Humanitarian Border Management: better response to migration crises?

Imagine for a moment that you are a border guard. You attended a training academy in your country where you had learned how to inspect people’s passports, interview travelers, and investigate crimes. It was a long, comprehensive training and when you started working at a border crossing point, it was fairly easy to manage the hundreds of people lining up to have their documents checked. But there was one situation that your academy perhaps did not address: what to do when thousands upon thousands of people approach the border, without documents, running to safety.

Humanitarian border management also called “border management in emergency situations” denotes border management before, during and after a humanitarian or migration crisis.1 Floods and earthquakes, wars and armed conflicts, or health epidemics can all trigger such mass movements of people across the border. In these situations, border guards are the front liners and their task is difficult and complex. On the one hand, they are mindful of the sovereignty and security of their country, but on the other, they also have the duty to respect, protect and promote the human rights of those in front of them. These mixed migration flows, as we came to know them, comprise migrants of all fates; refugees fleeing persecution in their countries, children separated from their families, young women, men and children being trafficked, those escaping dreadful poverty and much more.2 So what can be done?

The trouble is that the vast majority of policies, laws and procedures related to border management were designed for ordinary, “peaceful” conditions. This is understandable; hundreds of millions of border crossings take place around the world every year and most of the travelers are people like you and me, going by plane, car or ferry, traveling for work or leisure. A migration crisis, however, is an exceptional situation requiring states to have extraordinary measures and capacities in place to meet the challenge it brings.

Syrian refugees and migrants cross the Serbian-Croatian border. © Francesco Malavolta/IOM 2015

Getting the response right

The starting point of crisis preparedness is solid contingency planning for a potential surge in cross-border flows. This exercise involves various actors – civil defense or a crisis management center, border guards and the police, health and social services, asylum authorities, the local government, the humanitarian organizations and the civil society. Together they review the existing human, material and financial resources, coordination and communication mechanisms, and identify the preparedness and response needs in order to minimize the impact of the migration crisis. Ideally, these contingency plans are regularly updated as the crisis develops.  

However, there is more. States which have embraced the humanitarian border management concept have also supported specialized assessments to take place.3 Such reviews inspect what exists on the ground. For example, does the country have policies and laws in place that that would include provisions for mass migration flows? Do the border agencies have the skills, knowledge and equipment to respond to an emergency? Do they have standard operating procedures in place that would guide them what to do in specific situations?4 Is the national border management information system capable of mobile registration, capturing people’s biometrics, especially in the absence of identity documents?5 Does the country have a referral system in place, so that persons with specific needs can be directed to specialized services? Is there a qualified pool of officers, able to deploy to the border as soon as they are needed? If not, these are perhaps good entry points to prepare border agencies to effectively manage mass migration flows. In other words, humanitarian border management assessments serve to identify gaps but can also yield useful recommendations, based on practices successfully tested elsewhere. Rapid assessments, undertaken during a migration crisis, further refine the responses needed.

Humanitarian crises leading to mass cross-border flows have other specificities which countries need to be ready to deal with. Likely, humanitarian aid and foreign humanitarian workers will be arriving to help the affected population and the government; these need to be speedily cleared and let in, without compromising the usual detailed check that incoming cargo and passengers would go through. Furthermore, several different actors, ranging from the local civil society to ministries to international organizations like the IOM, will want to help with the emergency response; therefore, coordination mechanisms will have to be set up, at different levels, with border agencies at the helm or as a member, to ensure that all understand what they and everybody else need to do. Consular services might be called in to assist with mass evacuations, especially if a large foreign population is present in the country affected by the crisis.

Of all these, training is essential, especially in the preparedness phase. A migration crisis might have serious consequences for the persons and countries concerned. Therefore, humanitarian border management trainings address how best to manage the given situation. Among others, border guards train how to sensitively interview persons, who may have survived torture or other inhuman treatment; how to recognize a victim of trafficking, whom their trafficker might have purposely “hidden” in the mass flow;6 how to run a migrant reception center, established along the border, complete with food, shelter, health assistance and registration; and how to recognize symptoms that might put migrants suffering from a health problem and others around them at risk (think Ebola or tuberculosis). Some states have gone beyond classroom learning and opted for an outdoor simulation exercise, with real-time response to a played out scenario.7 Either way, such trainings show in practice what human rights protection means during a migration crisis. The courses differ from country to country, reflecting local realities and capacities, and are often further adjusted as the crisis develops. For example, ad hoc trainings that border guards have requested during a crisis include country-of-origin information, intercultural communication, self-protection, stress management, psychosocial assistance, and basic foreign language training.8 

Syrian refugees and migrants cross the Serbian-Croatian border. © Francesco Malavolta/IOM 2015


Lessons learned

Some states which have regularly faced large cross-border movements in the past say they practice humanitarian border management without calling it that way. For others, it is a novel idea, ripe for our times when migration crises have sadly become more and more common. Whichever the case, here are a few points to keep in mind when implementing the humanitarian border management model.

First of all, humanitarian border management is largely an operational tool. It is a way to manage borders during a migration crisis, so that the national security, sovereignty, public health and order are respected, as are the human rights of those fleeing wars or natural disasters. However, in order to be effective, it must be implemented in a comprehensive manner, starting with policy, laws and procedures, down to training, information management and equipment. Only by having the full structure in place can states “switch” to humanitarian border management when the exceptional circumstances arise.

Second, humanitarian border management cannot be a one-off exercise, started when the crisis hits and dismissed when it is over. The various components named above must be a firm and permanent feature of the existing national border management structure, including preparedness before, response during and adjustments after the crisis, based on lessons learned.   

Third, the name may suggest that it is a concept relevant only to border agencies. However, it will fail if other relevant stakeholders are not on board.  This includes, among others, civil defense, customs, health, social and asylum services, the local government, humanitarian organizations, the civil society and, let us not forget, the local community which often bears the burden of hosting the migrants.

Forth, managing borders during a migration crisis needs to be understood as one piece of the migration management cycle. Depending on their situation and needs, different persons might receive a refugee status in the country they entered, reunite with relatives living abroad, or, get assistance to voluntarily return and reintegrate to their former home once the situation in their country of origin has eased.

And finally, humanitarian border management applies to land, maritime and to some extent, air borders too. Therefore, if there is a sudden influx via land, a rise in search and rescue operations at sea or increase in asylum applications at airports, it is important that states have the structures in place to be able to respond.

On 19 September, 2016, the IOM became part of the United Nations system. During his speech, the IOM Director General, Ambassador William Lacy Swing, stated time and again that migration has become a mega-trend of our century, and rather than looking at it as a problem to be solved, it is a reality to be managed. This includes large population movements, when crossing the border to another country is often the only way to escape violence and danger in one’s home. Border guards have the duty to protect the borders and security of the country they serve, but they have an equally important obligation to protect the human rights of those who have found themselves at the border seeking protection and aid. Humanitarian border management, if properly institutionalized, makes these situations more predictable and manageable, both for people on the move, and for the border guards.


Lívia Styp-Rekowska is a Senior Immigration and Border Management Specialist at IOM's Regional Office for South-Eastern Europe, Eastern Europe and Central Asia and Liaison Office to the UN and other International Organizations in Vienna.

More information on Humanitarian Border Management is available here.


1 Humanitarian border management is one of fifteen sectors of assistance of the IOM Migration Crisis Operational Framework (MCOF). The MCOF was developed to enhance the understanding of complex mobility patterns related to crises, increase the level of preparedness and enable a more effective operational response. It was adopted by IOM Council in 2012. See, accessed on 12 October, 2016.

2 IOM defines a migrant as any person who is moving or has moved across an international border or within a State away from his or her habitual place of residence, regardless of (1) the person’s legal status; (2) whether the movement is voluntary or involuntary; (3) what the causes for the movement are; or (4) what the length of the stay is. IOM concerns itself with migrants and migration-related issues and, in agreement with relevant States, with migrants who are in need of international migration services. See, accessed 12 October, 2016.

3 For an example, see Humanitarian border management in the Silk Routes region – Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan, IOM (2014),, accessed on 12 October, 2016. 

4 IOM has developed generic humanitarian border management SOPs which were later tailored and adapted to concrete national legal frameworks.

5 For example, the Migration Information and Data Analysis System (MIDAS), a border management information system developed by IOM, is capable of mobile registration of cross-border population movements.

6 Like humanitarian border management, counter-trafficking and assistance to vulnerable migrants during crisis is a sector of assistance of the MCOF.

7 For example, IOM has supported Senegal in carrying out a simulation exercise to test and increase local capacities for migration crisis response.

8 IOM has developed and run humanitarian border management trainings in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East. Some countries, such as Tajikistan, have incorporated it in the core border management curriculum.