We can, and must, do better for all refugees

The response to any global refugee crisis may be deplorable and heartwarming at the same moment. It also illustrates a fundamental flaw in our human evolutionary journey. Let me explain.

Men, women and children have certainly been fleeing danger and violence since time immemorial. We have an undeniable thirst for life and an aversion to death.

Following WWII, international laws and administrative systems were put in place to help millions of Europeans who had lost or fled their homes. (History of UNHCR and History of UNRWA). For more than 70 years, these agencies and a growing industry of refugee NGOs have stepped in to assist refugees from nearly every corner of the planet, a truly global effort. Likewise, individuals have played a critical role – opening their wallets for refugees (I see this every year when I walk the #Gaza5k), as well as volunteering their time and sharing their love to support refugees during what may be the most difficult time in their lives. (Read my blog post in 2016 about a Greek bookstore owner on Lesvos Island, and my blog post in 2013 about a Syrian I met in Cairo where he was guiding a young Syrian woman to safety after Assad released her in a prisoner exchange.)

FSA fighter rescued a Syrian girl from Assad’s prison and brought her to safety in Cairo. (2013)

For a few days in early March 2022, I witnessed some of that generosity of spirit in Calais, France when I had an opportunity to volunteer in the Refugee Community Kitchen.  Steve (event organizer), Paula (doula), Sam (chef), Janie (activist) started this communal kitchen in 2015 and it’s still going strong with the help of both short- and long-term volunteers.

I helped with food preparation, washing pots and pans, drying even more pots and pans, serving meals at one of the distribution sites, and even sorting and folding jackets. Volunteers were predominantly in their 20s, and laser-focused on their responsibilities. A Frenchman was studying refugee logistics at his university and spending a few months learning on the ground. A young Italian woman had just completed her PhD in biomechanics, and was taking a break before entering the workforce. A mother and daughter pair from the UK were spending time together doing something valuable “to make a difference.” Everyone has stories about what motivates us to reach out to help refugees. (Note: RCK needs more volunteers!)

As heartwarming as the RCK experience was in Calais, the response to the global refugee crisis is deplorable. Refugees are typically living for weeks or months in miserable camps that are dangerous and unsanitary. Border authorities often harass and beat them to dissuade them from their journey. Refugees are typically forced to hire smugglers at great expense, and the trip can be both arduous and deadly.

Calais is only 27 nautical miles across the English Channel from Dover, UK.  Last year, more than 28,000 refugees crossed the Channel in small boats. At least 44 people died or went missing during the attempt, 27 in a single day. And refugees are particularly at risk to be victimized by human traffickers.

We are failing refugees everywhere – you and me – and our governments. Let me count the ways: (1) Funding and prosecuting the war machine in their countries – think Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria, Palestine, and everywhere there is conflict. (2) Imposing economic sanctions which weaken or destroy the job market in their countries – think Venezuela, Palestine and everywhere there are diminishing opportunities to work and support their families. (3) Environmental disasters such as flooding, soil erosion and droughts – think of many of the internally displaced persons in Africa. (4) And the looming impacts of a human-induced changing climate will likely force hundreds of millions to leave their homes. (Migration and Climate Change – IPCC).

We can, and must, do better.

(1) Issue humanitarian visas to every refugee, no questions asked. This allows them to travel safely, paying a lot less for a seat on a ferry or plane than they currently pay to a smuggler. Once they arrive in the country where they wish to seek asylum, the application and vetting process can begin.  Thanks to Professor Alexander Betts for first bringing this idea to my attention.

Feb. 2016 – “A million refugees arrived in Europe this year, says Alexander Betts, and “our response, frankly, has been pathetic.” Betts studies forced migration, the impossible choice for families between the camps, urban poverty and dangerous illegal journeys to safety. In this insightful talk, he offers four ways to change the way we treat refugees, so they can make an immediate contribution to their new homes. “There’s nothing inevitable about refugees being a cost,” Betts says. “They’re human beings with skills, talents, aspirations, with the ability to make contributions — if we let them.”

(2) Plan, design and build refugee camps that are safe and sustainable.  My friend from Gaza is an architect who is completing her PhD in Turkey this year and is focused on this very issue in her dissertation. In 2015, Professor Economakis from the University of Notre Dame’s School of Architecture proposed temporary refugee villages on the Greek Islands. Not only would they provide decent housing for refugees, these villages could be valuable assets for the community once the refugee crisis has dissipated at that location.

(3) Redirect a portion of each country’s military spending towards humanitarian and human rights endeavors — providing food, jobs, health and education to the most vulnerable.  If only 10% of the military spending in the top ten countries, based on the latest figures, was redirected, we might have $142.6 billion next year for life-affirming actions rather than death and destruction. 

United States ($778 billion); China ($252 billion [estimated]); India ($72.9 billion); Russia ($61.7 billion); United Kingdom ($59.2 billion); Saudi Arabia ($57.5 billion [estimated]); Germany ($52.8 billion); France ($52.7 billion); Japan ($49.1 billion); South Korea ($45.7 billion)

(4) Evolve and understand a fundamental truth — that “We are One”. This is a tough one because it’s beyond our grasp, at least for now. Until I feel it in my gut, that the Eritrean refugee I served a meal to in Calais is me, and I am him, I will continue to see him as the “other”. I may embrace him with my mind and heart, but there will still be a wall between us that prevents us from bridging our differences at the core. Humanity cannot succeed in the long-term without evolving to meet this truth and flourish together. Our governments respond to the refugee crisis as if it’s a zero-sum game, but that’s a basic fallacy that prevents us from ending the deplorable global response to the plight of refugees everywhere.

We can, and must, do better.

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