“We are at present largely no longer enforcing #Dublin procedures for Syrian citizens.”
This innocuous statement, tweeted out in the middle of an August night by Germany’s Office for Migration and Refugees, signaled an open border policy for Syrian refugees and helped set Europe on the path to a political upheaval unprecedented in the history of the European Union. Two years later, tens of thousands of displaced people remain stranded on the EU borders, unable to go forward and desperate not to go back.
Overwhelmed by refugees from the Syrian and Iraq wars, the Lebanese and Jordanian governments had recently closed their own borders. People fleeing the ongoing violence in their homeland began to head north and west in search of safety. First they arrived in Turkey, which was already sheltering close to three million Syrians. With news of the German government’s relaxation of its border policies, hundreds of thousands then made their way toward Europe - either by sea to Greece or through Bulgaria by land. None of the countries involved were in any way prepared for this mass influx of despairing humanity. None of the countries involved had the capacity - whether infrastructural or economic - to cope with the sheer volume of traffic that approached them.
They weren’t only Syrians. Thanks to the ubiquity of mobile communication, others already displaced by violence, politics or economics saw an unmissable opportunity. Afghans, Iraqis, Libyans, Iranians, sub-Saharan Africans and even a few Cubans, reset their course and headed for Europe's borders.
Almost all those on the move had Europe as their desired destination, and all the countries along the way were thought of - not only by the refugees but also by the host governments - as transit points along the way. The last of these transit countries has been Serbia.
In the summer of 2015 Serbia had barely recovered from the worst floods ever recorded, and now faced a flood of another kind. The first responders to the crisis were the Serbian people themselves. Being no strangers to the plight of refugees during the wars of secession that carved up the former state of Yugoslavia, people saw the desperate condition of the people arriving on their doorstep and volunteered in the thousands, loading up their cars with food and water and delivering it along the routes being traveled by the refugees. Meanwhile, the Serbian government quietly worked in the background to renovate abandoned motels, barracks, and government buildings to create habitable transit camps where refugees could be registered, and much needed services could be delivered to those on the move.
Initially, with border controls being barely recognized, people passed through quickly and easily. The non-Syrians, if they had arrived in the early weeks, were also able to pass through in the chaos, but as time went by and the Syrian wave slowed down, border controls were soon reinstated, and the transit camps began to take on a permanence for which they were not intended.
Bordered on three sides by EU countries - Bulgaria to the east, Hungary to the north, and Croatia to the west, Serbia had become a cul-de-sac. The welcome that had been extended to the Syrians was now seen to have been fulfilled, and the countries forming the European Union’s south-eastern border had become a bulwark against further passage. At these borders, refugees face hostility, and even brutality.
Still they come: Fatima (right) and her sister-in-law, Amina, newly arrived at a makeshift refugee camp in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. With the official border crossings closed to Syrian refugees, the women, along with Zeinab’s husband and sons, traveled for three days across rough mountain tracks to reach safety. Amina, who was born with a club foot, was carried across the mountains by her brother and nephews.
Among the thousands still in the Serbian transit camps, perhaps the least fortunate are the Afghans. Refused refugee status because Afghanistan is deemed by the international community to be a safe country in which to live, they are stranded in Serbia waiting for their names to reach the top of a list of people allowed to cross into Europe. But even when that day arrives, most will likely be refused asylum and sent back across the border.
The sense of crisis may be fading from world headlines, but with thousands of adults and children desperately yearning for safety and an end to their journey, the mantle of responsibility for their care will continue to fall on the shoulders of international NGOs. Among those still committed to providing that care in Europe and the Middle East are the stalwart staff of the Hilton Prize Laureates.
Beginning in early October, the HPC Storytelling Program will be rolling out four short videos featuring the work of HPC Laureates in Lebanon and Serbia. The first of these vignettes will follow the experiences of Handicap International as they’ve innovated and adapted to meet the needs of Syrian refugees in the Bekaa Valley and Tripoli. The second will focus on HelpAge International’s work with Lebanese partner organizations in Beirut, while the third will provide a glimpse into the daily work of IRCT member The Restart Center, which has been providing psychotherapy to patients living with trauma. The series concludes in Serbia, where teams from SOS Children’s Villages continue to provide for the needs of families as they transit through the country, seeking safety in Europe.
In recognition of National Preparedness Month, this post is written by Marcie Roth, CEO of The Partnership for Inclusive Disaster Strategies and an industry expert in global disability inclusive emergency management and community inclusion. Marcie has most recently been working with Handicap International, where she researched the impact of climate change on persons with disabilities.
Disability Inclusion in Climate-Related Disaster Preparation By Marcie Roth
Since April 2017, with the support of the Hilton Prize Coalition, I’ve had the great opportunity to work with Handicap International (HI), and immerse myself in researching the global efforts to address the disproportionate impact of climate change on children and adults with disabilities. HI has been working in situations of poverty and exclusion, conflict and disaster for 35 years with a focus on responding to essential needs, improving living conditions, and promoting respect for dignity and basic rights. It is one of six founding organizations of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines; the co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997; and the winner of the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize in 2011. HI takes action and campaigns in places where “living in dignity” is no easy task.
I share the organization’s very strong commitment to the rights of persons with disabilities and the imperative for equal access and full inclusion in all aspects of home and community living, before, during and after disasters. On September 13, 2001, while working for the National Council on Independent Living, I was asked by New York disability leaders to help New Yorkers with disabilities living in the "frozen zone" around Ground Zero. They weren’t getting their usual in-home services, due to an emergency operations decision to limit entry by non-residents. I reached out to government and non-governmental organizations to find someone who was leading an effort to address the emergency and disaster related rights and accommodations of children and adults with disabilities. I couldn’t find anyone leading the charge, so I worked with the White House and organized community groups to address the immediate unmet needs of these survivors.
This experience led to my work over the past 16 years transforming the nation's approach to addressing the civil rights of children and adults with disabilities before, during, and after disasters. Half of this time has been spent in leadership roles in non-governmental and disabled persons organizations. The other half was spent establishing and leading the Office of Disability Integration and Coordination for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) throughout President Obama’s Administration. Through this work, real progress has been made on not only reducing the disproportionate impact of disasters on people with disabilities, but also older adults, people who are very poor, experience homelessness, have limited English proficiency, low literacy, and others who also have access and functional needs.
My work with HI consisted of an extensive review of climate change adaptation initiatives underway across the globe. As the CEO of the Partnership for Inclusive Disaster Strategies, a membership organization bringing together local, state, national and global organizations with a shared commitment to disability inclusive emergency management, I organize and lead initiatives to help communities prepare for, respond to, recover from and mitigate disasters. My focus is on the increased frequency and intensity of disasters, including disasters associated with climate change.
There is a vast disconnect between the well-documented impact of climate change on the needs, rights and contributions of children and adults with disabilities and the organizational work being funded and implemented to prepare for and adapt to the devastating impacts of climate change across the globe. Almost all efforts to address the disproportionate impact of climate change on people with disabilities view the problem and solution as a health and medical “problem,” not a human rights imperative. This is a recipe for failure. There is an urgent and immediate need for a wholesale shift toward human rights, social justice, inclusion, and universal accessibility.
Climate change is causing immense and devastating hydrometeorological and other severe impacts across both developing and developed countries. Immediate and sustained climate change adaptation must involve everyone. This means planning with, not for, people with disabilities. This can only be achieved by including in all planning efforts the voices and accessibility needs of people with disabilities, older adults, women, indigenous people, and individuals who experience poverty at the center of every effort. Inclusion and accessibility will benefit impacted communities, allowing them to optimize limited resources and maximize whole community engagement.
Disability inclusion experts have a great role to play in guiding and leading climate change adaptation investments by governments, non-governmental entities, private sector, scientists, and civil society. HI has a track record of success in climate change-specific and related initiatives in communities across the globe. Their experience is needed more than ever, as it is ideally suited to address the immediate and ongoing need for the expertise of disability leaders in guiding whole community inclusion in preparing for, adapting to and surviving the devastating effects of global climate change.
The disability rights adage, “nothing about us, without us,” places persons with disabilities and their representative organizations firmly into the decision-making process. This has never been more vital to the future of the citizens of our planet. Although my time with Handicap International is drawing to a close, the work I did with them will be extremely valuable as I continue moving from words into action to reduce the disproportionate impact of disasters on children and adults with disabilities and communities impacted by extreme weather and other hazards facing the citizens of our planet.
September is National Preparedness Month in the US. It’s a good time to review your personal and family preparedness plan. Go to www.ready.gov for preparedness tips.
(Photos: Marcie Roth speaking at meetings of the UN Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction in Sendai, Japan, in 2015, and Cancun, Mexico, in 2017. All photos courtesy of the author.)
This article by Peter Laugharn, President and CEO of the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, offers a perspective on the current migration crisis, with reference to Syrian refugees and those displaced by impacts of climate change. A shorter version of the article was published in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Mobilizing for a Century of Dislocation
By Peter Laugharn
Nearly 35,000 people flee war or persecution each day. These brave men, women, and children join a record 65 million others — nearly 1 percent of the globe’s population — who can’t return home. Not even World War II uprooted as many people.
Migration will only worsen in the years ahead. Political and economic disorder continue to reign supreme across much of the world — and climate change will soon make life untenable in many communities.
Humanitarian organizations, donors, host countries, and their citizens can mitigate the suffering caused by the coming century of dislocation — but only by cooperating on sustainable development initiatives.
The Syrian civil war is the world’s most urgent humanitarian crisis. Already, 13.5 million Syrians — more than half the pre-war population — have fled their homes. And the flow of migrants shows no signs of abating.
In our lifetimes, rising sea levels and desertification will force tens of millions to leave their homelands. Widespread flooding, and the resulting economic strain, could displace 15 million people in Bangladesh alone by 2050.
The humanitarian community must better prepare for these unprecedented refugee flows. Its aid distribution system dates to the post-WWII era. Then, most refugees needed donations of food and clothing as they waited out conflicts in camps.
Nowadays, three in four refugees live outside a camp. Nearly nine in ten reside in low- and middle-income nations, often those bordering their home countries. Lebanon, for instance, has taken in 1.5 million Syrians, who now make up a quarter of the tiny Mediterranean nation’s population.
Host governments frequently view these arrivals with suspicion, worrying that they’ll destabilize fragile political systems and take jobs from citizens. So they box refugees out of the labor market and make them dependent on charity or black-market work. Those fleeing the hell of war and disaster find themselves in purgatory — unable to return home but barred from building new lives.
Unfortunately, the current administration is limiting the number of refugees being resettled in the United States and is proposing cuts to our foreign aid budget at a time when we need it most. Instead, our government is turning to other sources of funding, like philanthropy, to fill the gaps.
That’s not sustainable. It’s time for new approaches.
Consider Oxford’s Alexander Betts, who heads up the university’s Refugee Studies Centre. He urges host countries to allow refugees to work, pointing to Uganda as a model. Over 20 percent of refugees in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, “own a business that employs other people, and 40 percent of those employees are nationals of the host country.”
Host nations have a choice. They can either let refugees burden the economy — or contribute to it.
If refugees join the labor force, they’ll inevitably disperse into cities and towns. It’s logistically difficult for aid organizations to deliver food or clothing to these dispersed populations. That’s why David Miliband, president of the International Rescue Committee — which my organization previously honored with the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize — urges donors to simply give refugees cash.
Cash — which currently accounts for just 6 percent of all humanitarian aid — empowers refugees to buy exactly what they need. IRC studied 90,000 Syrian refugee families in Lebanon who received pre-loaded ATM cards. Families overwhelmingly spent the money on food, water, winter clothing, and shelter. And cash keeps kids in school — “households receiving cash assistance were half as likely to send their children out to work,” according to IRC.
Cash and work permits help refugees contribute to the economy and become partly self-sustaining.
But refugees can’t reach their full potential without an education. Two-thirds of refugee children aren’t in school. Yet less than 2 percent of humanitarian aid was devoted to education in 2016. My organization is working with international nongovernmental organizations, including Save the Children and Theirworld, to demonstrate how education initiatives for the most vulnerable young people are a smart investment for future peace and sustainability. Together, we’re supporting education programs for the children of Syrian refugees close to the epicenter of the crisis.
A long-term vision has been articulated in the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, with its 17 Global Goals and 169 targets for improving lives around the world. By collecting and tracking more data on different aid projects, donors could better identify best practices — and make funding contingent on host nations adopting those practices. Donors could also preemptively identify areas where environmental migrants will likely flee — and work with local governments to make sure they’re able to handle large migration inflows.
Regular Americans can encourage this shift by making financial donations to organizations that implement modern approaches to humanitarian aid. They can also volunteer locally to support refugees who are beginning their new lives in the United States.
Conflict, a lack of economic opportunity, and climate change will make this a century of dislocation. By quickly adopting new approaches, aid agencies, donors, and host nations — including the United States — can turn the challenges of mass migration into opportunities.
(Photo by Jodi Hilton/IRC) Reprinted with permission of The Hilton Foundation
June 20th marks World Refugee Day as recognized by the United Nations. This year the world has reached unprecedented numbers of people fleeing their homes for fear of persecution or violence. On this day, the international community honors and recognizes the profound struggle of those who have no choice but to abandon their homes and face a future of impermanence and instability. As the refugee crisis persists, many agencies fight to advocate for and provide humanitarian assistance to the voiceless.
According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, “What is at stake is nothing less than the survival and well-being of a generation of innocents.” In honor of World Refugee Day, below are some more highlights of work being done by Coalition member organizations to respond to the crisis.
Women for Women International (WfWI)
The winner of the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize in 2006, WfWI leads the world in empowering marginalized women in regions plagued by humanitarian emergencies. They harness the skills of women and provide them with the necessary resources to support themselves and their families, promoting community development.
In the context of the refugee crisis, WfWI offers invaluable resources to women and their families around the world. Programs include mental health counseling to women who have suffered the trauma of being forced to leave their homes and who often take on the leadership role for their families. WfWI also has a strategic partnership with Bloomberg Philanthropies in countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda, which have been long been affected by displacement. Programs under this partnership combine their areas of expertise to teach women useful skills that help create economic opportunities for them as they search for stability in an unfamiliar place.
The International Rescue Committee (IRC)
The IRC received the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize in 1997, and has been a global leader in response to humanitarian crises for 83 years. In regions all over the world, the IRC provides best-in-class aid, promoting safety, health care, education and economic development for people affected by disasters and conflicts.
One recent initiative illustrates the power of collaboration and technology in the response to the refugee crisis. The IRC has recently partnered with Air BnB, the popular home rental service, in the creation of their “Open Homes” platform. This philanthropic endeavor will allow the IRC to connect refugees with Air BnB volunteers around the world who are willing to temporarily open their homes to refugees—for free. Temporary housing will then give the IRC time to resettle the refugees in a more permanent home.
Stay tuned for more stories about Coalition members as they continue to lead efforts to alleviate the suffering of refugee populations around the world.
Photo: Syrian women from a refugee camp in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley plant seeds in a local farmer's field. (Steve Connors)