Finding a home for the refugees who need it the most

By maintaining the level of resettlement at 520 people a year, Ireland can ensure it plays its part in implementing the Refugee Response Framework, writes Enda O’Neill.

It is easy to become hardened to statistics.

The news that the number of people forced to flee their homes has reached 65.6m, another global record, will probably not register with many of us.

Some will simply turn the page or change the channel in the presence of yet more numbers and statistics.

For others who do read or listen to the story, graphs showing even more refugees on the move because of war, conflict and persecution may prompt feelings of resignation towards a situation that the world seemingly cannot resolve.

But by the time you’ve finished this sentence, yet another person, with a face and story behind the number, will have been displaced.

That is why this year, on World Refugee Day, and indeed every day, we must all look beyond the numbers, to the people seeking safety, hope and opportunity, and try to help them. This is why I would urge you to read on.

As the UN Refugee Agency’s (UNHCR) Global Trends report shows, 2016 brought prospects of an improving situation for refugees and the forcibly displaced worldwide.

Yes, there were 65.6m refugees, internally displaced people, and asylum-seekers around the world at the end of 2016-some 300,000 more than the year previous. However, annual growth in the worldwide forced displacement total has slowed to less than 1m for the first time since 2012.

Meanwhile, the EU’s trust funds for Syria and Africa will help secure better healthcare, education and economic opportunities for refugees and the communities they live in.

Together with an increase in funding commitments to refugee situations by many countries, including Ireland, they should complement the increase we see in resettlement numbers.

Some 37 countries, including Ireland, accepted 189,300 refugees for resettlement in 2016. This is far less than the 1.2m refugees who are in need of a way out of their current desperate situations. However, it is more the double the numbers who departed in 2015.

These developments are significant, because they indicate that industrialised countries are finally getting the message that low- and middle-income countries, who host 84% of the world’s refugees, cannot do it by themselves.

More importantly, it points to how we finally begin delivering a more sustainable and humanitarian response to refugees everywhere.

To understand why, we have to go back to September 2016, when 193 countries came together to sign the New York Declaration on Refugees and Migrants.

Despite a burgeoning climate of nationalism and xenophobia in some parts of the world, David Donoghue, Ireland’s permanent representative to the UN, and his Jordanian counterpart led negotiations on a declaration reaffirming the principles of the 1951 refugee convention to protect the rights of all refugees.

It expressed the political will of world leaders to save lives, protect rights, and share responsibility on a global scale. It also emphasised the need to address the root causes of large movements of refugees.

That means using diplomacy to prevent crisis situations before they happen.

Significantly, it also cleared the way for a Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF), with specific actions to ease pressure on countries hosting the most refugees. The CRRF commits to a “whole of society approach”.

It recognises the responsibility and ability that all actors have to protect refugees. This includes international organisations, the private sector, civil society, and you and me.

Increasing resettlement numbers, as Ireland has done, was identified as one of the most effective ways of easing pressure on host countries, such as Lebanon, where most of the world’s refugees live.

Emphasis was also put on supporting and developing the self-reliance of refugees, making sure they can go to school and work, and ultimately give back to their new homes and thrive, instead of languishing in camps.

This framework is already being tested in five African countries, including Djibouti, where refugee teachers are being trained so they can make sure all refugee children go to school.

Uganda has integrated refugees into national development plans, while in Ethiopia, 10,000 hectares of land that can be irrigated is being made available so 20,000 refugees and the host communities they live in can grow crops.

By maintaining the current level of resettlement at 520 people a year, Ireland can also ensure it plays its part in implementing the Framework and further protecting refugees.

But like Uganda and Ethiopia — countries with whom Ireland has significant bilateral relationships — we all need to work more to ensure refugees feel part and parcel of Irish society.

To this end, the Government’s new Migrant Integration Strategy is to be welcomed for its focus on community organisations and civil society.

In particular, the creation of a community integration fund will provide crucial support to local communities and NGOs proactively supporting refugees and migrants coming to Ireland and integration.

However, barriers remain, particularly in the area of family reunification. Imagine constantly fearing for family members for whom you feel responsible but can’t help bring to safety in Ireland.

Constant worry and guilt about those left behind can be a real impediment when rebuilding your life in your adopted home. UNHCR’s research shows that refugees integrate better when their families are with them.

One way of resolving this would be by providing these vulnerable family members with an opportunity to join their loved ones in Ireland through a humanitarian visa scheme. Additionally, a private sponsorship scheme based on the Canadian model, which allows citizens to sponsor refugees to come to Canada, would give Irish communities a stake in the process.

UNHCR and several communities in Ireland, from tech companies in Dublin to judo clubs in Cork, have already looked behind the numbers and witnessed the incredible courage and tenacity of refugees who have become their friends, neighbours, and colleagues.

Having lost their homes, their work, and sometimes their families, many have begun finding a way to get going again, giving back to their host communities.

We want all Irish people to really see and support refugees too. In countless communities around the world, business people, churches, teachers, journalists, and many more are joining together to provide refuge to the displaced and foster inclusion in their societies.

This is Ireland’s opportunity to do to do so too.

Enda O’Neill is Head of Office at UNHCR Ireland

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