Foundation Watch

Front Line Defenders: A European Nonprofit That Finances Migrant Caravans

Over the past several years, there has been a series of migrant crises, including the 2015 European refugee crisis and the caravan debacles at the U.S.-Mexico and Mexico-Guatemala borders in 2018, 2019, and 2020. In the spring of 2019, Customs and Border Protection reported a significant spike in apprehensions at the U.S. southwest border, reaching a five-year peak of 144,116 in May 2019. So far, 2020 has shown a drop in illegal migration, which makes sense in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns.

But how were these refugee crises facilitated? How did the caravans organize themselves? Who financed them, helped them obtain food, water, and shelter, and provided legal defense against government authorities?

Front Line Defenders

Front Line Defenders (FLD) is one nonprofit organization directly involved in such activity. Headquartered in Dublin, Ireland, with an office in Brussels, Belgium, and field staff in the Americas, Asia, Africa, and elsewhere in Europe, Front Line works to protect and aid “human rights defenders at risk (HRDs),” a United Nations term for peace workers and activists who help refugees.

FLD provides HRDs all over the world with grants for practical security needs, training and education materials, shelter, networking opportunities, legal assistance against governments, and an emergency 24-hour phone line in multiple languages. In special circumstances, the organization can even help with the temporary “relocation” of HRDs, presumably paying for their transportation within their stationed regions or to different countries.

Every four years, Front Line Defenders publishes its “strategic plan“ for the next four years. The description of its 2019–2022 plan asserts that this period will “undoubtedly be more complex than the previous Strategic Plan period” and warned that human rights and the credibility of human rights defenders are increasingly being undermined by “the rise of populist, nationalist politics and politicians,” who have “emerged on a scale not seen since the 1930s.” Curiously, FLD did not offer an explanation for this alleged rise, which was arguably a backlash to liberal refugee policies.


In 2019, Front Line Defenders launched #DEFENDERSBEYONDWALLS, an advocacy campaign with Programa de Asuntos Migratorios (PRAMI) de la Universidad Iberoamericana (UIA) and Red Nacional de Organismos Civiles de Derechos Humanos Todos los Derechos Para Todos (RED TDT). Its purpose is to defend and celebrate individuals who had been arrested for smuggling or for facilitating mass migration to the United States, such as Irineo Mujica, Bartolo Fuentes, and Nicole Ramos. The campaign called “for an end to attacks on migrant rights defenders along all migrations routes to the United States.”

Front Line released an in-depth report, dated September 2019, to accompany the strategic plan. In it, Front Line boldly claimed that U.S. border authorities have been “intentionally forcing migrants fleeing violence and persecution to cross remote, dangerous desert terrain” by blocking their illegal entry near urban areas.

The report praises Al Orto Lado, an organization based in Tijuana, Mexico, that provides legal services to migrants apprehended by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol. And it celebrates Trans Queer Pueblo for advocating for “queer ICE detainees,” disrupting “corporate and police cooptation of Pride marches,” and operating “media collectives to decolonise stories of transgender people of colour.”

The FLD report focuses on HRDs who accompany migrants to the border and document the actions of border authorities, especially any incidents of violence, coercion, or denial of their ability to seek asylum. Front Line noted the surge in the numbers of migrants seeking entry at the southern border of the United States between February and May of 2019.  It condemned the Mexican government’s decision to close migratory regularization offices in Tapachula. It also made note of the October 2018 migrant “caravan” as it was reported in the media.

What the report fails to mention is that various detention centers in the Mexican state of Chiapas were being completely overwhelmed by the migrants, leading to shortages of crucial supplies such as beds and causing infrastructure problems such as overflowing toilets. One migrant attempted to commit suicide because of the squalid conditions. While Front Line criticizes the conditions of the detention centers, they ignore the migration groups’ role in convincing the migrants to join the caravans, which inevitably overwhelm the Mexican and U.S. governments’ capacities to house and vet all of the migrants.

Front Line goes on to explain how the HRDs that it supports aid the asylum seekers, such as by preparing them for interviews with government employees, helping them fill out forms, giving them orientation sessions on migration laws, preparing their case files for the legal process, providing legal and “psychosocial” assistance, tracking the location of asylum seekers if they are transported to ICE and CBP detention centers, and providing financial assistance to caravan leaders.

REDODEM, a network of migrant shelters throughout Mexico that offers protection and services to people as they move northward seeking asylum in the United States, is advertised in the report. Front Line notes that this shelter network serves to “educate migrants about their rights, regardless of their legal status, and promote labour inclusion processes for migrants and refugees.”

In addition, these migrant shelters, along with HRD groups such as the Collective for Observation and Monitoring of Human Rights in Southeast Mexico, collect their observations and systematize them into reports. The advocates then use these reports to petition governments and international organizations to change their policies and be more lenient with policing migration.

FLD Funding and Spending

While Front Line Defenders is not located in the United States and thus is not subject to IRS rules that require nonprofits to disclose their funding, it does list its financial supporters on its website. Among them are wealthy, well-connected groups operated by members of the elite class, such as the Oak Foundation, which is involved in the China’s Belt and Road project; the Ford Foundation, which had an estimated $12.5 billion in assets in 2014; the Arcus Foundation, which is associated with billionaire heir Jon Stryker; the Overbrook Foundation, a grantmaking organization based in New York City with a $150 million endowment; and George Soros’s Open Society Foundations. Soros is heavily involved in advocacy and aid for refugees: He has been financially involved with groups such as Amnesty International and spent $500 million on the European refugee crisis alone.

In 2018, Front Line Defenders spent €5,785,201 (about $6,826,000 in 2018). Spending on protection grants for human rights defenders account for 39 percent of its total budget. While Front Line does not disclose how much of its revenue comes from Soros’ funding, it did go out of its way to defend him against criticism of his role in funding pro-refugee groups in both its 2018 and 2019 “global analysis” reports.


Shane Devine

Shane Devine is a former Investigative Researcher at Capital Research Center. Originally from New Jersey, he is a graduate of The New School in New York City.
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