J: What should the international agencies such as Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) and others be doing differently to address this crisis moving forward?
SA: Our report, Protecting Syrian Refugees: Laws, Policies and Global Responsibility-Sharing, discusses in great detail the obligations of states signatories to the 1951 Refugee Convention and other refugee and stateless instruments, towards refugees from Syria and elsewhere the region. The Report examines the laws and policies in place in the host states, in the EU, in Canada and North America, that require a range of admissions–temporary and long-term–to be provided for protection of the Syrian refugees. The report calls for initiating a Comprehensive Plan of Action (CPA), that would incorporate temporary protection, EU-based subsidiary protection and other forms of humanitarian admission and sponsored admissions, as well as an expansion of refugee resettlement directly from the region. The CPA framework is familiar to governments and migration experts, as it has been used in many similar refugee crises from the 1970s onwards. It helped resolve, for example, the Indochinese refugee flow during the 1970s and 1980s; the Central American conflict-induced refugee crises of the 1980s, and the Balkan refugee flow of the 1990s. The UNHCR Commissioner-General Antonio Guiterres and the UN`s Special Rapporteur for the Human Rights of Migrants, Francois Crepeau, have been among the prominent UN voices also calling for instituting a CPA. In fact, given the scope of this crisis–the Syrian refugees present the largest single refugee population since WWII–a CPA, with various forms of admissions possibilities and global responsibility-sharing is the only way forward.
AJ: A three-pronged response is required to deal with this crisis. Within the EU, an agreement needs to be reached for the safe transportation and relocation of refugees in member states. The period after the discontinuation of the Mare Nostrum Search and Rescue Services in October of 2014, which was replaced by Operation Triton, a program set up to act as border security for Europe and funded through voluntary contributions by European countries, witnessed a dramatic rise in the number of deaths in the Mediterranean. Reinstating Mare Nostrum or setting up a similar search and rescue effort funded by the EU would be a corrective and necessary first step to avoid more refugee deaths. To facilitate the resettlement of refugees in Europe, there is a need to change the existing laws related to refugees’ movement within Europe.
The recent call by the European Commission’s Jean-Claude Junker for a refugee quota among EU member countries is welcome and should be seriously considered. Given the uneven distribution of responsibility for refugees among EU members, there is a pressing need to discuss resource sharing and to support Greece to help with the refugees, their transportation and resettlement.
Second, the refugee crisis cannot be resolved by more bombing. Any bombing campaign is bound to cause more death, destruction and displacement. Instead, a peaceful resolution of the Syrian conflict through dialogue and diplomacy and through involvement of all parties to the conflict should be pursued. There are some signs of movement in the direction of diplomatic negotiations between US, Russia, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. In the absence of a political solution the worst of the Syrian refugee crisis is yet to come.
Third, the current refugee crisis and the opening of space to debate policy on this issue should be viewed as an opportunity to construct a new policy that deals effectively with this crisis. A global policy is needed to address rising levels of global inequality and poverty rooted in decades of neoliberalism, and of military interventions, and their relationship to the increasing number of global refugees. This shift in policy could start in the short term by facilitating the safe transit of refugees, setting up offices with the capacity to process asylum claims within the Middle Eastern or other countries that are refugees’ first point of arrival, and pressuring governments European and North American governments to accept more refugees. To tackle the rising xenophobia and intolerance against refugees in Europe and to create a more welcoming attitude in North America, public awareness campaigns about the causes of displacement and the responsibilities of wealthier countries need to be promoted by the media.
A parallel effort should include an increase in the flow of humanitarian aid inside Syria to meet the urgent needs of those who are too poor to pay human traffickers to escape the country. This effort could also be supported by an increase in funds for groups such as Doctors without Borders who offer health services under very dangerous conditions.
MAN: It’s crucial that humanitarian agencies start drafting programs for long-term solutions and stop functioning as managers of bodies and calories. A transition toward a new model of organizing refugee support is desperately needed: a five-year plan should be drafted on how to transform refugees into productive participants in deciding their own fate and that of their countries. The UNHCR has a maximum eight-month planning horizon, in some cases less. But this needs time, perseverance, commitment and resources that are currently available but poorly managed and unfairly distributed. Refugees should become the champions of their own cause. They know what they want, but self-agency, it seems, doesn’t fit the “humanitarian” framework and political agendas governing the UNHCR and other NGOs.
YAS: There is a clear crisis within the international aid/relief system and how international agencies like UNHCR, UNRWA and others have been operating. We shouldn’t have been surprised about this crisis when taking into account the historical Palestinian experience with UNRWA.
Among the many problems of this system and these agencies is how they perceive and treat refugees. They inherently see them as one-dimensional victims. Yes, they are victims and are vulnerable. But they are not one-dimensional. These people have expertise, sentiments, ideas, needs, and desires that are being completely ignored. They are simply provided the barest and most basic forms of aid, and while this is undoubtedly important, they require much more.
This means that there needs to be a real reconfiguration of our understanding of who refugees are and what displacement means. We need much more sophisticated solutions that rely on input from the refugees themselves and that can be driven by refugees. This also means that the de-politicization of refugees and other vulnerable communities must be stopped, and they should be allowed to play an active role in solving their own problems. In the case of Syria, why not set up an organization for refugees by refugees that has a seat in the negotiations in Geneva or wherever, especially considering that neither the Syrian regime nor Syrian opposition are actually representing them?
Overall, there needs to be a transformation of the ideological underpinnings and practice of the international aid/relief system, and this region – the West Asian and North African territory – should be playing a major role in challenging and defining the contours of alternatives. I write this because our region has become the biggest source for refugees and migrants in the world, and has become heavily affected by the international aid/relief system (on top of the usual foreign military interventions, support for local repressive authorities, etc.). So how can we not play an important role in defining this system?