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Soul-searching on World Refugee Day

Posted by Maya Mailer Head of Humanitarian Policy & Campaigns

19th Jun 2015

A group of women walking in Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, February 2015. Credit: Pablo Tosco/Oxfam

On this World Refugee Day 2015, Maya Mailer (@MayaMailer), Oxfam's Head of Humanitarian Policy & Campaigns, explains why we in civil society - and our political leaders - should be doing some serious soul-searching.

We are living in a time when more people are displaced from their homes than at any time since the Second World War. And save for the recent burst of coverage of the crisis in the Mediterranean, this fact has barely penetrated the collective consciousness of our societies - certainly not in proportion to the scale of the crisis.

Today, there are almost 60 million displaced people in the world. We are constantly bombarded with mega statistics and killer facts, so numbers like this lose their meaning, but we should try and think about how staggering this is.

The war in Syria alone has produced 4 million refugees, making it one of the biggest refugee crises on record. Millions more are displaced inside the country. 

A crisis of such epic proportions... requires a radical rethink.There are close to 3 million refugees in sub-Saharan Africa, as a result of violence and fighting in South Sudan, Central African Republic, Nigeria, and elsewhere. In the last few weeks, political tensions in Burundi have pushed tens of thousands into neighbouring countries, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, which itself has close to 3 million internally displaced people. The conflict in Yemen has been so destructive that thousands of Somali refugees and other nationalities that had escaped there are now seeking safety in Somalia, even though that country continues to experience violence.

No country or region is immune: from Libya and the shores of the Mediterranean, through to the Gulf of Aden, and across to the Andaman Sea, where Rohingya and Bengali families were stranded on boats for months with scarce food or water.

Safety screening at Kigoma port as families disembark from a boat from Kagunga to take buses to Lake Tanganyika Stadium for registration. Credit:Oxfam/Bill MarwaA crisis of such epic proportions, which is set to accelerate, requires a radical rethink. Of course, every situation of displacement is different but there are principles that hold. 

The first is the most obvious and the most challenging: the international community must find political solutions to address the cycles of violence that drive civilians from their homes. We must break the culture of impunity that has come to characterise brutal conflicts like those in Syria and South Sudan - as Oxfam will argue in a forthcoming paper, the World Humanitarian Summit provides an opportunity to do so.

But in the absence of political solutions, rich countries, who may have had a hand in causing the crisis in the first place, should welcome more than a fraction of refugees. The majority of refugees, 86 per cent in fact, reside in developing countries. At one level, this is inevitable: conflicts and crises occur most frequently in poorer places and people are compelled to cross the nearest border. Refugees often have social, economic and cultural bonds with neighbouring communities and they may prefer to remain close to home. On a recent visit to Jordan and Lebanon, I spoke with a woman in Za'atari refugee camp who told me that no matter what, she would stay as close to Syria as possible because her sons were still there, trapped and unable to leave. But many other refugees told me they dreamed night and day of resettlement or that they were saving what little money they had to make that perilous journey across the Mediterranean. 

Omar*, 13, from Daraa in Syria, flies a kite in Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. Credit: Pablo Tosco/Oxfam

The Syria refugee crisis represents a dramatic failure in global solidarity. Around 95 per cent of the 4 million Syrian refugees are hosted by Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq. Lebanon, a tiny, politically fractious country, around the same size as Wales, now has the highest per capita refugee population in the world. By contrast, the UK, despite a proud history of offering protection to those most in need, has actively resettled from the region less than 200 Syrian refugees (it has also given asylum to around 4,200 Syrians already present in the UK). 

...providing critical aid to refugee and host populations does not absolve wealthy countries from a duty to offer safe and legal routes to asylum.The UK, along with other rich countries, maintains that resettlement is expensive, unsustainable for such a huge refugee population, and that it is best to support refugees in the region.

To its credit, the UK is one of the top donors to Syria and the region. And it goes without saying that it is vital to support refugees where they are. In contexts where refugees will be resident for years and even decades, this is an immense task that requires governments, donors and NGOs taking a long-term view. It involves NGOs like Oxfam supporting host communities, who are often just as poor and under immense strain, as well as refugees. It means helping refugees get an education, enter the job market or find a means of earning a living, while navigating the sensitivities of the government and local population. Eventually, it means tackling the thorny questions around integration and citizenship.

 

That said, providing critical aid to refugee and host populations does not absolve wealthy countries from a duty to offer safe and legal routes to asylum. The right response will vary depending on the crisis, but Oxfam's call for wealthy countries to resettle at least 5 per cent of refugees from Syria in 2015 shows what a more humane approach might look like.

Rebecca Alek Majok, South Sudanese refugee in Uganda. Credit: OxfamBy resettling more refugees, rich countries offer a lifeline to some of the most vulnerable people. But it also gives those countries more credibility when they call on much poorer countries like Lebanon and Jordan to keep their borders open and uphold the rights of refugees. My colleague in Kenya tells me that governments in East Africa are closely watching Europe's response to the global refugee crisis and drawing lessons for their own approach towards their large refugee populations.

But none of this is possible without a fundamental shift in attitudes towards refugees. It may be a cliché, but probably the most important thing to remember is that every refugee is a mother or a daughter, a father or a son, in search of the most basic right for themselves and their families: safety. These are also teachers, students, farmers and doctors who if given the chance can make a positive contribution to society.

Rebecca, 28, a South Sudanese refugee now in Uganda (photo above), puts it well. "Being a refugee is not a crime; it's not a caste. In life you can be a citizen. In life you can still have your rights."

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Photos:

  • A group of women walking in Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, February 2015. Credit: Pablo Tosco/Oxfam
  • Safety screening at Kigoma port as families disembark from a boat from Kagunga to take buses to Lake Tanganyika Stadium for registration. Credit:Oxfam/Bill Marwa
  • Omar*, 13, from Daraa in Syria, flies a kite in Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. Credit: Pablo Tosco/Oxfam
  • Rebecca Alek Majok, South Sudanese refugee in Uganda. Credit: Oxfam

Blog post written by Maya Mailer

Head of Humanitarian Policy & Campaigns

More by Maya Mailer

Maya Mailer