Purposeful Travel by Georgina Ustik

Use Your Unused Airline Miles to Help Refugees

“For the individuals we fly, finding new homes in supportive communities is their greatest chance at living lives of freedom and safety. Miles4Migrants’ goal is to help individuals join their loved ones as quickly as possible, and without undue financial hardship.”

2020 saw the number of displaced people pass 80 million halfway through the year. According to a recent WHO study, COVID-19 has made living and working conditions for migrants and refugees significantly worse.

Densely populated refugee camps across the world are at risk for COVID-19 outbreaks, leaving inhabitants particularly vulnerable due to a lack of accessible medical services. Undocumented migrants are also typically excluded from healthcare benefits and social protection schemes, and many don’t seek healthcare due to prohibitive costs or fear of deportation. The pandemic has made an already devastating migrant crisis even worse.

Many unused airline miles and credit card rewards points are expiring and going to waste, making this an incredibly easy time to put them to better use. Programmes like the British Red Cross’s Miles for Refugees and nonprofits like Miles4Migrants are still operating, and flying displaced people to safer homes and to reconnect with family.

We spoke with Andy Freedman, the co-founder of Miles4Migrants, about how their nonprofit started, how the pandemic has impacted their work, and how they’ve managed to relocate over 3,300 people. We also spoke with Camara, a refugee from Guinea-Conakry who was able to relocate his wife, Mama, to the UK using M4M.

Miles4Migrant’s Story

Miles4Migrants began in 2016, when Seth Stanton, Andy Freedman, and Nick Ruiz met on Reddit over a shared enthusiasm for rewards points and miles. By September 2016, they had organised a 501(c)(3), and Miles4Migrants was born. For the first few years, M4M operated as a volunteer board, partnering with European NGOs. In their first year, they were able to fly almost 100 individuals. The turning point came in 2018, when Trump’s ‘zero tolerance’ immigration policy led to thousands of children being separated from their families. Even after the policy was reversed, hundreds of children were left stranded.

Beth Wilensky, a law professor at the University of Michigan, tweeted about one particular family that had been separated by US immigration authorities. She tagged Miles4Migrants, along with other organisations including Michigan Support Circle. The thread went viral, and M4M was put on the map.

“We could never have imagined how our mission would grow and couldn't have predicted the power of a tweet,” Freedman told us over email. “Within three weeks of the tweet about using miles to reunite a separated family, we gained over 38 million miles, hundreds of new donors, and an expanded group of dedicated volunteers to help us grow.”

“For the individuals we fly, finding new homes in supportive communities is their greatest chance at living lives of freedom and safety. Miles4Migrants’ goal is to help individuals join their loved ones as quickly as possible, and without undue financial hardship.”

Today Miles4Migrants has five full time employees, including the original three (unpaid) co-founders, and a global team of volunteers. Using over 55 million mile, they’ve relocated over 3,300 displaced people, fleeing war, persecution, natural disasters, and those who have legal permission to travel but can’t afford it. 65% of recent relocations have been in U.S. border cases, and the rest have been from all over the world, including Sudan, Syria, and Afghanistan.

M4M finds refugees and asylum seekers to support through a network of more than 45 ‘on the ground’ nonprofits, who submit requests to M4M for individuals and families who have legal permission to travel, but can’t afford it. The nonprofits are able to help with the legalities and financial vetting to make sure miles go to those who need it most.

While COVID-19 impacted their work at first — ”The pandemic almost completely shut down the flow of flight requests in the second quarter of 2020” — things picked up again in June. By July, Freedman says, “we were back up to flying almost 100 people a month, and we are now almost up to pre-COVID levels, flying 200+ individuals a month.”

M4M gained traction because of a conservative political policy in the states, and they predict the 2020 election results will only positively impact their work. “With a new administration now in place, we are preparing for continued growth based on both the steady rollout of the vaccine and the reopening of borders across the world,” Freedman tells us. But he doesn’t consider M4M’s work political.

“We believe that every individual and family has the right to live in a safe community, without fear of persecution. We don’t consider our organization, or that belief, to be political,” Freedman says.

Meet Camara

M4M was able to connect us with Camara, a pulmonologist who fled Guinea-Conakry two years ago over involvement with the country’s first opposition party, UFDG. “I left my country because I was persecuted by the government. I was in jail three times,” Camara says.

For a bit of backstory, the region now known as Guinea was subjected to the European slave trade in the 16th century until it was placed under colonial French rule from the mid-19th century up until 1958. As France’s colonial empire failed, and Guineans were able to vote them out, the French brutally dismantled the country as they left. According to an archived Washington Post article: "...the French pulled out of Guinea over a two-month period, taking everything they could with them. They unscrewed light bulbs, removed plans for sewage pipelines in Conakry, the capital, and even burned medicines rather than leave them for the Guineans."

In the decades since, the region has faced repression, military rule, stifled press, human rights abuses, mass killings, and a declining economy. Guinea is again facing a period of acute political instability — in October, Alpha Condé, Guinea's controversial head of state, won a third term in office, amid violent protests that resulted in the deaths of more than 90 people. Many more have been arrested, or killed, over political affiliation with the opposing party. Camara was targeted for this very reason.

Camara and his colleagues organised a team of medical students and registered doctors to treat people who were being turned away from hospitals for their involvement in protests — many of whom, he says, had been shot by the military or police. After hearing about an upcoming protest, Camara and his colleagues met up to plan how they’d organise first aid and treatment. “After our meeting, my friends went to their homes and... one group of military or soldiers came to the home and shot them dead — one in the head and the other one in the chest.” Camara says the same group of soldiers came to his home too. “But that day I wasn't at home. So maybe that is why I am alive now.” Camara had to flee immediately, and his wife, Mama, went to hide with her family. His brother who lives in another country was able to get his child out, but he wasn’t allowed to take Mama with him. “I didn't have any chance to see them or to take them with me,” Camara says. “Because it was too dangerous for me and for them.”

When Camara made it to the UK, he set to work to get his family over too — but he quickly ran out of money. “I spent all my money on the process for documents for traveling, because my wife went to another country to have her interview for her visa, and a TB test, everything. It was very expensive for me... I tried to take a loan here, but I didn't have anything.”

Camara contacted the Asylum Link in Liverpool, and told his story. They put him in contact with Miles4Migrants, who were able to quickly get Mama tickets before her visa expired. “They made it very simple — and that made a huge difference for me.” Camara says that if it weren’t for M4M, she may not have made it to the UK. “I was completely in difficulty, I wasn't able to buy the ticket, so maybe my wife wouldn't come if they didn't intervene in time.” Camara and Mama are both now safe in the UK. He’s studying English and for the OAT so he can resume medical practice. They’re also expecting a baby.

“We are here, so everything's okay. We're in security. We’re well assisted, and a lot of organisations are helping us,” Camara says. “So if I can say something to the people who might donate to the organisation, I will say, please donate, because I am not the only one who is in need — a lot of people are in need. They are making a huge difference for people in need, please, if you have the possibility, if you have the wealth to donate to them, please don't hesitate.”


How does it work?

Pledge miles via the Miles4Migrants website. It takes less than a minute.

Don’t have miles? They also accept rewards points, airline vouchers, and money, which covers the cost of booking fees and taxes.

Once an NGO partner identifies a family in need of miles, the M4M booking team reaches out to help you fulfill your pledge — typically one to three months after the pledge is made.

Miles4Migrants accepts miles from most programmes and airlines, but due to the type and location of flight requests, miles and points from United Airlines, Alaska Airlines, Southwest Airlines, Air Canada, American Express Membership Rewards, Capital One, and Chase Ultimate Rewards are especially appreciated.

In terms of choosing how much to donate, donor miles (with the exception of Alaska Airlines miles, Air Canada Aeroplan miles, and American Express Membership Rewards points) cannot be combined, so each donor’s pledge is used by itself to cover the flight. More miles pledged means international flights, and families, are able to be covered.

There is no ‘right time’ to donate miles — so no need to wait until right after a geopolitical disaster, says Freedman. “We receive requests to support individuals and families in need every day. Only 1% of displaced persons are resettled every year and until everyone is able to live in a safe and secure community there is work to be done — and miles can make a difference!”

How to get others involved

There are plenty of ways to get your community involved with Miles4Migrants.

Corporate campaigns, for example, are an important way for M4M to ensure they have a steady supply of miles for incoming requests. M4M can help run corporate fundraisers internally and advise on how to engage employees.

Miles4Migrants has worked with several large corporations, like their partnership with United Airlines’ Miles on a Mission crowdsourcing platform for Pride 2020. Ths initiative spotlighted reuniting separated refugees, asylees, and asylum-seekers from the LGBTQ+ community who were escaping persecution over their sexual orientation and gender identity.

This past September the British Red Cross’s Miles for Refugees partnered with Strava. Participants set up a fundraising page, shared it with their community, and got running, with the goal of collecting 72 miles (the distance from Damascus to Beirut).

Other groups and organisations can also get in contact to discuss how they can support M4M with community-based work… or you can make your own fundraiser, with community running, walking, and cycling challenges.

There’s never been an easier time to give up your frequent flier miles — but once we’re able to travel again, think about how you can make donating miles a permanent part of your purposeful travel.


Note: The names of the refugees have been changed to protect their identity.

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