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On World Refugee Day: A Historic Crisis Without a Historic Response

June 20, 2017

By Hannah Darnton - Skoll Foundation

Every minute of the day, conflict and persecution forces 20 people from their homes. By the end of today’s World Refugee Day, nearly 30,000 people will find themselves displaced. 2016 saw more people fleeing their homes than ever in human history. Syria continues to top the list with 12 million displaced. Conflict in Colombia has produced 7.7 million displaced. Afghanistan: 4.6 million. Iraq: 4.2 million. South Sudan: 3.3 million. In total, we now have 65.6 million displaced people worldwide, of which 22.5 million are refugees. The UN Global Trends report released this week pointed out that 37 countries have taken in refugees—84 percent have resettled in developing nations close to areas of conflict.

The numbers are staggering and the desperate need for innovative solutions grows by the day. A conversation at the Skoll World Forum, Rethinking Refugee Response and Support, explored emerging trends in the space, and Hannah Darnton, Skoll Analyst, has followed the issue closely. Zach Slobig, Skoll Editor, checked in with Hannah to get a sense of the challenges around effective response and how the Skoll Foundation is approaching the issue.

Zach Slobig: You wrote a great piece a year ago looking at the need for aggressive innovation to begin to address the worsening refugee crisis. How are things looking compared to the summer of 2016?

Hannah Darnton: I think there are at least two conversations going on. One contingent is adamant that we are gaining traction in the space, we’ve identified the key obstacles, and are taking the appropriate actions to address them. Others suggest that we’re talking in an echo chamber; attempting to address complex problems with outdated solutions, and that we really need to figure out how to get more creative about solving this problem.

I can only speak to the trend over the past couple of years, but I have definitely seen a more concerted push for innovative solutions, increased collaboration, and cross-sector awareness and participation. While these developments are positive, they aren’t enough, and we have a long way to go.

Zach: Back in September of this year, the UN General Assembly adopted a set of commitments: The New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants. The next step would be the signing of two “global compacts” in 2018. What effect do these agreements have?

Hannah: The UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants and the corresponding New York Declaration, were triggered last year largely in response to the international sector’s failure to adequately respond to the refugee crisis. The global refugee population is the highest on record, totaling at 22.5 million people at the end of 2016. 5.5 million refugees are from Syria alone. As Philippe Bolopion of Human Rights Watch stated, “We’re facing an historic crisis and the response is not historic.”

Legal frameworks for a collective response are critical. 193 member states came together and acknowledged that traditional humanitarian response is insufficient, and adopted the New York Declaration. That’s a groundbreaking first step. The Global Compacts are another step in the right direction, yet the lack of concrete national commitments and the fact that the compacts are not legally binding, is extremely troubling. I think there are major discussions still to be had around enforcement and States’ realistic abilities to hit specific targets, given shifting national priorities and politics.

Zach: You recently moderated a panel discussion at the Advancing Good Governance Seminar in Oxford around innovations in that effort to integrate refugees into local economies. What promising signs did you see there?

Hannah: This is a key concern for host nations. Countries such as Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey have been disproportionately affected by the sheer number of refugees now residing in their borders relative to their respective national population sizes. In Lebanon, one out of every six people is a refugee. While the UN maintains that voluntary repatriation remains the main solution, the number of individuals returning to their country of origin represent less than five per cent of the overall refugee population since 2013. Resettlement or local integration are cited as the next best options, yet resettlement numbers remain small and the majority of refugees are forced to remain in their original host countries. Approximately 11.6 million refugees remained in protracted refugee situations in 2016.

These host countries face the challenge of how to accommodate this influx, regardless of their own economic and infrastructural limitations. Looking beyond Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey; the least developed countries, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cameroon, Chad, Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan and Uganda currently are home to 4.9 million refugees, and have traditionally had the least resources to respond to the needs to these refugees. The provision of aid and assistance is only further complicated by the fact that the majority of refugees actually live outside of camps; of the Syrian refugee population, approximately 90 percent live in urban, peri-urban, and rural settings, with only 10 percent residing in camps.

While requiring a complex, multi-dimensional approach to address the legal, economic, social and cultural contexts of host nations, promising innovations in the field focus increasingly on local economic integration and refugee self-resilience. This benefits both refugee populations and national economies. It’s in these areas that we’ve seen the role of social entrepreneurship emerge in response to the refugee crisis.

Three of the four organizations on the panel I moderated last week focus specifically on local social and economic integration and/or business creation. Asylum Access, for example, provides direct legal aid for refugees to help them obtain the right to work, while also advocating for national policy changes to improve refugee rights. Refugee Open Ware Labs harnesses technology for good to support and builds labs, provide training, and help innovators commercialize their products: acting as a hardware incubator and social innovation hub. Ushahidi builds technology to help disenfranchised and displaced communities raise their voices, while providing a platform through which governments and organizations can include more people in the conversation. The fourth organization, Talent Beyond Boundaries, focuses more on global access to work by placing refugees in jobs abroad; expanding labor mobility pathways by moving refugees through immigration pathways for skilled workers.

Zach: So how is the Portfolio and Investments team at Skoll looking at the foundation’s role in supporting innovative solutions to the crisis?

Hannah: We are currently conducting a landscape analysis of the sector writ large to better understand how social entrepreneurship plays a role, and to determine how Skoll can best support creative and durable solutions. We aren’t experts and we’ve got a lot to learn, so we’re looking to partners working in the field to map out key areas of focus and innovative solutions that work.

Beyond that, we’ll continue to promote and encourage cross-sector collaboration, the sharing of information, and the inclusion of refugees in the conversation. Obtaining visas for refugee participation at the Skoll World Forum proved more than difficult, and we need to get creative to ensure they have a seat at the table.

And finally, we hope to engage with our current portfolio of Skoll Awardees to address the oft-overlooked, disproportionate effect of forced migration on women and girls due to hardships such as the lack of access to health care, limited educational opportunities, and sexual and gender-based violence. According to UN Women, 60 percent of preventable maternal deaths take place in settings of conflict, displacement, and disasters. We’re ready to work with our partners on all facets of this issue and we look forward to sharing all we learn along the way.

Image (cc) F. Noy, UNHCR 

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