, exactly. It is called the Maicao Sexual and Reproductive Health Unit. It offers pre and post birth and health services for mothers and children. It also provides access to psychosocial services, which is important for the moral support of families. Here they know that they have a place where they can go, be heard and receive quality health services.

That is inspiring. Even better, Save the Children does not only run this clinic, but also pilot mobile clinics?
Yes! The situation is very fluid and, while it is critical to have fixed points of interventions,  the intrinsic nature of needs takes us to build mobile interventions. As a result, we plan to implement a new scheme of mobile clinics and child friendly spaces “on the move”. For instance, the mobile clinics are fully equipped vans, which bring health and protection to children walking along migration routes.

I am sure it must be very challenging seeing this state of emergency. Could you tell us about your personal experience?
Well, first of all, arriving in Maicao, which is a city, may give the feeling that everything works normally, like always. Then, the team there helped me reading “between the lines” and see what the most urgent needs in the environment nearby are. We visited a non-formal settlement as well in the periphery of Maicao, in which we implement water and protection projects for migrant children. I felt torn between the  contentment of seeing Save the Children having done such an extremely meaningful contribution to the local migrant community, but I could also hear the bell of the humanitarian frustration when acknowledging all pending needs. As a global movement, we will continue to work closely with children in Colombia and in the region to keep making those gaps smaller and smaller.

We must remember that this migration crisis is the second biggest after Syria. The Venezuela crisis as such may take five millions individuals to leave their country by the end of 2019 – I just cannot think of the consequences for all those children's lives should the situation worsen.

At Save the Children Switzerland, we have just established a Child Migration Platform to initiate research and drive innovation in the field of migration programming for children, built on the idea that we can learn from current responses like the one in Colombia so we can continue to build thematic global know-how.