High-quality specialized services in migrant shelters with support from university students.
The Capacity Building in Shelters project, titled FOCAL, was launched by DIME in collaboration with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in 2022 to engage university students as interns, social service providers, and volunteers in migrant shelters and in this way to support the activities carried out in these facilities by providing additional specialized staff.
With increasingly stringent border policies preventing migrants from entering the U.S. or deporting them, and a steady increase in arrivals at the border, thousands of people find themselves stranded at the border region. Anticipating a further significant increase in migration flows at the border in the coming years, the IOM cites congestion in shelters and an increase in discrimination and xenophobia against migrants as some of its main concerns.
The importance of migrant shelters for people who find themselves in a situation of mobility has been widely documented. Migrant shelters have become places where migrants receive accessible and inclusive services and information, often becoming one of the few safe spaces on their difficult journeys. As the processing of documents required for transit takes increasingly longer, even months in many cases, migrant shelters have evolved into multi-layered community spaces, much like refugee camps. In the face of changing and increasingly complex border policies, shelters are now more than just a temporary refuge or a place to go for the most urgent information about migrants’ rights. Today, they also function as focal points for medical and psychological assistance, legal advocacy, and as intermediaries that bear witness to and document the diverse stories of migrants, which often include violations by state and non-state actors.
Tijuana and Mexicali are both major border crossing points, and the former has the largest number of migrant shelters in the U.S.-Mexico border region. In 2021, at least 300,000 people migrated to or through Tijuana. In this context, shelter workers, most of whom are volunteers, play a critical role within the humanitarian network in Mexico. The FOCAL project, therefore, aims to support this vital infrastructure with capable staff and resources while raising awareness among higher education institutions and providing professional opportunities for students.
With an established link between universities and migrant shelters, the FOCAL project builds a student social service cycle through which university students actively participate in the daily activities of the shelters. We currently have agreements with three renowned universities in the border region: the Autonomous University of Baja California, Universidad Iberoamericana Tijuana, and CETYS University in Mexicali.
The university students participating in the project are mainly in the third year of their major. This means that they have already acquired a set of skills and tools from their studies, such as psychology, social work, or administration at some of the best universities in the country.
Based on their expertise, skills, and interests, we match them with migrant shelters where there is a shortage of professionals in order to support the capacities of these spaces.
In this way, FOCAL strengthens the capacity of migrant shelters by supplying specialized staff, while benefiting university students who gain practical experience, expand their knowledge, and have the opportunity to fulfill their degree requirements (e.g., social service). By combining the capacities and needs of both sides, we create a sustainable cycle.
The FOCAL project works to achieve its goals in the following ways:
The project includes five phases, which are implemented in succession:
The FOCAL team visits universities in the region and presents the project to the respective authorities to make arrangements for students to participate in the project. The team also visits various shelters to identify their needs.
Further university visits are organized by the team to hold promotional events, talk to the students, and inform them about the project, forming the main pool of candidates who are evaluated and selected for interviews. Interested students are then interviewed to identify suitable candidates. Eligibility is determined based on the student’s semester, major, skills, and interests.
After students are selected, they are assigned to a specific shelter and then they are required to attend a mandatory week-long training. This training provides the students with the necessary background knowledge for their activities in the shelters and, at the same time, gives them an understanding of the situation of people in mobility.
Once the training week is over, the students start their activities in the shelters. Throughout their service, the FOCAL team is in constant contact with the shelters and the students to make sure everything is running smoothly. The team monitors and evaluates the project at all stages.
Upon completion of the service, the FOCAL team contacts all parties involved to ensure that the service was carried out according to the agreements and rules established. If all requirements are met, students receive a certificate of completion signed by IOM, the shelter where they completed the service, and DIME.
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