Italy/Spain/Ireland, 15 November 2023 – “I see my role as a bridge between two different cultures,” explains Ching Yi, a cultural mediator with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Italy.

Stationed at the Police Immigration Office in Naples, Ching Yi is part of a dedicated team of cultural mediators committed to facilitating the reception of migrants in Italy, extending a guiding hand as they embark on their journey into a new land.

Recent surges in arrivals, notably in Lampedusa over the past months, have once again thrust the island into the spotlight. With a staggering influx of over 11,000 people arriving on the island in just six days, the need for a comprehensive humanitarian and operational approach also including the key role of effective cultural mediation has never been more important.

Since 2018, IOM has partnered with the Italian Ministry of Interior and its Department of State Police, actively engaging in the recruitment, training, and deployment of cultural mediators at various entry points, including maritime, airports, and land borders. Cultural mediators are also working with the Italian Coast Guard on search and rescue boats in the Mediterranean.

To date, up to 280 cultural mediators have brought their unique backgrounds, experiences, and skill sets to assist migrants in navigating the bureaucracy and diverse linguistic and cultural landscapes of their host communities.

The range of services they provide is extensive, encompassing linguistic and cultural mediation at every stage of the process. From support with the registration process upon arrival to tailored assistance for vulnerable cases, these cultural mediators play a pivotal role in helping newcomers find their footing once they arrive.

Cultural mediators extend a much-needed helping hand to migrants, facilitating their orientation upon arrival. Photos: IOM Italy

Ismail, based in Lampedusa, explains how, in addition to his core responsibilities as a cultural mediator, he also collaborates with Italian authorities on various tasks such as conducting health checks and assisting potential victims of trafficking or smuggling. This ensures that newly disembarked migrants are not only provided with essential information but also guided through the necessary identification procedures.

“A person who arrives in a country that he doesn’t know may have prejudices or fears,” explains Said, a cultural mediator with the Immigration Office in Lampedusa. “In such case, you have to reassure him. Already when you speak to him in his own language, you are opening a world to him.”

What truly sets cultural mediators apart is their own personal migration journeys. Many of them have walked the same path as the people they assist, which allows them to empathize on a deeper level. They see their role as an opportunity to offer the kind of assistance and support they wished they had received themselves when they first arrived in Italy.

Selamawit from Eritrea, a cultural mediator with the Immigration Office in Naples, recalls her own arrival in Italy, saying, “I hope to always be useful to those arriving because I understand what it means being on the other side – what fear means.”

While empathy and language skills form the foundation for building rapport and effective communication, it is equally important to possess a robust skill set and high degree of professionalism. Navigating immigration processes involves a web of complex regulations, demanding that cultural mediators possess a deep understanding of these intricacies to ensure migrants’ rights are protected and their needs met.

Julian, a cultural mediator from South Africa, leverages his proficiency in six languages to bridge the gap for international protection applicants. Photo: IOM Ireland

Cultural mediators, like Ali from Eritrea, guide newcomers through the complexities of a new land. Photo: IOM Ireland

“We have witnessed a change of perspective from the authorities about how important these profiles are,” explains Giulia Falzoi, Head of the Migration Management Unit at IOM Italy. The project's positive reception has paved the way for similar initiatives in Spain and Ireland. Spain faces significant challenges in managing irregular migration flows into the country, requiring a coordinated presence of professionals at key entry points to facilitate collaboration among various stakeholders in the field.

To this aim, IOM Spain is currently supporting the Spanish authorities in the management of migratory flows to Spain at the main arrival points through cultural mediators who are providing migrants with crucial information about their rights and responsibilities.

To this end, IOM has deployed staff in Almería, Gran Canaria, and Málaga and other points of arrival in Spain. Mamadou from Senegal, who is currently based in Las Palmas in Gran Canaries, has been working with IOM Spain since the project’s inception.

He emphasizes that the approach effectively breaks down cultural barriers by providing beneficiaries with “exceptional warmth and support from the moment they set foot in the country.” This positive first experience fosters trust in legal procedures and paves the way for a more open and constructive dialogue between migrants and Spanish authorities.

Simultaneously, since 2022, IOM Ireland been delivering specialized cultural mediation services to the International Protection Office within the Irish Department of Justice. The main target groups have been mixed asylum seekers and beneficiaries of other protective measures who are currently applying for asylum in Ireland.

Meet the dedicated cultural mediation team in Ireland, working tirelessly to bridge language and cultural gaps for newcomers. Photo: IOM Ireland

Julian, who joined IOM as a cultural mediator in Ireland in 2022, considers his role to be instrumental in bridging the gap between applicants from diverse backgrounds. Many of them face language barriers that hinder them from fully expressing themselves.

Since applicants are often filled with uncertainty about their future, cultural mediators like Julian play a crucial role in providing them with clarity about the system and procedures. As they gain a better understanding and adapt to their new environment, they begin to feel at ease and develop a sense of belonging and security through the support provided.

Greta Alessandri, Immigration and Border Governance (IBG) Programme Manager with IOM Ireland, highlights the significant role that cultural mediators play. “This expertise is not only valued by the government authorities they collaborate with but also by the very beneficiaries they assist,” Greta explains.

As the world commemorated the 10th anniversary of the Lampedusa tragedy on October 3, a devastating event in which 368 migrants lost their lives in one of the Mediterranean’s most tragic shipwrecks, it became painfully clear that migration challenges persist.

“If you don't have the human side, I think you should change jobs,” says Ahmed, cultural mediator in Italy.

The cultural mediation project in Italy is funded by the Italian Ministry of Interior through DG HOME funds from the European Commission and the Swiss State Secretariat for Migration, the project in Spain by the Ministry of Interior in Spain, and the project in Ireland by the Department of Justice in Ireland.

This story was written by Loïs Willekers, Regional Immigration and Border Governance (IBG) Officer at IOM’s Regional Office in Brussels, with support from IOM colleagues in Italy, Spain, and Ireland.

SDG 10 - Reduced Inequalities
SDG 16 - Peace Justice and Strong Institutions
SDG 17 - Partnerships for the Goals