International Security

How can we make sure no refugee is left behind?

Image: A Syrian refugee carries his baby child off an overcrowded dinghy after crossing part of the Aegean Sea from Turkey to the Greek island of Lesbos. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis.

Helen E. Clark
Chair, Lancet Countdown High-Level Advisory Board on Health and Climate Change
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The world has entered an era in which people are being displaced at an unprecedented rate. In 2014, conflict and persecution forced 42,500 people a day to flee their homes, nearly quadruple the number from 2010. Almost 60 million people are now forcibly displaced – a crisis unmatched since World War II.

This is unacceptable, but it is not inevitable. In 1945, the world responded to the deadliest conflict in human history by establishing the United Nations. Today, as heads of UN refugee and development agencies, we call for the world to respond to this monumental upheaval by giving people the tools they need to rebuild their lives. We believe that the path forward begins with the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, which the UN, affirming a pledge to “leave no one behind” in the fight against poverty and inequality, adopted unanimously last September.

The international community’s current approach to displacement relies mainly on humanitarian aid, which provides rapid, lifesaving relief while the search for a permanent solution is underway. But solutions are proving more elusive than ever. Just 1% of refugees were able to return home in 2014. The vast majority of those displaced spend not days or months in exile, but years or decades, even entire lifetimes. They risk being left behind.

Consider Somaya, a third-generation refugee in Kenya. Decades ago, her grandmother fled to the Hagadera refugee camp to escape the brutal conflict in Somalia. Her mother was born there, and so was she. Neither of them has set foot outside the five-square-mile (13 square kilometers) camp. They still live out of her grandmother’s suitcases, waiting for a chance to move on.

Like Somaya, most refugees live in the developing world. And yet, too often, development organizations that could provide refugees with a hand up face insufficient funding and stiff regulations that prevent them from addressing refugees’ needs.

Long-term displacement inflicts profound burdens on people like Somaya. Refugees too often face limits on their ability to work and move freely, making it all but impossible to provide for their families or to contribute to their host communities. They live in limbo, with no choice but to rely on humanitarian aid. Or they are obliged to seek a living in the informal economy, where they risk falling victim to arrest, sexual exploitation, child labor, or other abuses.

Consider another example: Anas, a 13-year-old Syrian refugee in Lebanon. His family cannot survive without the $5 he earns every day. So, instead of going to school, he sorts lumps of coal for sale as fuel. Refugees like Anas struggle to exercise precisely those rights – to education, health care, freedom of movement, and access to work, land, and housing – that are essential to escaping poverty.

Fixing this will require political and economic changes that allow the development community to provide more support. The relationship between development and displacement is clear, and we need to begin to consider these challenges as areas of joint responsibility.

Large-scale displacement strains public resources, even in middle-income countries; without sufficient outside help, it can undo years of progress. Until the world gives more and better support to host countries and the refugees living there, we can expect to pay ever-larger sums for humanitarian programs that never end.

But there is another side to the coin. When displaced people are allowed to develop their skills and pursue their aspirations, they create new opportunities for growth. This is why development agencies must have more flexibility to address new cycles of poverty and fragility – wherever they appear – before they spiral out of control.

The time has come to discard the clichéd image of refugees as passive recipients of aid, sitting idly with outstretched hands. If anything, that image reflects circumstances that have been imposed upon refugees and reinforced by the world’s incomplete response. Refugees are entrepreneurs. They are artists. They are teachers, engineers, and workers of all types. They are a rich source of human capital that we are failing to cultivate.

The international community can no longer afford to ignore so much potential or to sit by while the most vulnerable are pushed to the margins of society. As news headlines call attention to the human costs of these tragedies, we must remember that we have the choice to respond with more than just shock.

We can reject the economic exclusion of those who live among us but were born somewhere else. We can redouble our efforts to seek political solutions to conflict and persecution. We can empower humanitarian and development partners to work together from the moment a crisis erupts. In short, we can honor our pledge to “leave no one behind.”

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