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Harnessing citizens' goodwill can help solve refugee crisis


Harnessing citizens' goodwill can help solve refugee crisis

UNHCR holds talks on how to share responsibility more fairly, as part of a process to draw up a global compact on refugees.
15 November 2017
Merry Alaya and her son Joud, refugees from Aleppo, Syria, moved to the UK in February 2017 under the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme.

GENEVA – Harnessing the goodwill of citizens can help tackle the world’s growing number of refugees, especially in expanding opportunities for moving them to third countries, a meeting in Geneva heard this week.

The talks on 14 and 15 November were the latest in a series of thematic discussions convened by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, as part of a process to draw up a global compact on refugees, as the world grapples with record numbers of refugees.

UNHCR is seeking ways of sharing responsibility for refugees more fairly, which it wants to include in a programme of action as part of the compact, a process set in motion in last year’s New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants.

An important issue at the two-day meeting was how to increase solutions to the plight of refugees, which could include returning home voluntarily when conditions allow, finding ways to become self-reliant in the country of asylum, or expanding opportunities for refugees to move to third countries through traditional resettlement or via a range of complementary pathways.

Jennifer Bond, of the Global Refugee Sponsorship Initiative (GRSI), told delegates the only way to confront the challenges in refugee protection was to form bold new partnerships and to take advantage of “the compassion we know exists in individual citizens and communities all around the world”.

Speaking at Tuesday’s session on how to expand complementary pathways, Bond said private sponsorship programmes asking citizens to take responsibility for integrating refugees into local communities had many advantages.

Canadian citizens have resettled 300,000 refugees in the past 40 years, in addition to the government’s programme, including 18,000 Syrians welcomed by more than 375 different communities in Canada in recent years.

“Community compassion exists all around the world.”

Bond said that having sponsors invested in, and responsible for, the newcomers was paying off, with good outcomes for refugees. Canada’s experience showed community-sponsored refugees integrated well, according to most indicators.

“This should not really be surprising to us if you think of the many benefits that follow when you have a group of 10 or 20 or even 50 individual local citizens helping a particular family of newcomers,” Bond said.

This help took many forms: finding and furnishing houses, informal language tuition over dinner, helping newcomers apply for a driver’s licence; introducing a family to new neighbours, or helping children with homework, learn to skate or play football.

The process of sponsorship also had a positive effect on communities, according to Bond. Communities could be large or small and came in many forms, such as big city law firms, neighbourhood book clubs or entire rural towns. All have reported that the process of welcoming refugees could create strong bonds.

Another benefit was that the grassroots involvement helped to build broader domestic political support, Bond added, bringing “new constituencies, new voices, new media narratives and new allies in support of refugee protection”.

Bond said the Canadian experience could be adapted to meet local circumstances and the GRSI – a coalition of the Canadian government, the Open Society Foundation, the Radcliffe Foundation, the University of Ottawa and UNHCR – was already helping other countries such as Argentina, Ireland, the United Kingdom and New Zealand to develop their own tailor-made programmes.

“There is nothing magical about Canada. Community compassion exists all around the world, and for that reason these programmes can succeed all around the world,” she concluded, encouraging citizens to be part of the solution.

“The best way to resolve refugee situations is to address root causes.”

Kate Carr, the deputy director of the Resettlement Asylum Support and Integration office, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, told delegates how her own government had expanded its Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme, which began as a small programme in 2014 to take in about 250 refugees and grew, in 2015, to a commitment to accept 20,000 refugees by 2020.

According to Carr, the engagement of civil society was a factor in the programme’s successful expansion. Many citizens called with offers of support to help Syrian refugees resettle in the UK and, to harness the outpouring of goodwill, the government set up an online register of offers linked to the nearest local authority.

“The engagement and enabling of those who want to offer support has generated a huge amount of support for the scheme in the UK,” she said.

Other factors in the scheme’s success included the close collaboration among departments and an overall approach bringing together the government, local authorities and the regional governments in Wales and Scotland.

“When we started we had three local authorities helping with resettlement and now we have over 200 local authorities,” Carr said, adding that the UK offered support to other governments wanting to expand, or embark on, resettlement programmes.

Tuesday’s meeting also considered a range of ways refugees could be admitted to third countries as tangible forms of responsibility sharing. These included more flexible arrangements for family reunification, an increase in scholarships and student visas, and labour mobility schemes allowing refugees to travel to third countries with work permits.

On Wednesday, ways of solving the root causes of forced displacement were discussed, including involving refugees in peace-building.

“The best way to resolve refugee situations is to address root causes,” UNHCR’s Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, Volker Türk, told delegates.

“My father was killed but I didn’t lose hope. Instead I chose to become a peacebuilder.”

“We need to work with refugees as an investment in the future of the countries of origin. If we do it well, whatever we do in the refugee response will be massive investment in peacebuilding,” he said, adding that the voice of refugees was critical in this process.

Foni Joyve Vuni, a refugee youth delegate from South Sudan, pleaded for the participation of refugees in peace processes and in programmes for refugees while they were in exile.

She said young refugees could play a role in detecting and preventing conflict in their communities and building awareness. Vuni lives in Kenya where she runs a mentoring scheme through which she hopes to help refugees become self-reliant and self-aware.

“Due to war, I was displaced but didn’t lose hope,” she said. “Due to war, my father was killed but I didn’t lose hope. Instead I chose to become a peacebuilder.”

Vuni called for a change of attitude among peace negotiators in South Sudan who dismiss the possible role of women in forging peace.

She said the international community could tackle the challenges of large movements of refugees by supporting refugee-led initiatives, and investing in training and mediation.

“We are not just victims or survivors … Beyond the hurt, the struggle, the pain, the challenges, the success we’ve encountered is what motivates us to either choose to become a peace builder or a peace breaker.”