In this second post of a series, Hilton Prize Coalition Storytelling Program Director Steve Connors provides context on the plight of Syrian refugees at the European border, setting the stage for the Coalition’s next Storytelling project, a series of vignettes featuring the work of SOS Children’s Villages, the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT), HelpAge International and Handicap International. (Photo is from one of the short films.)
Stranded In Transit
by Steve Connors
“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.
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.
Many Prize Coalition members are working to face this crisis, including the International Rescue Committee (IRC), who is mentioned in the article. Four other Coalition member organizations currently working in Lebanon and Serbia will be featured in the next Hilton Prize Coalition Storytelling Program project: Handicap International, HelpAge International, the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT) and SOS Children's Villages.
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
During the month of June, Hilton Prize Coalition Storytelling Program Director, Steve Connors, is traveling through Lebanon and the surrounding region to connect with several Coalition member organizations and document their work with refugees to mitigate some of the devastation. In this first blog post of a new series, Steve sets the stage of the Coalition’s next collaborative Storytelling project, which will feature SOS Children’s Villages, the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT), HelpAge International and Handicap International.
Peering Over the Edge
by Steve Connors
Amid the towering reconstruction of today’s Beirut stand the war-ravaged buildings of the Lebanese civil war. Once beautiful homes such as this one on Damascus Street - the front line during the fighting of 1975 to 88 - serve as an almost sculptural testimony of the price, the folly, and the pity of war.
Since the middle of the last century Lebanon has seen more than its fair share of violence, tragedy and misery. Bookended by mass influxes of people fleeing from regional conflicts have been years of devastating civil war followed by invasion and occupation by foreign powers. The 1990’s through to 2007 saw a brief period of stability, during which the country was able to invest in reconstruction, filling the skyline with modern apartment blocks and business towers. But as protest led to unrest and violence in 2011, neighbouring Syria descended into civil war, triggering a regional conflict for domination and turning the country into a cockpit of regional and geo-political tensions.
As tens or hundreds of thousands died, millions of Syrians fled into neighbouring countries seeking refuge from the escalating violence, desperate to secure an increasingly tenuous grip on their survival. At the time of writing, the United Nations estimates that one and a half million Syrian refugees live in tiny Lebanon. The Lebanese government claims there are more than two million, a figure lent credibility by the author’s visits to camps, in which some thirty percent of refugees remain unregistered with the UN. Confirmation of that number would mean an increase of fifty percent in the population of Lebanon.
In 2015 with the country’s infrastructure and patience stretched well beyond the government’s capacity to cope, and with international assistance cut to levels below those necessary to sustain life, the official border crossings from Syria were closed to refugees. But they still come, desperately crossing the dangerous - often mined - mountain paths to reach safety.
Some of the people, if they have the resources, rent apartments in Beirut, Tripoli or other towns. Some settle in the already teeming Palestinian camps established after 1948 - the Badaawi camp in Tripoli is now stretched beyond capacity by an estimated 70,000 Syrians living in tiny rented rooms. This, in a one square kilometer area occupied by eighteen thousand Palestinians. But the overwhelming majority of refugees are eking out an existence in the Bekaa valley, at the foot of the mountains that form the frontier between Lebanon and Syria.
Syrian women from a nearby refugee camp in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley planting seeds in a local farmer’s field.
Tens of thousands of families living in the squalid conditions of temporary shelter are scattered up and down the valley floor, the only services provided by UN agencies and NGOs with scant resources and funding.
With wholly inadequate daily allowances, many of the refugees there are forced to cope with food insecurity on top of the misery and indignity of their everyday lives. Unable to afford the cost of registration with the Lebanese authorities, most refugees are unable to pass through the many checkpoints on the roads leading out of the valley so cannot move around the country. In an effort to feed their families the only solution for them is to seek casual labour in the valley’s fields, where local landlords - some of whom have smuggled the refugees into the country in the first place, and put them to work as repayment of their debt - are only too eager to exploit the opportunity for cheap labour. The going rate for five hours of planting under a baking sun is four US dollars.
With the labour market flooded by desperate workers - the cheapest and most employable of whom are women and children - wages for Lebanese workers have plummeted, and tensions between local people and the refugees have risen to dangerous levels. Increasingly, whole camps are forced to move to other parts of the valley because of violence or the threat of violence as the war next door drags on, and the tolerance of the hosts wears progressively thin.
The Syrian war has no end in sight, and whomever one asks in Lebanon, whether they are Lebanese, Syrian or the foreign nationals working with the overstretched humanitarian organisations, the belief is that the refugee problem in the country is of such a chronic nature that it will severely test the peace that the country has only so recently been able to enjoy.
Steve Davis, President and CEO of PATH. "What's Your Story?"
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How can storytelling transform the way community organizations work together? Join us for a webinar screening of the Hilton Prize Coalition short documentary, “On Shifting Ground,” featuring six prize-winning development organizations that mobilized in response to the 2015 earthquake in Nepal. Stories told by staff on the ground before, during and after the earthquake offer lessons on disaster preparedness and community resiliency.
The screening will be followed by a discussion about how the process of filming created new avenues for collaboration between the participating organizations: BRAC, Handicap International, Heifer International, HelpAge International, Operation Smile and SOS Children’s Villages. Through the film as an example, learn how your organization can use storytelling as a tool to bring together a group of organizations working in a particular region or concentration.
Steve Connors, Director of the Hilton Prize Coalition Storytelling Program, will speak about his experiences connecting with the organizations' Nepal-based staff in February of 2016. Representatives from HelpAge USA, Handicap International and BRAC Nepal will also join the discussion, addressing the ways that storytelling can influence programming on the ground and inspire the next generation of leaders.
Click here for more information about the film and the Storytelling Program.