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“We are so worried we are going to be forgotten”— a Doha Forum discussion on the global displacement crisis

Jordan 2012: In just a few years, the Za'atari Camp in Jordan has become a place of refuge for many displaced Syrians and consequently an urban settlement of some 80,000 people. Along with hosting a large number of Syrian refugees - between 655,000 and 1.4 million persons - Jordan is one of the most water-stressed countries in the world. This problem is projected to worsen under climate change. In combination with its growing (refugee) population, water shortages will become a serious challenge for Jordan.

The humanitarian needs for those who are displaced are unprecedented, said Amb. Mark Green, President of the Wilson Center and former USAID Administrator, at a Doha Forum panel hosted by the Wilson Center’s Middle East Program.

But in some ways, Green observed, the task of immediate assistance is the easy part. “What worries me even more is that in the last two years, one million children were born displaced. They’re growing up displaced, and the long term needs of children and women, in particular—we’re quite frankly at risk of losing an entire generation.”

Prior to Russia’s assault on Ukraine, there were an estimated 84 million displaced persons around the world. Just over one month later, the addition of 10 million displaced Ukrainians (including both internally displaced and across Ukraine’s borders) brings the total to 94 million, said Filippo Grandi, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. He noted that displacement is also a development challenge, not just a humanitarian one—both for the people who are displaced, and for the communities and countries that host them.

Minister of Foreign Affairs for Jordan, Ayman Al Safadi urged a continuing commitment to the big picture in this current crisis: “It’s imperative as we focus on doing our collective duty towards refugees from Ukraine, we have to also keep in mind that Palestinian refugees, Syrian refugees, Afghan refugees, other refugees, are still in dire need.”

“You cannot be in crisis mode forever”

Grandi agreed that overall efforts may suffer when immediate exigencies emerge. “In a context in which there is so much focus on one crisis,” he said, “it is very dangerous that things become more difficult in other crises as attention is diverted, leading to a weaker response and protracted crisis.” Indeed, the magnitude of a situation like the war in Ukraine can lead to a “double forgetfulness.” First, in terms of the impacts on ODA (official development assistance) as resources are poured into Ukraine, but also the political investment always needed to resolve a crisis. The political roots of displacement must be addressed, he said, because  “you cannot be in crisis mode forever.”

Al Safadi pointed to how the pressures of “double forgetfulness” have an impact on host nations like Jordan. “We’re the largest per capita host of refugees in the world,” he observed. “And our message to all our friends and partners is refugees cannot be the responsibility of host countries alone…Unfortunately, over the past few years, we’ve been seeing a very alarming decline in both attention to the issues and in terms of support being provided to refugees and to host communities.”

As resources and attention are diverted from the protracted crises in Syria, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, there is also a danger that displaced persons begin to feel that they are being ignored or forgotten. Alyse Nelson, President of Vital Voices, recounted a recent conversation she had with a young Afghan woman poet who said, “we are so worried we are going to be forgotten.”

This perception—real or perceived—can also lead to dangerous consequences. “Some narrative came out that was extremely dangerous,” Al Safadi noted, “when people in our region started to say there’s a degree of discrimination here—that we see the mobilization towards Ukrainian refugees.” Mobilizing resources for Ukraine is the right thing to do, he added, but that narrative of discrimination “really resonated negatively in the region.”

Nelson observed that the Afghan woman poet also expressed some feelings of discrimination: “She said, ‘You know, when the crisis in Ukraine hit, every door opened to them, every border opened to them. And what a beautiful thing that was to see. But for us in Afghanistan, every door remains closed.’”

Refugees are a global responsibility

The recognition of a worldwide obligation to respond broadly to displacement issues is a pressing issue for nations on the front lines of these crises. “Refugees cannot be the responsibility of host countries alone,” said Al Safadi. “This is a global responsibility and everybody has got to do their share.”

This shared global responsibility is also enshrined in international law. Grandi noted that in its preamble, the Refugee Convention stipulates that refugees are an international responsibility because, by definition, they have lost national protection. “But in the modern world with the complexity of movement,” added Grandi, “this notion of responsibility sharing has become difficult, very difficult and complicated.

In the emergency phase of a crisis, it’s not a big problem, continued Grandi. Even in the beginning of the Syria outflow, resources flowed to the region, and we see the same response today in Ukraine. He said that what we need to shift is, start already thinking about the medium- and long-term at the very start of an emergency.

Citing King Abdullah II ibn Al Hussein’s foreword to the Fall 2021 issue of The Wilson Quarterly focused on displacement, Green said that one of the striking elements of His Majesty’s contribution was an open admission that the Syrian refugees in Jordan are, in fact, very unlikely to return home.

Al Safadi confirmed this trend in displacement in Jordan. “Even before COVID,” he said, “less than 50,000 people went back to Syria…we all speak in a sort of legal language—voluntary return and this and that—but look, the decision to go back comes back to a simple family conversation around supper among the refugee family: Am I going to be able to provide for my kids? Will they have schools? Will they have a job? Will they be safe? And if the answer to any of those questions is no, people are not going to [return].”

Greece’s Minister of Migration Notis Mitarachi said that “Greece has welcomed more than one million refugees from Syria and Afghanistan since 2015 on top of one million refugees we welcomed in the ‘90s from Eastern Europe. So we know very well the pressure from refugee crises.”

Greece grants all refugees an automatic right to work, access to health care, and a monthly allowance in line with the local population. “In Greece, recognized refugees and Greek nationals receive exactly the same social benefits…But I think we cannot expect single countries to be able to tackle global problems,” said Mitarachi.

From emergency response to development and dignity

In the beginning of a refugee crisis, the needs are usually emergency relief, said Al Safadi. “But a few years into that it becomes a developmental issue. It becomes, how do I provide schools to the kids who are born or grow up to schooling age, how do I provide universities, how do I provide jobs, how do I provide hope, and again, not surrender them to despair? Absent political solutions to those crises, absent a collective effort to try and restore normalcy to those countries, that’s going to be a chronic problem, that is going to be a problem that will stay with us for a long time.”

When the answer to the question of whether it’s safe to return home is “no,” added Grandi, “we have to look at that country and see how we can help conditions there become conducive for return—but that also is a development investment.”

The European Union has made efforts to work collectively to address the refugee crisis. Mitarachi said that in early March, its interior ministers unanimously voted to activate—for the first time—an EU temporary protection mechanism to allow citizens of Ukraine, their families, and recognized refugees coming from Ukraine to arrive visa-free in any European Union country, where they are automatically granted a 12 month work permit. They are given access to housing, to the job market, and to medical care.

Cash assistance is also important and practical, said Grandi. He cited a program that UNHCR created with the Polish Government and Caritas Poland that can deploy support to 150,000 families in a matter of weeks, and added that cash assistance is something that can be scaled up quickly and is more dignified for recipients as they have agency in deciding how to use the cash. “It’s a bit more of an investment in the future should that situation become protracted,” said Grandi, “because when it becomes protracted—like the Jordan situation—there is where the challenges begin, because the big resources of the emergencies dry up.”

In Jordan, said Al Safadi, where only 10 percent of Syrian refugees remain in the camps and 90 percent are spread across the country, the policy from the beginning has been to provide refugees with a dignified life, but we can’t do it alone.

Education in Jordan is one key example. We have 2.4 million registered refugees—122,000 refugee children go to Jordanian schools, said Al Safadi. Some 50 percent of Syrians in Jordan are under the age of 15—they were either born in Jordan or have grown up in Jordan. “If they do not go to school, they go to the street and we all know the implications of that.”

Providing access to livelihoods and employment is another stressor created by displacement that Jordan’s government must face. Al Safadi noted that 273,000 work permits have been issued to Syrian refugees in Jordan, despite high levels of unemployment among the Jordanian population. The goal is to ensure that refugees are able to provide for their families and have a dignified life.

Ensuring access to employment and access to schools is not only Jordan’s investment in providing Syrian refugees with an education and a livelihood. It is also an investment in our collective security, said Al Safadi. If we “abandon refugees to bitterness, to ignorance, then we’re really setting the scene for what will be a much worse situation in the future.”

Invest in civil society

“Anytime there’s a crisis—humanitarian or otherwise—women and children, women in particular, are always the greatest victims. We have actually seen a five-fold rise in extreme forms of gender based violence [in Afghanistan],” said Nelson.

Already in the wake of the crisis in Ukraine, continued Nelson, “we are seeing a rise of exploitation; we are seeing the beginnings of human trafficking; and we are also seeing the beginnings of rape as a weapon of war inside Ukraine by Russian soldiers.”

But while women in Ukraine and in other conflict situations are at heightened risk, they are also uniquely positioned to respond to crises. “One of the things that we found,” said Nelson, “is that the many women leaders that we’ve been working with for 25 years—our entire history in Ukraine—running small NGOs, shelters, hotlines, were all of a sudden being activated. The shelters with 60 beds were now supporting 1000s of people as a transit point, as an information clearinghouse. And these are organizations that had no money.”

As the vast majority of women and children in Ukraine are now internally displaced and on the move,  Nelson observed that one essential way to keep them safe is by getting money to these existing organizations “to activate this network of small women’s nonprofits that are connected to each other already—as that sort of security line, the information clearinghouse.”

Investing in that local “infrastructure” of civil society actors engaged on the ground and connected with broader networks of individuals and organizations is increasingly important as the numbers of displaced are expected to rise exponentially with the Ukraine crisis, as well as climate change’s growing impact.

Nelson observed these connected networks of civil society are the future, and must increasingly play a role in a world where response cannot be accomplished effectively by government and international organizations alone. “We need to be looking more broadly at other players,” she concluded.

Building a global ecosystem of support

Caring for displaced populations is a global responsibility that requires long-term thinking and investments from the very beginning of a crisis. Supporting host country efforts to provide refugee populations with livelihoods, with education, with dignity, can help ensure that refugees—the victims of crises in their countries—are not further victimized.

As the number of displaced people rises in the wake of the Ukrainian crisis, supporting countries on the frontlines will be critical to the long-term stability of both the refugee and host communities.

Al Safadi observed that creating an ecosystem that ensures support for both refugees and host communities will ensure an environment in which refugees are embraced, rather than resented, by the citizens of host nations. “The consequences of [ignoring refugees] are dangerous for all of us,” he said.


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