I’VE recently returned from the Middle East and East Africa, where I visited a number of refugee camps — car parks of humanity. I went as an activist and as a European. Because Europeans have come to realize — quite painfully in the past year or two — that the mass exodus from collapsed countries like Syria is not just a Middle Eastern or African problem, it’s a European problem. It’s an American one, too. It affects us all.
My countryman Peter Sutherland, a senior United Nations official for international migration, has made clear that we’re living through the worst crisis of forced displacement since World War II. In 2010, some 10,000 people worldwide fled their homes every day, on average. Which sounds like a lot — until you consider that four years later, that number had quadrupled. And when people are driven out of their homes by violence, poverty and instability, they take themselves and their despair elsewhere. And “elsewhere” can be anywhere.
But with their despair some of them also have hope. It seems insane or naïve to speak of hope in this context, and I may be both of these things. But in most of the places where refugees live, hope has not left the building: hope to go home someday, hope to find work and a better life. I left Kenya, Jordan and Turkey feeling a little hopeful myself. For as hard as it is to truly imagine what life as a refugee is like, we have a chance to reimagine that reality — and reinvent our relationship with the people and countries consumed now by conflict, or hosting those who have fled it.
That needs to start, as it has for me, by parting with a couple of wrong ideas about the refugee crisis. One is that the Syrian refugees are concentrated in camps. They aren’t. These arid encampments are so huge that it’s hard to fathom that only a small percentage of those refugees actually live in one; in many places, a majority live in the communities of their host countries. In Jordan and Lebanon, for example, most refugees are in urban centers rather than in camps. This is a problem that knows no perimeter.
Another fallacy is that the crisis is temporary. I guess it depends on your definition of “temporary,” but I didn’t meet many refugees, some of whom have been displaced for decades, who felt that they were just passing through. Some families have spent two generations — and some young people their entire lives — as refugees. They have been exiled by their home countries only to face a second exile in the countries that have accepted their presence but not their right to move or to work. You hear the term “permanent temporary solution” thrown around by officials, but not with the irony you’d think it deserves.
Those understandings should shape our response. The United States and other developed nations have a chance to act smarter, think bigger and move faster in addressing this crisis and preventing the next one. Having talked with refugees, and having talked to countless officials and representatives of civil society along the way, I see three areas where the world should act.
First, the refugees, and the countries where they’re living, need more humanitarian support. You see this most vividly in a place like the Dadaab complex in Kenya, near the border of Somalia, a place patched together (or not) with sticks and plastic sheets. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is doing noble and exceedingly hard work. But it can’t do everything it needs to do when it is chronically underfunded by the very governments that expect it to handle this global problem.
Second, we can help host countries see refugees not just as a burden, but as a benefit. The international community could be doing much more, through development assistance and trade deals, to encourage businesses and states hosting refugees to see the upside of people’s hands being occupied and not idle (the World Bank and the Scriptures agree on this). The refugees want to work. They were shopkeepers, teachers and musicians at home, and want to be these things again, or maybe become new things — if they can get education, training and access to the labor market.
In other words, they need development. Development that invests in them and empowers them — that treats them not as passive recipients but as leaders and partners. The world tends to give humanitarian efforts and development efforts their own separate bureaucracies and unlisted phone numbers, as if they’re wholly separate concerns. But to be effective they need to be better coordinated; we have to link the two and fund them both. Refugees living in camps need food and shelter right away, but they also need the long-term benefits of education, training, jobs and financial security.
Third, the world needs to shore up the development assistance it gives to those countries that have not collapsed but are racked by conflict, corruption and weak governance. These countries may yet spiral into anarchy. Lately some Western governments have been cutting overseas aid to spend money instead on asylum-seekers within their borders. But it is less expensive to invest in stability than to confront instability. Transparency, respect for rule of law, and a free and independent media are also crucial to the survival of countries on the periphery of chaos. Because chaos, as we know all too well, is contagious.
What we don’t want and can’t afford is to have important countries in the Sahel, the band of countries just south of the Sahara, going the same way as Syria. If Nigeria, a country many times larger than Syria, were to fracture as a result of groups like Boko Haram, we are going to wish we had been thinking bigger before the storm.
Actually, some people are thinking bigger. I keep hearing calls from a real gathering of forces — Africans and Europeans, army generals and World Bank and International Monetary Fund officials — to emulate that most genius of American ideas, the Marshall Plan. That plan delivered trade and development in service of security — in places where institutions were broken and hope had been lost. Well, hope is not lost in the Middle East and North Africa, not yet, not even where it’s held together by string. But hope is getting impatient. We should be, too.
© 2016 The New York Times Company