How to Cope with Forced Migration

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As 2018 came to a close with more reports of boats full of migrants capsizing in the Mediterranean, it was evident to anyone paying attention that refugee resettlement is going to be one of the defining issues of our time. Three years since the refugee crisis in Europe first gained traction as a news story, the world has not come to any definitive solution to this issue or even fully come to grips with the scale at which forced migrations are taking place. With the US changing its stance on military presence in Afghanistan, managing the expected influx of refugees is an immediate policy concern for Pakistan as well.

 

According to the UNHCR, there are currently 68.5 million forcibly displaced people worldwide of whom 25.4 million are counted as refugees. Most of these individuals are hosted, not by developed countries as some narratives of the issue seem to suggest, but in neighboring countries that have burgeoning populations and economic problems of their own. Contrary to popular belief, most displaced individuals go to the closest safe location they can find. Braving dangerous journeys to countries that have a vastly different language, culture, political and economic set up is not a choice made by most.

 

Nevertheless, regardless of where refugees are hosted, their lives are generally lived in limbo. The standard practice to dealing with a wave of incoming refugees is to put them up camps – assortments of makeshift living spaces with little in the way of educational or professional opportunity. Host governments deliberately cut off refugee camps from the local population through either distance or security measures or both. Most refugees do not have the right to work in their host countries and must rely on handouts or informal trade to survive. And once opportunities become scarce enough, some look to Europe and elsewhere where they are faced with a fresh set of ordeals.

 

By establishing international bodies such as the UNHCR, setting up camps and providing aid, governments that support violence and deny climate change try to absolve themselves of responsibility for creating circumstances due to which such vast numbers of people are forced out of their homes. However, camps and aid provision were designed as stopgap measures for temporary emergencies and are now falling short in the face of continued displacement that can last several years or even be permanent.

 

The debates on what to do about refugees are usually missing the crucial voices of displaced people themselves. They are turned into helpless victims rather than survivors of difficult circumstances, many of whom have viable education, livelihoods and skill sets. The support extended to them is therefore limited to subsistence with educational or professional development traditionally being viewed as an expensive, impractical idea which could end up causing security and economic problems.

 

It is of course nearly impossible to have a one size fits all solution to forced migration. The reasons people leave their homes are different, the timelines within which they can return and the countries where they end up either temporarily or permanently are vastly different too. One thing is evident though: the current set up of handling incoming refugees are not working for most of them and there needs to be a change.

 

There are examples of other policy solutions which seek to give refugees independent means of supporting themselves. Uganda for example, more than a million refugees who have been forced to relocate there due to the South Sudan and Congolese conflicts. These individuals are granted the right to work which has created economic opportunities for the local population as well. In neighboring Kenya and in Ethiopia similar policies are being explored to allow refugees to become self reliant. Jordan, which hosts a vast bulk of Syrians fleeing the war, has also slowly begun to provide employment opportunities to refugees who have been there for several years and are no longer eligible for aid.

 

Developing alternative support mechanisms however is not a simple process and along the way there are a multitude of concerns that must be resolved. Refugees resettled in Europe face language and cultural barriers to assimilation while in developing countries there is an ever present shortage of resources. Experts now suggest that rather than sinking money into camps and hand outs, developed countries should fund programs that will allow refugees to become self reliant in their neighboring countries where there are fewer cultural differences and it is in turn easier to become part of the local economic system. This also simplifies their return to their own countries when or if the issues that forced them out get resolved. There also needs to be much more research focused on improving refugee services and looking at the economic and social impact of their assimilation into host countries. Concurrently of course, there must also be greater political will to resolve such issues so that fewer people are forced to migrate in the first place.

 

All this is highly relevant to Pakistan since we host upwards of a million Afghan refugees. The numbers fluctuate from time to time but for the past 40 years, Pakistan has struggled to form a cohesive policy to ensure the well being of these individuals while securing the border and appeasing internal concerns.  Many Afghan refugees have been in Pakistan long enough to have fully assimilated yet their status here is always precarious. Like Uganda, Jordan and others, Pakistan too must accept that many of the refugees living here are here for good and enabling them to become economically productive taxpayers is better for our country than having them live in continual dependence and upheaval.

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