Rethinking refugees: Coming together to solve the crisis


The refugee crisis offers an opportunity to redesign policy and engage new shared values of compassion and societal integration, writes Claudia Cahalane.

There are 60 million refugees worldwide. Nearly 10 million of those are Syrian and currently in flux, while millions of others have been displaced for decades.

Most humans have a deep need to belong and feel settled. But how can this visceral need be met as millions of people continue to roam adrift because of persecution, war, and climate change?

Migration has long been a part of our human history, but the current Syrian crisis has shown that countries of the modern age are reluctant to accept refugees into their sovereign states.

It’s not a sustainable way to continue, says Erika Feller, former assistant high commissioner of the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR). She believes the current crisis marks a time of hope, an opportunity for a turnaround in approach.

“My feeling is, there’s a lot of tragedy and drama at the moment and a sense of immediacy in needing to deal with the current situation. But I see an opportunity,” says Feller.

“We’re seeing quite a radical change in the nature of the problem. This has opened up opportunities to consider what a country means when it talks about sharing the burden and responsibility and about international solidarity. These are terms much used in the refugee world but they seriously lack any articulation of what this means in practice.”

The UNHCR has talked for some time about ‘waning asylum space’ where previously generous countries have become more restrictive and protective of their space as the world becomes more globalised.

“As an immediate first step it’s important that a valve is opened quickly to let refugees in by safer means,” Feller tells Salt. “Next there should be migration programmes which will in turn serve ageing host populations and the need for more younger people in some societies.”


Now vice chancellor’s fellow at the University of Melbourne, she believes Europe and the western world can learn from Latin America’s moves at the end of last year to coordinate its refugee efforts. The region joined together on action points for sharing responsibility through the Cartagena Declaration of Refugees, including committing to eradicate statelessness by 2024. Civil society’s efforts to welcome refugees is not enough in itself,” she says, “but it does send out a message to governments that people care and want to see a commitment to supporting refugees.

“There now has to be much greater centralised planning, and programmes specifically designed to promote access to facilities and services, to stabilise people and for kids to be able to go to school. There has to be top- down organisation.”


US-based millionaire property investor Jason Buzi has attempted to gain traction for his idea to seed a new refugee nation in sparser areas of developing

countries, using philanthropic money. This would mean people wouldn’t have to fight for their rights and jobs in existing communities, he believes. Throughout time, people have created their own communities on less populated lands, but Buzi’s critics say his idea risks doubly ostracising those escaping hostile environments. “I can see why the idea is attractive,” says Jonathan Darling, a lecturer in human geography who focuses on urban asylum and experiences of the UK dispersal system.“It’s a bit like the concept of having no borders. But what happens after you bring down the borders or create a new nation is an unknown quantity. The other problem with the idea is that it feels like ghettoising refugees.”

The lecturer at Manchester University feels that the debate could be refueled through the focus of potential economic and cultural opportunities that migration offers.

He is buoyed by the progressive Eurocities Network, which has pledged to welcome and assist refugees. “It’s not enough for the UK to give a bit of aid to refugee camps, keeping people there and marrying that with a small number of resettlements.

“I believe integrating refugees into our cities is the best option. Urbanisation is a global trend and the city environment is more attractive, with more opportunities,” he tells Salt. Darling says strong political leadership across local authorities and cities supported by governments is needed. “I was on the refugee solidarity march in Manchester a few weeks ago and we saw images from Glasgow
of a ‘refugees welcome’ banner on Glasgow town hall.

“There was nothing like that in Manchester. There were a lot of activists, but no engagement from authorities, the same as in other parts of the UK.

“We need those in power to welcome refugees and show a commitment to properly resource communities, not just with support services, but to also provide proper financing for the community as a whole.


Perhaps inspiration can be drawn from Canada’s refugee sponsorship programme, believes Matthew La Corte, immigration research associate at the Niskanen Center in Washington. This sees businesses, organisations, civil society governments and individuals come together to sponsor refugees, providing packages of support for at least a year.

Amid the tragic global chaos of recent months perhaps we can seize this new opportunity for every sector of society to come together and hone and organise its humanitarian policies.


Photo credit: United Nations Photo from Flickr