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Lost in Italy : assessing migrants' needs during transit

Operational Research News 
Emilie Venables - Anthropologist
Emilie Venables is an anthropologist based in Johannesburg, South Africa. She has conducted qualitative research in medical programs in countries including South Africa, Liberia, Kenya, Mozambique and Senegal. She has worked with MSF as the Mobile Implementation Officer for qualitative research since May 2015.

    What is the job of a qualitative researcher at MSF and which challenges do you face ?

    My job is very diverse and requires a lot of time in the field, in addition to giving remote support to projects when they need it.  Sometimes my work will involve supporting health promotion teams in their activities, to help them provide services that are culturally relevant and acceptable to local populations.  Other times I will be collecting data and conducting research in order to inform or evaluate project activities, usually through interviews, focus groups and participant observation in communities and health-care facilities.  Qualitative researchers are interested in asking ‘why’ something happens, rather than ‘how many’ times it happens and even though we often use the same methodological tools in our work, applying them in different contexts can be challenging…and exciting! 

    What was your last assignment ?

    I have just spent three weeks in Rome, assessing the needs of migrants who transit through Italy on their way to other countries in Europe and looking at how MSF can assist them. MSF provides psycho-social support to migrants in two centres in Rome and I spent a lot of the time with the team observing their activities and speaking to people in transit. Most people only stay a few days in one of the centres before moving on.

    We need to understand people’s stories, their journey and their needs to better provide support and care in this mobile, difficult and constantly shifting environment.  It is difficult to collect information in a transient environment with people who are often scared and reluctant to speak to strangers and who are clearly focussed on the next step of their journey through Europe. Trust is a huge issue for many people, who have had horrific journeys from their home countries, and not knowing who to trust or where to seek assistance makes them extremely vulnerable.  

    What came out from the interviews ?

    Most of the people I talked to were Eritreans, but there were also some Sudanese and Libyan people staying at the centres.  It was clear that many people felt lost in the unfamiliar system of a new country:  they didn’t know their rights or speak the language, and there is the continuous fear of being finger-printed and unable to continue their journey. They were extremely appreciative of the information they received from MSF, as for many people it was the first time they were able to ask questions and receive help upon arrival.

    People in transit have a lot of psycho-social needs, even though these are not always recognised.  It is a huge relief for them to meet people who speak their own language (MSF works with cultural mediators) and who can listen to them.  Many appreciated having the chance to speak to a psychologist after the traumatic nature of their journeys. I also saw people who were reluctant to seek medical assistance because they feared they would need to provide identification and did not want to want to have lengthy follow-up medical appointments which could prevent them from travelling further in their journey.

    Every person that I spoke to had experienced a horrific, fearful journey.  They had experienced beatings and violence, car accidents, the loss of their family members and many had been imprisoned.  They had travelled for many months to cross the Sahara from Eritrea, and were then forced to wait in Libya – sometimes for many months - in order to cross the Mediterranean.   

    What do you learn from your experiences ?

    As with many MSF contexts, being resourceful was essential in Rome.  There were no small private rooms in the centres to conduct private interviews, so we would go outside to find somewhere quiet, which was hard when it rained!  It was also important to respect the fact that people’s main priority was their onward journey and if we were conducting an interview and their phone rang with news from home or they needed to leave, it was important to let them go if they needed to!