It’s Time to Think About Refugees Again: What This Winter Has Reminded Us About the Global Refugee Crisis

 /  March 23, 2015, 5:14 p.m.


In cooperation with The Gate, the Partnership for the Advancement of Refugee Rights (PARR) at the University of Chicago has organized a two-part series focusing on surviving the winter in refugee camps. Here, PARR’s President offers her take on solving issues that have arisen in Syrian refugee camps.

Among orderly rows of makeshift tents, young Syrian refugees hurl snowballs at their friends. It is one of the lighter moments during the frigid conditions of the biggest winter storm that Lebanon and Jordan have seen in some time.

For some refugees in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon and the Zaatari camp of Jordan, these makeshift tents have become their new homes since the conflict in Syria began four years ago. Sadly, four years later, as one reporter shared from Bekaa, “people are still living under plastic sheeting.”

The infrastructure of these refugee camps is not designed to withstand heavy snowfall and drastic winter conditions. The young and elderly, as well as those who are making the trek from Syria to these camps on foot, have become especially vulnerable to the extreme climate, and many have died. Early in the winter season, both the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the World Food Program announced that they would have to suspend food aid for 1.7 million Syrian refugees due to a lack of funds. While both organizations were able to resume aid several days after the announcement due to urgent fundraising, news of the temporary suspension shed light on the larger shortcomings of refugee aid.

The issues of the refugee crisis have become magnified during this year’s harsh winter storms. This post offers five concrete solutions that would address these issues and improve the situation of refugees in the long run.

1. Those countries that are able to lend a hand should also be willing.

The developing world hosts 86% of the world’s sixteen million refugees. Countries like Jordan, whose open door policy has allowed several million refugees to reside within its borders, struggle to provide for their own populations, and all communities suffer.

While the US State Department and many host countries encourage resettlement as the most promising of their three “durable solutions” to the refugee crisis, first world countries accept less than one percent of all refugees to even be considered for resettlement.

If the countries that have the capacity to take in refugees will not accept responsibility to help resettle them, they should increase aid to local organizations, which support both urban and camp refugee families by providing basic necessities like food and clothing. Providing financial aid to support community development and stress management programs run by these organizations would help to address the health issues that are often brought on or worsened by the uncertainties of refugee life. Because international aid given to state governments to support their refugee populations is often redirected towards other programs and does not always reach these communities in its entirety—according to Dawn Chatty, former director of the Refugee Studies Centre at Oxford University, about thirty percent of the money intended for refugees in Jordan actually goes to refugees, while forty percent is allocated to the national budget—supporting local organizations directly through grants as well as through material goods would ensure that the aid money helps its intended recipients.

2. Let refugees work.

In many countries, refugees cannot legally work or must jump through complex bureaucratic hurdles in order to seek economic opportunity. Not only does this cripple refugee families who have no other means of getting by, it also hurts the host country’s economic growth. The Refugee Studies Center at Oxford University has published a report encouraging host countries to acknowledge that refugee participation in the economy is actually to their benefit.

Acknowledging these benefits and allowing refugees to work—whether through the creation of a special worker visa or through special employment programs that enable refugees to contribute to the formal economy—would alleviate the challenges of local integration that continue to marginalize refugee communities and keep them dependent on foreign and local aid.

3. Give refugees an education.

Due to financial constraints, many refugee children—who compose about half of the global refugee population—must leave school to work long hours in the informal sector to provide for their families.

Education should not be a luxury, especially for those who will become the world’s next generation of leaders. In countries like Syria, where about half the population has been displaced, there will be a dire need for neighborhood, community, and government leaders upon return. However, while the UNHCR provides minimal education in many of its camps, many children still cannot attend due to increasing financial pressures on their families, forcing them to spend their days working informal jobs. One Syrian father explained to Al Jazeera, “There are children who would work the whole day for $3.50—just to buy bread.”

On a global scale, about 41% of all refugees are children as of last year, and all 6.5 million of them should have a chance at education. The world cannot afford a global lost generation.

4. Refugee camps and communities should become centers of training, not idleness.

Refugee camps, provided primarily as temporary housing, have unintentionally evolved into permanent settlements as conflicts drag on. According to Melissa Fleming, chief of communications and spokesperson at UNHCR, “the average time a refugee will spend in exile is seventeen years.”

Much of the West, which has largely ignored the global refugee crisis as it has quietly worsened, should acknowledge this fact. The first world continues to treat refugee camps as centers of mere sustenance, of maintaining the lives of refugees, but has yet to address their futures. As Dawn Chatty told the Gate, “Where is there any dignity in forcing someone to live on 'handouts' or welfare?”

Many refugees waiting in camps will eventually return to their home country struggling in its transition after conflict. There will be a need for doctors, teachers, engineers, politicians, and construction workers. These refugees are key to the rebuilding process in their country, and the younger generation should be equipped with the education and skills necessary to shape the future of their home nation.

In her Ted Talk last year, Fleming emphasized the understated role of refugees in the future of the international community, stating that refugee camps should enable refugees to “train for the day that they can go home, as agents of positive change and social transformation.”

5. Change how we talk about refugees.

Displacement has become a powerful weapon of war, and refugees have become pawns in the strategic reconstruction of countries by abusive regimes and extremist groups. As time goes on, they become the forgotten collateral damage of wars and political disagreements. We begin to talk about them in numbers and picture them, as Edward Said states in Reflections on Exile, as “large herds of...bewildered people.” We forget what they once were.

Refugees should not lose their individuality or culture in the eyes of the international community when they cross the border. On the contrary, we should strive to acknowledge the lives they left behind that continue to reverberate through memories evoked in their new setting. Treating refugees as if they have lost all agency or identity further marginalizes them and misses the opportunity to empower them and to learn from their resilience. We should speak about refugees as the dignified individuals that they are and avoid defining them solely by their current status of statelessness.

The international community is now dealing with the consequences of an ignored global crisis that threatens the future of international politics and the world economy. Spending money on refugees is not only an investment in their future, but also ours.

As members of a global community, we can choose between two snowball effects. One, in which we are supporting refugees and empowering them to change their own futures, looks a lot different from the one refugees witnessed this winter.

It is time to take this crisis seriously.

Melissa Gatter