The first Rencontres of the French Red Cross Foundation for humanitarian and social research took place on May 30th, at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris. This was a day of debates organised around the restitution of the research carried out by the laureates of the postdoctoral fellowships allocated by the Foundation, and a round-table discussion on the following theme: “Ties of solidarity and the challenge of migration”. How can we help these people who have lost all of their connections, and who are often confronted with rejection? How to react in the face of these migrations which shake up the principles of fraternity in the host countries, and call into question our very attachment to humanity, through the question of the limits of solidarity? These questions found different responses from amongst a varied panel of prestigious and committed individuals.


Solidarity and ties of solidarity

Why speak of ties of solidarity, rather than solidarity? “Solidarity and the challenge of migration” – that title would have strongly resounded with the state of current affairs! Yet, as Serge Paugam, a sociologist and director of research at the CNRS and director of studies at the EHESS, explains: “when we broach questions of solidarity we immediately think of institutional mechanisms, thereby forgetting that solidarity has an individual, human dimension”. Indeed, these ties of solidarity are ties which bind individuals together, and to society as a whole. These vital links are complex, diverse, and fragile… Especially for migrants, sometimes even before their departure. “Why do people migrate?” asks Serge Paugam. “Because they do not find in their country, their family, their jobs, the ties which connect them… Often the departure is linked to an oppressive context. For young people stuck at their parents’, without work or a social life, the ties are there but they are ties which suffocate as opposed to ties which free them”. When they arrive at their destination, at the end of their often terrifying journey, they are in a state of total destitution. “They find themselves without any connections,” he explains. “Their first reflex is to seek each other out by their communities of origin, or ethnic groups, in order to recreate these links and find protection and recognition which they do not get from the host society”.

This community reflex seems inevitable for the demographer Annabel Desgrées du Lou, director of research at IRD and deputy director of the Institut Convergences Migrations, who testifies to the importance of pairs in the hosting of new arrivals. Her field experience: a shelter for migrant women, sometimes HIV-carriers, in which the aid recipients became actors of aid. She explains: “due to migration, the women were isolated, they had to rebuild their ties, their networks. They needed to identify with people who had had the same experiences, and who overcame them, and who were therefore in a position to understand and guide them”.


National solidarity and the challenge of migration

Whilst migrations shake up ties of solidarity at the level of individual migrants, they also shake up the host societies. Migrations, indeed, are a real challenge for systems of solidarity, as well as for the very principle of fraternity. In a European context dominated by hostility, Serge Paugam asks “to what extent is the idea of attachment to humankind capable of creating ties of solidarity between men?”.

Mahaman Tidjani Alou, former dean of the Economic and Juridical Sciences faculty at the Université Abdou Moumouni in Niamey, Niger, deplores the reticence of public authorities to intervene in favour of migrants. “Can we ask the question of universality of access to public services?” he asks. “No, because as soon as we do, the economist arrives, reminding us of the prevalence of rational, accountant-type thinking”.

Nevertheless, with the example of Lebanon, Damanios Kattar, the former Lebanese Finance and Economy Minister, suggests a more nuanced view of the challenges raised by migrations to the host country. “At the beginning of the war, there were 400 000 Syrians working in Lebanon. The first refugees were the parents, then the cousins… In Lebanon, refugees are not in camps, they are spread out. To begin with, there was a joy in hosting. But with two million Syrian refugees, the Lebanese society is destabilised. Today, there is great tension between Syrians and Lebanese. We must resolve these problems, with love, no doubt, but also with method.


The emotion of ordinary citizens in aid of migrants?

Whilst Pierre Micheletti, a doctor and leader of the group Union nationale interfédérale des œuvres et organismes privés sanitaires et sociaux (Uniopss), vice-president of Action contre la Faim (ACF) and former president of Médecins du Monde (MDM), pays tribute to the “Lebanese miracle, and the astounding capacity for resilience and absorption by the Lebanese population”, there is a clear difference in scale between the situation in the Lebanon and that of Europe. Are Western societies more heartless? According to Margueritte Barankitse, founder and president of Maison Shalom, a Burundian NGO operating in Rwanda, host countries must examine their consciences: “A refugee is a person like you… If you don’t say, they are first my brother, they are first my sister, it’s not going to work”.

Currently, subjected to budgetary considerations and the pressure of opinion, public policies clearly tend towards the rejection of migrants. NGOs, for their part, are reluctant to replace the state in terms of aid, for fear of being instrumentalised. Faced with the drama unfolding before their eyes, ordinary citizens have been improvising new forms of humanitarian action. Marjorie Gerbier-Aublanc, a doctor in sociology at the Université Paris Descartes (see her researcher sheet), followed these ordinary citizens with enthusiasm over the course of her research: “solidarity initiatives are spreading throughout France. A social movement for solidarity and hospitality is emerging, which was spontaneously created around the question of migrants. Drawing from this example, how can research provide a different voice in politics, other than fear or rejection? The question remains…”.


What place for research in repairing ties of solidarity?

Whilst ordinary citizens, affected by the fate of migrants, have mobilised to revive ties of solidarity, Serge Paugam nevertheless reminds us that: “ordinary citizens are also those who reject migrants. The emotions go both ways, and this rejection is accompanied by a host of prejudices and fears.”. Faced with the drama of migrants, the rhetoric of compassion is no doubt reaching its limits. “Sensationalism, victim rhetoric, and miserabilism are certainly efficient in the media in shaping public opinion and finding funds, said Alvar Jones-Sanchez, a doctor of social anthropology at the University of Castilla-La Mancha (see his researcher sheet). “But this approach spreads and reinforces stereotypes. Humanitarian aid is still struggling to speak of migrants without relegating them to a position of absolute alterity… and yet it should be a great priority to recall that they are fellow humans”.

This is where the research mission lies: in offering another perspective to humanitarian actors, but also to political leaders and public opinion. “For us,” said Virginie Troit, director-general of the French Red Cross Foundation, “it is a question of communicating the results of our research as widely as possible to help distinguish between realities, perceptions and false truths, which are too often brandished in political rhetoric”.


The debate was recorded, find out all the discussions below (in French) :