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Experts Examine Global Refugee Crisis

By Samantha Subin

“It is not hopeless,” said Eric Schwartz, president of Refugees International, during a discussion on the global refugee crisis at the University of Maryland on March 7.

Joined by Shibley Telhami, the university’s Anwar Sadat professor of peace and development, Nancy Lindborg, president of the United States Institute of Peace, and Ambassador Dina Kawar of Jordan, Schwartz expressed hope in finding a solution to assist the estimated 70 million displaced people worldwide.

According to the UNHCR, 57 percent of the 70 million refugees originate from South Sudan, Syria and Afghanistan, and over 44,400 people are forced to flee their homes every day.

“The response challenge is a formidable one,” Schwartz said. “No matter how good the world gets at solving the political problems that give rise to humanitarian crises, there will always be refugees,” he added.

The solution to the refugee crisis includes their return to the place of origin, permanent citizenship or third country repatriation, all of which have not been “adequate to the task,” Schwartz said.

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On Jan. 26, 2019, in Syria, children and families huddle together after being forced to flee their homes in nearby towns and villages, as they wait to embark on the long and arduous journey to safety at the Al-Hol refugee camp, almost 300 kilometers to the north. The war in Syria has displaced roughly 6.6 million Syrians within the country’s borders, while 5.6 million more have become registered refugees outside the country. Photo: Delil Souleiman / UNICEF

“They need real opportunities for education, for work,” he said. “The notion is you’ve got to build human capital of people so that they can succeed even if their status is uncertain.”

Agreeing with Schwartz, Lindborg added that humanitarian assistance has improved exponentially in the past 20 years. Roughly 80 percent of aid that once went to victims of national disasters now assists refugees.

In the 21st century, Lindborg said that one of the greatest threats is “state fragility,” which she described as a state being “unresponsive to the needs of their people.” Many of these, which fail to assist their citizens, are often “sources of violent extremism.”

“The common denominator under all of these global threats to peace and stability is really the lack of a responsive state,” Lindborg said. “The challenge is how do we mobilize and how do we organize to work with partners addressing this core issue of the conditions of fragility.”

Panelists also addressed approaches to the refugee crisis and preventative efforts versus aggressive, militaristic interventions.

“I appreciate the preventative approach, but I do worry when we have to go to the idea that there is extremism and terrorism to justify our role,” Telhami said.

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Syrian refugee Sami, 14, fled Deraa in southern Syria and for the past four years has been living in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. Sami has prosthetic limbs, but gets around the camp with the aid of a wheelchair. Jordan is now home to over 700,000 Syrian refugees.  Photo: Philip Hazou / UNICEF

During the discussion, Telhami lauded Jordan’s approach to the refugee crisis in Syria. Since the civil war to oust Syrian President Bashir al-Assad began eight years ago, some 6.6 million Syrians have been displaced within the country’s borders, while 5.6 million more have become registered refugees outside the country, creating a refugee exodus that has strained neighboring nations such as Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.

According to a January UNHCR report, there are 762,420 refugees living in Jordan, 83 percent of which live in urban regions. An estimated 51 percent of these refugees are children, the organization reported.

The Jordanian government is committed to providing education, work and good living conditions to the country’s influx of Syrian refugees since 2011, Kawar said.

The ambassador also drew attention to the internally displaced groups that bear the brunt of violence but receive limited acknowledgement.

“In a funny strange way, refugees manage to get more help than [internally displaced persons], because most of the time IDPs are stuck in countries that are in conflict,” she said.

In 2018, a study released by the World Health Organization estimated that 1 in 3 women experience sexual or physical violence worldwide, adding that refugee women are one of the most at-risk populations. Kawar noted that women often times suffer the most in violent situations.

During the March discussion, Telhami also addressed the terrorism and security concerns that have clouded the debate over what to do with refugees, which other nations often view as potential threats.

“When you look at it objectively, when you analyze how the refugees have engaged in any type of terrorism really in the past 20 years, it’s a handful of cases,” he said.

A large number of individuals exaggerate refugee-committed crimes, he added.

Despite increased rhetoric attacking refugees, humanitarian budgets have “remained quite healthy,” Lindborg said, pointing out that aid has increased with the escalation of the crisis. Since 2011, U.S. foreign aid has remained steady at between $54 billion and $50 billion.

But the metrics have also changed, Lindborg said. No longer do people require shelter and assistance, but rather access to work and education. Moreover, countries assisting refugees like Jordan, require assistance.

“We have to rethink how we provide assistance,” she said.


Samantha Subin is an editorial intern for The Washington Diplomat.



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