We Need Global Solidarity for Refugees

As a European and a Swede (and an economist), I am struck by how often we discuss refugees in terms of the “cost” of accepting asylum seekers.

These conversations miss out on the many economic benefits of migration. Young refugees are often so inclined to start building their new lives that they integrate quite quickly into a new country with much to offer. We also miss the most important component of the conversation – the refugees themselves.

Wars, violence and persecution lead to people fleeing from their homes. A new report released on June 19, 2019 from UNHCR shows that 70.8 million people are now forcibly displaced worldwide – more than the UN Refugee Agency has ever recorded. Levels have doubled in the past 20 years and increased by 2.3 million people in the past year alone.

This year’s UNHCR Global Trends report states that these figures are conservative since the Venezuelan crisis is only partly reflected. According to data from neighboring nations, about 4 million Venezuelans have fled the country, which makes it one of the world’s largest displacement crises in recent history.

What do these numbers actually mean? 

The majority of individuals who are forcibly displaced are Internally Displaced People (IDPs) – people who are displaced to other areas within their own country. There are 41.3 million IDPs worldwide. Refugees – people forced to flee their country because of conflict, war or persecution – accounted for 25.9 million people worldwide in 2018 (half a million more than in 2017). Asylum seekers are people outside their country of origin who receive international protection but are awaiting the outcome of their claim to refugee status. They account for 3.5 million people globally.

Now, here are some important facts: 

  • About 80% of refugees live in countries neighboring their countries of origin
  • The world’s poorest countries host a third of all refugees worldwide
  • High income countries (like most countries in Europe) host only 2.7 refugees per 1,000 of population on average
  • In 2018, every second refugee was a child

Research shows that women and children are the most vulnerable in times of crisis. Sexual violence and rape is used as a weapon of war to further inhibit civilian populations to fight for peace and their fundamental human rights. One very recent case of this is Sudan today. 

Europe has seen a surge of refugees since 2014. Many have risked their lives in horribly overcrowded rubber dinghies to cross the Mediterranean Sea for safety – sometime without functioning life vests. UNHCR estimates that over 17,800 people have died at sea between 2014 and 2018. In this year alone, the UN Refugee Agency estimates that 559 people have died and are missing.

The largest group of people seeking refuge in Europe after crossing the Mediterranean are from Afghanistan.

The war-torn nation was recently reported as the most dangerous country in the world, and 2018 was the most deadly year ever recorded for civilians in Afghanistan.

So what is Europe doing to support asylum seekers from Afghanistan and those crossing the Mediterranean Sea? From what I understand and see in my daily life in Sweden – not enough.

This week, the Swedish parliament voted to extend a “temporary” stringent law which has been highly criticized by humanitarian aid organizations and UN Agencies. Sweden, Norway, Germany, the Netherlands, Austria and other countries in Europe continue to deport individuals back to Afghanistan – many of whom arrived in Europe as unaccompanied minors several years ago.

Sea rescues have been criminalized as NGO rescue ships are no longer permitted to work out of Italy. Pia Klemp, a German boat captain, faces 20 years in prison and horrendous fines for saving people from drowning in the Mediterranean.

Sweden is using old prisons to forcibly detain high-school attending, Swedish speaking young asylum-seekers from Afghanistan who await deportations. The wait may last several months and the migration and judicial system for asylum seekers is highly criticized. Racism is becoming more visible.

This week, a friend of mine who is an Afghani asylum seeker in Sweden was harassed by police for no reason as he got off a train. We later found out from migration officials that they have been ordered to intimidate asylum seekers so that they will be more inclined to return voluntarily.

Despite being an eternal optimist, I have a hard time seeing anything positive in this stark situation. The message that Europe is sending is that some lives are valued less than others – that some lives are just not important enough to be saved.

“While language around refugees and migrants is often divisive, we are also witnessing an outpouring of generosity and solidarity, especially by communities who are themselves hosting large numbers of refugees. We are also seeing unprecedented engagement by new actors including development actors, private businesses, and individuals, which not only reflects but also delivers the spirit of the Global Compact on Refugees,” said UN High Commissioner for Refugee Filippo Grandi.

“We must build on these positive examples and redouble our solidarity with the many thousands of innocent people who are forced to flee their homes each day.”

We are facing a European crisis that will cost us our solidarity, our humanity and our safeguarding of human rights. The price is too high. If we lose these, we won’t have anything of value left.

I am thankful to be a part of the Swedish Facebook group Vi står inte ut! (We can’t stand it!) which has become a network of 10,000 individuals working to support asylum seekers in various ways. It is through networks like this one that I witness solidarity and fire to fight for our sisters and brothers from other countries.

It is difficult to continue to read and share the stories of refugees, but we must speak the unspeakable, break the silence and fight for a change in our world today.

The Venezuelan Babies Being Born Stateless in Colombia

In 2016 alone, Venezuela’s infant mortality rose by 30% and maternal mortality by 65%. Back then, the situation in Venezuela wasn’t as dire as it is now. Because of the current economic crisis, women in Venezuela don’t have access to the healthcare or supplies they need to give birth safely and raise their babies.

Hospitals are running low on doctors and medicine. For example, the Jose Manuel de los Rios Children’s Hospital in Caracas lost 20% of its medical staff in just two years as 68 of its doctors fled the country between 2016 and 2018. Many women don’t have access to diapers, milk and formula. In some cases women are also too malnourished to breastfeed their babies.

Knowing this, it’s not surprising that many pregnant women are leaving the country to give birth. So far, the UN Refugee Agency estimates that 2.4 million Venezuelans have left their country for other Latin American nations. Their most common destinations are Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Argentina, Chile and Brazil, in that order. While the latter countries grant citizenship to everyone born in their territories; the situation in Colombia is different.

In Cúcuta, Colombia, a city located near the border between Colombia and Venezuela, medical authorities indicate that there are now more Venezuelan women giving birth than Colombian women. Out of the 554 babies born in medical institutions in Cúcuta in September 2018, 353 (64%) have Venezuelan mothers.

Colombian legislation states that children, even when born in Colombia, cannot have Colombian nationality if their parents aren’t Colombian or don’t have a legal migrant status in the country. This applies to the babies being born of Venezuelan women who don’t have official refugee status yet.

Venezuelan citizens are currently struggling to acquire passports, which leads to impediments and difficulties to process a visa or asylum request. The lack of documentation also presents an obstacle for these mothers to register their babies as Venezuelan citizens in the Venezuelan consulates in Colombia because they can’t prove their own nationality.

These babies are stuck being stateless until their parents can register them in a Venezuelan consulate.

Not having a national identity and legal attachment to a country means having no government protection, and no access to certain benefits and rights.

The Colombian government is looking for solutions to this problem, but in the meantime there is a risk of having an ‘invisible generation’ of Venezuelans who do not legally exist in any country.

This is one of the many consequences of the Venezuelan refugee crisis that countries in Latin America need to address to reduce the vulnerability of Venezuelans.

Mothers are leaving their country to ensure their babies are born somewhere they can live safely, but without a nationality they are stuck in migration limbo.

Health Doesn’t Ask for a Passport

Last month saw the observance of World Refugee Day, and as the Swedish Organization for Global Health’s Girls’ Globe Blog Writer, I had planned to write a piece on the health issues migrants and refugees face.

Instead, I was silenced by outrage, anger, overwhelm, and shock – which is rare for me and also a privilege not available to all amidst crisis. The (often forced) mobility of humans around the world in 2018 has been responded to in every single wrong way possible from countries with the ability to help.

As a living, breathing human being, I feel connected to others – and not just those who have the same passport as I do. This is what makes the refugee crisis so raw, and the policies that endanger fellow human lives so disgusting, unacceptable, and devastating. Humans should be saved from drowning, empowered out of poverty, saved from war and death, maintained as a family.

I cannot and will never be okay with ‘othering’, or with seeing precious lives in danger, exploited, separated, willingly left in dangerous waters – both literally and figuratively. We know that women and girls, in all their diversities, are disproportionately at risk whether or not they leave their homes or stay in places that feel like the mouth of a shark”. We have felt, all of us, that visceral need to respond when another human is struggling. 

So, after some moments of action, phone calls with my friends and family, and inspiration from people like the UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, E. Tendayi Achiume, I write these words both to regain my own voice and ignite yours. There is much to say about the refugee crisis and the treatment of people across the world in 2018.

The truth is, health does not discriminate. It does not check passports, ask age, or inquire if one can afford the staggering cost to pay for simple care.

Globally, there are 258 million cross-border migrants and 753 million internal border migrants (according to the World Health Organization). The physical and mental well-being of migrants, refugees, immigrants, and all people who are mobile, is an enormous concern. These risks are present whether or not a migrant or refugee stays in their country, resides in a camp, or travels to a new country. The risks are present in each place. Like all health threats, if left unaddressed, the contagion effect will continue within vulnerable populations in a cyclical manner.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reminds us that “Individuals who are stateless face grave and often insurmountable barriers”, especially regarding healthcare. Health risks for women include sexual violence and reproductive health, in addition to accidental injuries, hypothermia, burns, gastrointestinal illnesses, cardiovascular events, pregnancy- and delivery-related complications, diabetes and hypertension”, which the WHO regional office in Europe has documented.

Conditions where life and death are two close alternatives make luxuries like safety, care, protection, health, and hygiene hard to prioritize – especially without help. Though physical health care has traditionally been the main priority, mental health care for migrants and refugees must now become equally important.  

As I finish writing this long-awaited post, I see a news alert pop up on my screen with a picture of a woman clutching her toddler in reunification. The headline reads: My Son is Not the Same. This woman’s son was stolen from her arms at the border of the United States and Mexico, and kept from her for eighty-five days.

Trauma lives in the body and is embedded in the mind. While refugees, migrants and humans who face difficulty in life are incredibly resilient, they are not without scars. Our work now must be two-fold: prevent more atrocities and help our brothers and sisters, our fellow humans, to heal.

This is a reminder that we are not without agency to help change things. We do not need to be an elected official or head of an organization to help. I’ve compiled a short list of organizations to consider getting involved with. Please comment below to add!

Rescue and Advocacy
  • The Global Compact for Migration was finally adopted after months of deliberation, on July 13, 2018. The word “health” does not appear at all in the three page document. This is a problem and needs to be changed.
Social Media
  • Videos to share
  • Follow the above organizations on Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and other favorite platforms

Refugees Are Welcome

A couple of weeks ago, on a grey, rainy Sunday, I walked up to my front door to find a little crowd gathered outside. There was music coming from speakers on the pavement and two young men stood on ladders, painting on the wall beside the Indian restaurant below my apartment.

A few hours later they were finished. People stopped and looked up as they walked past and pointed it out to children who tilted little heads back to take in its scale. People stood and talked and took photos with their phones.

The painting shows a mass of people and faces, in orange, yellow, black and brown. Around the people there are outlines of houses, or maybe they could be tents, and on those in thick black capital letters it says “Refugees Are Welcome”, “Support Calais Jungle”, and “Homes for Humans”. That last one is repeated several times.

I Instagrammed it, hashtagged StreetArtLondon, and felt a pride that I knew was unjustifiable. I ignored that bit. I basked in the easy, cosy warmth of virtue by association, as though the coincidental proximity between this painting and my home said something fundamental about me as a person. As though those artists had done me a favour by painting words I believed in on a wall to save me the trouble of being brave or strong or smart enough to paint or say or defend them on my own. I could just Instagram theirs, shut my door behind me and enjoy a self-satisfied pat on the back.

On the Sunday after the U.S. election I walked out into the grey November drizzle pulling my hood down over my eyes. I turned to close the door behind me and stopped. Pushed my hood back off my face. I stood and stared and felt a deadweight drop painfully into the bottom of my stomach.

Black paint blocked out the words Refugees Are Welcome. And the words Support Calais Jungle. Black paint also blocked out, specifically, the word Humans in Homes for Humans. That bit made me feel nauseous. I stood on the pavement for what felt like a long time and let the anger spread through my body because I liked the way it was thawing the numbness I had felt all week. In my inability to comprehend or make better what was pouring from the TV, the radio, newspapers, magazines, Twitter, my Facebook feed, people’s faces, I had shut down. Disengaged.

But there in the rain I stared at the black paint over the letters and felt myself wake up a little. Reignite. I spent that entire Sunday watching people look up at the wall and then straight back down. Pull their hoods a little further over their eyes, walk a little faster. Tug their children’s hands a little harder.

So I Instagrammed it, hashtagged RefugeesAreWelcome and felt a disgust that I knew was inadequate. Each day since then I have walked past the painting on my way to and from the bus stop and battled with what it means to do so. What it means to walk on. By my own lazy logic I am hateful by association and the coincidental proximity between this vandalism and my home says something fundamental about me as a person.

Now, and always, silence is acceptance. Inaction is an invitation and complacency is complicity. This is no time to disengage. It’s no time to opt out or shut down or avoid discussing what is complicated and uncomfortable. It is time to be emboldened by the realisation that politics is not something that happens in far away countries or behind closed doors or on the news. It’s something that happens on your doorstep, regardless of whether or not that’s inconvenient for you because you’re about to miss your bus.

I am still reeling alongside much of the world and there’s a lot I don’t know or understand. But I know that I vehemently reject the notion that any people are Humans. I know that I am unwilling to look up and straight back down, to pull my hood further over my eyes, and merely to walk on. And that knowledge is enough, for now at least, to be my starting point.

“There Are Millions of Girls Like Me, and We’re Not In School”

An African proverb says if you educate a man you educate an individual, but if you educate a woman, you educate a nation. In fact, studies have shown that when an investment is made in the education of girls, not only does it benefit the economy of the country but that education results in women having healthier families and with a much higher likelihood of them prioritizing the education of their children. Women who are given educations have been shown to also improve their communities and to educate the women around them increasing the benefits of that initial investment substantially.

Last month UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, released a report showing that after 4 years of the conflict 3.7 of the 6 million school-aged children under their mandate have no school to go to. This means in addition to all the barriers that exist for young girls such as trauma, family obligations, language, and child marriage that exist in the refugee camp,s many will not even have the option to go to school. The report also found that refugee children are five times more likely to be out of school than the global average. Worse, for those still caught in the conflict in Aleppo, enrollment is as low as 6%.

Prior to the Syrian war, Syria had one of the most revered educational systems with “almost all Syrian children enrolled in primary school and literacy rates at 95% for 15-24 year olds.” Their baccalaureate was known as the hardest giving Syrian students a golden ticket to most of the Arab universities. In Lebanon today, almost one in four people are a refugee, whether Syrian or Palestinian, and they make up a large portion of nation’s population. While Lebanon’s Ministry of Education and Higher Education has implemented programs to try and integrate refugees into their schools, the system is struggling to keep up with the increasing numbers of students and now nearly half of the 500,000 Syrian school-aged children are out of school, some never having stepped foot into a classroom.

“And my grandmother said to me ‘but Aya you are getting water and food,what would you rather have water and food or school?’ and I wanted to scream at her ‘school! I want to be a pediatrician and not a mother at only 15!’ instead I said ‘but [grandma] why is the world making me choose when I need all of them to survive.'”

These chilling words representing the sentiments of so many young Syrian girls were spoken as part of a performance art piece at the Global Citizen World On Stage event in New York City on September 22nd, 2016 the event focusing on music, advocacy, and impact. View the entire powerful performance in the video below:

While this war may be the childhood for many of these young girls, it is essential for us to not allow this generation of young women to miss out on education, we must use our voices to advocate for them, to have schools available in refugee camps or bridge programs for the refugees living outside of camps supporting the countries hosting refugees Ministries of Education, giving these young women the education and power needed to educate their families, friends, communities, and generation so that when it comes time to rebuild their Syria they are ready.

Young school girls under a sign in Aleppo, saying “Still Standing.” Source: Twitter via The Guardian.

The full UNHCR report can be found at: http://www.unhcr.org/en-us/news/press/2016/9/57d7d6f34/unhcr-reports-crisis-refugee-education.html

To learn more about what is happening in Lebanon: https://www.hrw.org/report/2016/07/19/growing-without-education/barriers-education-syrian-refugee-children-lebanon

Featured Image: Sarah North / Girls’ Globe.
Video: Recorded by Raya Cupler at Global Citizen: World On Stage.

Reflections on the Refugee Crisis from the UN General Assembly Week

I live in Sweden and naturally, the refugee crisis has become a very important matter to me. There has been a lot of hate among the Swedes, which mainly has its origin in incorrect data and fear of the unknown. After spending a day at the UN Headquarters, I have gained a lot of important insights on the matter. I will share some of my highlights of the day, interviews from inspiring and influential people and important remarks and perspectives on how to approach this complex problem.

The refugee crisis is often regarded merely as a humanitarian problem. It’s about vulnerable people that need humanitarian aid in terms of shelter, food and water. But the fact is that these peoples’ needs stretches way beyond that. Humanitarian aid is temporary, and what we really need is long terms solutions. Like Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees put it;

“We are treating the refugee crisis as a humanitarian problem, which it is, obviously, but we can’t solve it with only humanitarian resources.”

The next big challenge for us is to find a way not only to make their long and daunting journeys safer, but also to actually find a sustainable solution for the integration process and the continued lives of the refugees. If we succeed, it’s not only a big win for the migrants, but for the whole community. Here I’d like to quote the Deputy Secretary-General at the UN  Jan Eliasson; “We must not make migrants and refugees  a problem, but rather a challenge.” That statement really carries something important. If we change our mindset, we will be able to turn the horrifying consequences of war into something productive and sustainable. Challenge accepted.

In order to ensure a bright future, we must focus on the children. Today, migration often equals giving up your childhood and growing up too early. There is a huge problem in demanding kids to become adults too soon. “They are still kids. We have to give them back their childhood. It’s not enough to give them food and shelter”, said Carolyn Miles, President of Save the Children, at the UNGA event Accountability for Success in Reaching the SDGs and Strategy Goals. But Miles also pointed out that this might have a simple solution. “Sometimes it is enough to bring children together so that they can play.”

I had the privilege to meet two amazing young girls, Minahil Sarfraz and Natasha Maimba, who had to go through what no child should: escape from war. During a panel discussion, Minyhil highlighted the importance of education. “When you’re at school, you immediately feel like a child again.” I managed to get two interviews with these very inspiring girls, and the positivity and hopefulness they carry really got to me.

If we want to get everyone onboard, we need not only grassroots movements but also global leaders to act. Therefore, I would also like to feature an interview with Jan Eliasson. He encourages all of us to collaborate in order to make a difference. In the end, we can’t reach the SDG’s or help all the refugees as individuals. Together we are the strongest change makers. Let’s work together, for the refugees, for the children, for the world.

Featured image: Syrian children and youth attending informal education in Turkey. EU/ECHO/Abdurrahman Antakyali (Creative Commons)