The impact of conflicts and refugees in today’s world was one of the topics of the 6th edition of the International Government Communication Forum that took place in the emirate of Sharjah, the UAE, during the last week of March, an event gathering more than 2,500 governmental experts, former presidents of countries and prime ministers, academics, researchers and business people. An international panel, bringing the experience of each one’s own organization, expressed facts and opinions, in detail, about the consequences and impact of the refugees’ crisis, as well as the aid provided already and still needed. There was less talk, however, about potential solutions to the root causes.
Khalid Khalifa, regional representative of the UNHCR to the States of the Gulf, gave facts and figures about refugees and stressed that “no one leaves one’s country willingly; refugees and migrants are forced to do so”. Twenty-three areas across the world are living in crisis and “65 million individuals are refugees and displaced, out of which 21 million refugees have crossed borders, 4 million are Palestinians” and “many of them live in well-developed countries that face an additional economic burden in addition to their own economic mess. In some host countries such as Lebanon, 25% of the population today are refugees! Between 2007 and 2014, Lebanon’s refugees increased from 16,000 to 1.6 million”.
Khalifa explained that special attention is given to children and women because they seem to be most vulnerable. Children are considered to be aged 5-17 years old, and “education is provided with money allocated from relief funds, although few of these children have access to higher education. These generations live a personal failure because they are long-term living as refugees”. “Women are more affected than men by natural disasters and more vulnerable”, said Khalifa, who hinted to the need to make an exception from the gender-related specificity of the Arab world and empower women: “Women should be registered independently from a man in camps, they should participate directly in managing the camps and should have direct access to food and others, not through a man! Women should be able to initiate projects and should be given funds.”
Khalifa suggested that the refugees’ problem is actually the responsibility of the entire world. The refugees’ issue is often connected to the security issue and thus it is no longer the problem of the host country but it becomes international while “the responsibility for humanitarian assistance is collective, not only of international organizations but also of the private sector, academia and individuals”.
Mariam Farage, the group CSR manager with MBC Group, Egypt, underscored the multiple roles of the women in maintaining the coherence of the family and in education under these tough circumstances of living as refugees. Farage didn’t hesitate to speak about more sensitive culture-related issues such as: the need to give up the culture-rooted habit of getting married at 15 “as a drug to solve the problem of being a refugee” and the lack of sexual education – she met women who already have 7 children and were pregnant again, while they were living as refugees in difficult conditions without possibilities to provide properly for their children, with scarcity of food or hygiene, and no education: “We must work on educating these people!”. Farage also mentioned the need for informal education and non-conventional schools. She met a child aged 14 who hadn’t attended any school and it was no longer possible for him to start primary school. Lack of formal education is a threat to children.
The absence of the man raises other issues because women cannot raise, educate and provide for the children at the same time. So children may either end up in the streets or if the mother decides to work, young children, like a girl aged 11 that Farage found in a camp, may find themselves in the position to raise younger siblings, losing, therefore, their childhood.
Farage also stressed the unhappy position of the host countries that, on the one hand, are called to provide for the refugees and give them a chance because they are “the lost generation” but on the other hand, they face their own domestic economic challenges and receive additional ones, such as, for instance, “the refugee females who stay at home, do not work and they are sort of burden”.
That organizations are overwhelmed with problems seemed to be the meta-language in Farage’s speech. Farage sees a need for more international involvement and a role of the media in attracting sympathy for the refugees, because “the role of the media is to tell a story that is human, not just figures, and to focus on the humanitarian side”, while the role of Governments and the private sector is “to strike a balance” and to work on the various aspects of the refugees life, taking various shared responsibilities. The main goal is “to spread hope and the idea that nothing is impossible”, said Farage. “Let us be creative and take initiative”!
To prove the involvement of the civil society, Petr Kostohryz, director of the Norwegian Refugee Council in Jordan, reminded of the 70 agencies currently working only in Jordan to help the Jordanian Government to provide shelter, housing, distribution, financial needs and he highlighted the need to support the resilience of the communities.” The impact on the host countries is not the people themselves but the lack of funds and the culture to receive. In Jordan, for instance, unemployment is already 40% and the refugees are impacting the Jordanian economy furthermore”. By making the point that “We are facing something never seen in our history before, which requires huge efforts from many parties”, Kostohryz hinted at the World Bank, called to find new ways to get involved in the refugee crisis in a new manner.
Expressing the views of the medical staff working with the refugees, Tamara Saeb, head of communication of Medecins Sans Frontieres, reminded that it is very difficult to work with people on the move, to try to save lives from drowning, to assist births on borders, to treat skin diseases, wounds after beatings and tear gas and to provide psychological aid.
She also referred to aspects of the media coverage: the media “humanizes the problem but we read more about security, borders, etc., and may less than we should about the human beings”, “we read Euro-centric stories although 85% of the refugees are not in Europe”, “we are shocked with images” and “less about the crises in Soudan or Central America” and sometimes “the topic is too much politicized”. Saeb encouraged a more pro-active attitude of the civil society: ”What can I do as an individual to provide long-term solutions? For instance, we can set up a mobile bakery”.
IGCF2017 in Sharjah has the merit of bringing together experts who could provide a comprehensive picture of the dimensions in the refugees’ crisis.
The panelists, however, left a twofold emotional state upon the audience: while it was obvious that lots of organizations and individuals are currently working to alleviate their destiny, there is still too much to do and solutions to the root causes cannot be predicted at this moment.