Irregular migration and identity: More than just documents

The dangers of irregular migration are most often described as migrants being exposed to things like perilous routes, violence from criminals and potential traffickers.  And yes, data from the Missing Migrants Project indicate that the border between the United States and Mexico has become increasingly dangerous for people trying to avoid inspection. MMP has recorded a total of 1,907 deaths over the past five years, of which 444 occurred in 2018. 

Still, many do survive the crossing, only to meet dangers beyond the clandestine journey itself.  The reality is that large numbers of people make the trip successfully, but they arrive without a vital piece of their previous life: access to their identity.

A fundamental part of individual well-being is the proper connection between the individual and the nation state. This connection is established by law for nationals and migrants via the civil registry (or social security system in the case of United States citizens) and immigration law. Both systems issue forms of ID for various benefits for the people.  Thus, the individual is recognized under a country’s constitution, and can clearly access government protection as well as rights and services like political participation, education, employment or health care. At the same time, the individual can be held accountable to the state for various legal and administrative violations.

When people cross borders irregularly, they skip these processes entirely, breaking the connection between individual and state. In turn, this creates a subcategory of people who are unknown to the state.

This has several implications, but most importantly, it translates to vulnerability for people and states. Without recognition under the government, migrants live without the protection it entails, and without identity documents they fall into the informal economy, where they may be subject to exploitative practices.  At the same time, the informal economy grows with each new contributor and further erodes the relevance of the legitimate state.

The tendency in emerging economies is for governments to focus more on controlling peoples’ access to a migration status, but not necessarily their territory.  This is coupled with large informal economies. As a result, irregular migrants are mostly seeking access to a country’s territory and the informality, not access to migratory status.  In turn, this works towards the growth of inequality.

For some people, simply entering a country may be perceived as a “successful” migration, but without the identity management responsibilities of state and individual, how many obstacles will a migrant have to face the rest of their lives in that country? More vulnerable populations, such as children, may be trafficked or lost without anyone being able to verify their identity. They may end up as vulnerable in their destination country as they were during their journey.

Identity management should be improved collectively to avoid these issues.  A key action is to improve on policies that attract irregular populations to identify themselves to the state and for the state to have working methodologies to register people who may not be able to provide documentation.  Migration systems should not exacerbate vulnerabilities, but rather guarantee protection for migrants’ human rights.


Interviewing Rubén Sánchez, Director of 'Zanmi'

Interviewing Rubén Sánchez, Director of 'Zanmi'
Categoria: Communication & Migration
Autor: Laura Manzi

‘Zamni' (2018) is one of the films that participated in the 2020 edition of the Global Migration Film Festival. The short film, which was selected to be screened at regional level by the Regional Office for Central America, North America and the Caribbean, narrates the experiences and daily lives of four Haitian migrants in Chile and their integration process in the South American country.

In this interview, the young director Rubén Sánchez, tells what objectives and motivations guided him towards the creation of the short film.

Why did you choose young Haitian migrants as the protagonists of your work? Is there something in their profile that makes them different from other migrant communities in Chile?

What struck us is that the Haitian population here in Chile is the one that finds it most difficult to integrate into society. One of the main reasons is that they speak another language, the Creole language, and that is an even bigger barrier considering that Chilean Spanish has many idioms and tends to be spoken very quickly. Another obstacle to integration is the racism and rejection of some sectors of society towards the Haitian population: whether because of ethnicity, nationality, language or other prejudices. This leads to more segregation and not integration.

In the short film, there are many scenes that portray different landscapes: the sea, the forest, the city. What is the role of nature in the integration process of migrants?

Climatic conditions and landscapes can be a challenge for integration. For example, Haiti is very flat, there are no mountains and the climate is tropical. Here in Chile, nature and microclimates are quite diverse (the north has higher temperatures, the south is more humid and rainy, while the central zone is a mixture of these).
Nature, however, has also a symbolic purpose in the documentary. The mountain range, which characterizes the Chilean landscape, is the great frontier that any person faces to reach Chile. This justifies the scene that opens and closes the film and represents one of the protagonists in the Embalse del Yeso, which is a place here in Santiago, in the middle of the mountain range. We wanted to film those scenes there as a more oneiric way of representing this enormous wall that is like a border to cross in order to reach Chile, and that at the same time symbolizes the great wall that is in the cultural shock that the Haitian population faces.

‘Life is a circle. A perfect circle of which we are not a part': the protagonists in the film have jobs, go to school, learn Spanish. Then, what are the elements that continue to prevent their integration into the host community, this 'circle' from which they are excluded?

The cultural shock is big. If the host society lives this 'fear of the unknown', the Haitian migrant population in turn reacts and this generates a fear of the community where they live. The lack of integration is made difficult by prejudice and because initiatives that value cultural richness are not promoted. I think this is what we lack as a society: to be more educated. If there is no good education, there will be no people who cannot integrate; we still need to be educated and 'humanized'. I feel that in some way we are also 'dehumanized'. This is what the documentary wants to capture: to reflect on the humanity that we need, the humanity that we need to integrate others, to show that we are all really the same, we are all human beings and we all have dreams.

How much is the director visible in his work? How come are you interested in the subject of migration?

The issue of Haitian migration was, for me, a personal concern, because I live in one of the cities in Chile with the largest Haitian population. I used to witness daily this rejection of the Haitian population in the eyes of the people, in comments that were exchanged by whispering in the bus when I went to the university. I was worried about that.
Also, before I enrolled in audiovisual communication, I studied social work, and had many courses on the migration issue and related social policies. I did a lot of research on Haitian migration, which allowed me to capture the central idea of the short film. During the shooting process, I had the opportunity to meet these young people (Haitian migrants), to live their culture, to taste their food. I was filled with a culture that I didn't know, I was filled with knowledge, with a new experience. I wish this documentary could reach more people, change who we are and cultivate our humanity.