Outreach and Casework: The Heart of Humanitarian Assistance for Migrants and Refugees in Countries in Crisis

Outreach home visit © ICMC/Stefano Schirato
  Date: Thursday, November 9, 2017
By Thibault Chapoy, Programme Manager, Save the Children UK

The Libyan uprising of 2011 resulted in a complex and massive mixed population movement of migrants, including refugees, highlighting the central role that outreach and casework have during crises. The humanitarian response that followed is often cited as the watershed moment that led to the development of the Migrants in Countries in Crisis (MICIC) Initiative and resulting Guidelines to Protect Migrants in Countries Experiencing Conflict or Natural Disaster.


It is my experience that outreach and casework are absolutely essential when taking actions to protect migrants, including refugees, in countries experiencing natural disaster or conflict.


In Choucha refugee camp[1] , where I worked as a UNHCR/ICMC resettlement emergency expert, I witnessed the importance of these activities first-hand. At the initial stage of the emergency, priority was given to a speedy screening system conducted by untrained volunteers not paying sufficient attention to the specific needs of the population. Many gaps in the system and processes did not allow for an early identification of the most vulnerable cases, i.e. women at risk, medical cases and unaccompanied children. This gap was particularly acute regarding the provision of psychosocial support and the finding of long-term solutions for unaccompanied children.

Many of the MICIC Guidelines’ key recommendations on emergency response embrace the importance of outreach and casework, and rightly so. Guideline nine, in particular, emphasizes the need to “communicate widely, effectively, and often with migrants on evolving crises”. Further stating that “dedicated outreach to disseminate information; door to door visits and other forms of grassroots outreach; assessment tools to determine migrant specific needs and referral to relevant protection or assistance mechanisms” are important steps to ensure that assistance is tailored to the specific needs of migrants. Having an effective outreach, case management and referral system from the onset of the crisis would change, for the better, how we identify and protect some of the most vulnerable cases in these situations.

The best approach to case management is multi-disciplinary. The aim is to ensure first a comprehensive assessment of the needs of displaced individuals and communities, and then delivering services based on the choices of the beneficiaries. A key element of a solid case-management system is to ensure a good coordination of service delivery, while also developing effective referral pathways to other relevant service providers when necessary. In an operational response, each actor needs to build and maintain, at the field level, a network of strong partnerships with NGOs, international organizations, local authorities, civil society and community based organizations that conduct complementary actions on the ground. These partnerships are vital to the work at every stage of the crisis cycle such as crisis preparedness, emergency response and post-crisis action.

Most of the humanitarian operations involving displaced populations have had a strong outreach component. For a successful outreach, a detailed, context-specific and comprehensive vulnerability assessment framework needs to be used to measure households' vulnerability, covering themes such as number of displacements, employment, skills and resources, dependents, coping mechanisms and child protection concerns. These assessment tools, developed in the context of a refugee-crisis, can be used and adapted in every situation where migrants are caught in a crisis. They can help to identify a wide range of needs in terms of legal aid and protection, health, shelter, food security, water, sanitation and livelihood aspects. In this way outreach is being used to:

  • Identify the most urgent protection needs.
  • Raise awareness about services available.
  • Assist families to access external services.

To maintain the quality of the casework, outreach staff and caseworkers need to receive regular on-the-job training to increase their capacity in delivering information and assessing households’ needs and vulnerability. To that end, NGOS, civil society organizations and other service providers should invest in resources for personal and external facilitators to increase the skills and knowledge of their outreach team in identifying and dealing with a wide spectrum of vulnerability and protection issues; gender-based violence, survivors of violence, unaccompanied children, child disability, serious health conditions and post-traumatic disorders, etc.


Outreach staff are really the frontline social service providers that can make a real difference in detecting and quickly referring urgent and serious cases, and facilitating migrants’ access to meaningful assistance, as outlined in the MICIC Guidelines.


As the Guidelines state, civil society actors are among the first responders, and play a key role in creating, when needed, a critical bridge between governments and migrants, including refugees. Migrants and refugees can be some of the most vulnerable and forgotten people during crises. Towards alleviating this, the ultimate goal of the MICIC Guidelines is to provide life-saving protection services to displaced populations, building resilience, reducing vulnerability and leveraging existing capacities and resources. Accordingly, the implementation of outreach and casework must be at the centre of these efforts to ensure that migrants are receiving aid tailored to their specific needs and context.


[1] The camp was established in Tunisia near the Libyan border during the Libyan crisis and hosted refugees and migrants from more than 50 different nationalities all over Asia, Middle-East, Horn of Africa, and central Africa.