Monday, January 16, 2017

Refugee as Identity Crisis

A young Syrian refugee giving testimony for World Day of Migrants and Refugees, January 13, 2017
A Crisis of Identity: On Politics and Perception

By Shakti Flesher

Having spent the last week in Rome immersed in the local, national, and European context of forced migration and refugee reception has given me a much clearer picture of the challenges facing forced migrants and service providers.

One of the key themes that emerged throughout this past week is that the European “refugee crisis” is in fact not a crisis of refugee influx but rather a European crisis of identity and management.

Contrary to what we hear about most often in the news, Europe is not the primary destination of refugees. In fact, 86% of forcibly displaced people are hosted by developing countries. Turkey, Pakistan, and Lebanon are the top 3 host countries for refugees. While the number of people arriving in Europe in 2015 was less than 0.5% of the EU’s entire population, 25% of Jordan’s population is refugees. See this UNHCR report for more information: Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2015.

So why is Europe in crisis? The existing systems in place were not adequate to the task of receiving so many refugees, and the infrastructure was strained to the breaking point, resulting in preventable disasters such as the mass drowning in the Mediterranean that drew worldwide attention. See this UNHCR data sheet on Mediterranean sea arrivals. The refugee crisis also became a question of European identity. As one of our expert speakers, Christopher Hein, stated so succinctly: “More or less Europe?” States must decide to act in unity or respond as individual nations. The problem with the latter model is that the issue of forced migration transcends national borders. It also fails to account for the impact of policy decisions at an individual, human level. This Guardian article also points out Europe has its own “long history of almost constant population movement and mixing of cultures” that must be brought out into the open in order to address the current polarizing rhetoric.

For more on policy issues: European Council on Refugees and Exiles

While there are many concrete physical and logistical needs from organizations on the ground, all of the organizations we spoke to discussed the challenge of perception and the value of changing mindsets. To my mind, it all comes down to mutual understanding. A lot of the fear and misperceptions that come with nationalist or isolationist tendencies and anti-migration sentiment could be avoided if people take the time to understand one another. This is also an essential piece of integration. Those who are in a position to hear directly from the refugees about their own lived experience seem to develop programs that are much better positioned to meet the refugees’ needs. For example, I was impressed by the way in which local associations in Rome have developed programs that integrate community building and social needs along with essentials. For example, Centro Astalli has actively sought to build a “community of hospitality” by collaborating with local congregations to house refugees and provide additional support during the integration process. This program acknowledges that integration is not a process that ends with getting a piece of paper with legal status. Rather it is a complex process of meeting needs, building social bonds, language and cultural knowledge, and achieving milestones such as employment and independent living and becoming an integral part of society. This program in particular meets the needs of refugees who have completed their time in the Italian reception system but need longer to get on their feet. Since the refugees have a stable place to stay and do not need to pay rent, they can concentrate on more than daily survival. For example, we heard the story of a young woman from Ivory Coast. She was a nurse previously but Italy does not recognize her qualifications. Because she had stable housing and support, as well as determination, she was able to work towards a specialized certification. One year later, she was offered a position in Brussels, which recognizes her qualifications and specialization. She was able to start over and pursue her career due to the support of the community.

One refugee told us, “Everyone has a dream of going home.” Surely this is a part of the human condition that every person can empathize with. For many refugees and asylum seekers, this is not possible. But we can come together in solidarity and offer a way forward.

For further reading, here is a recent McKinsey Report discussing ways in which to improve asylum procedures and integration management.

As mentioned above, I think stories are a critical tool in breaking down barriers and developing mutual understanding. For those who are not in a position to meet refugees directly, here are testimonies from UNHCR.