#AcrossBorders and destinations: How can we best help refugees on arrival?

By Musa Okwonga 14 March 2016

Syrian refugees crossing the Serbian-Croatian border. Photo by: Francesco Malavolta / IOM

The recent cluster of conflicts has seen the movement of millions of people across borders, presenting severe challenges to even the wealthiest governments and the most experienced international agencies and nongovernmental organizations.

As people migrate away from their homes seeking safety and better lives, the search for sustainable solutions to their plight continues apace. One part of that search is how best to assist them upon their arrival in a new country, a question that is currently taxing governments, NGOs, private companies and ordinary citizens alike.

Luca Dall’Oglio, CEO of USAIM — the U.S. nonprofit arm of the International Organization for Migration, that aims to ensure that “humane and orderly migration benefits migrants and society” — told Devex that he sees the present efforts as “chaotic.”

This is partly due to the lack of a unified response to the arrival of migrants and refugees in Europe. Some countries — including Hungary, Bulgaria and Slovenia — have put up physical barriers to prevent their entry, while others such as Macedonia have only allowed passage to migrants from Iraq and Syria. Others still, notably Germany, have accepted large numbers, with over 1 million arrivals in the past year, while being critical of other similarly wealthy West European nations for not following suit.

Moving from ‘panic mode’ to strategy

If we are to move away from what Dall’Oglio described as “panic mode,” it appears that two things are urgently needed. First, a clear, long-term strategy; and secondly, sustainable and flexible streams of funding.

The High Level Panel on Humanitarian Financing, in its January 2016 report to the secretary-general, noted that the world spends $25 billion each year “to provide lifesaving assistance to 125 million people devastated by wars and natural disasters.” But it estimates that this figure is $15 billion short of the annual amount needed and in the area of migration, Dall’Oglio told Devex, the situation is even worse, with funding falling below 50 percent of what is required.

The European Union has recently taken steps to make the number of people arriving in Europe more manageable, pledging $11 billion to aid refugees from Syria by 2020, $6 billion of which will be delivered this year alone. Much of this funding will be directed toward programs in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, with the aim of providing education for children and economic opportunity for adults. According to official figures from the Office for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, these three countries have taken in a combined total of 4.4 million Syrian refugees, although the estimated number is far higher.

Yet even if the sums received by various bodies are sufficient, those bodies must free enough money to use for evolving needs, in a way that deals accurately with problems on the ground. This means less earmarking for specific projects, and more multiyear funding.

Tamira Gunzburg, Brussels director at ONE, expressed some optimism in both respects. Commenting shortly after the EU announced the allocation of an additional 700 million euros ($778 million) to support refugees within member state borders, she told Devex that “there is a big temptation to use external funding — funding that’s meant for overseas development assistance — in order to pay for those costs, because it’s a vulnerable budget line without a strong constituency … That’s a worry, but the good news is that [the EU] for the moment is not doing that.”

Not only must adequate and flexible funding be provided, but there must also be a coherent, long-term strategy to address the arrival of refugees. This includes a better framework for the allocation of refugees between member states, whose likelihood is greater should Turkey manage to reduce the number of people coming into Europe.

The success of the current pledge will therefore be of paramount importance. Any long-term strategy will necessarily be a complex one, involving a large number of actors from different sectors, often working collaboratively.

At the governmental level, there is some concern as to how some states are prioritizing the needs of their new arrivals. In Germany, for example, many feel that not enough is being done to reunite refugees, particularly minors, with their families. This problem can be solved, as recently witnessed in Canada, by speeding up the time that it takes to process visa applications. And, pursuant to this aim, the German authorities have now made this procedure simpler.

Volunteers stepping forward

As part of the overall strategy, there is a vital role to be played not only by NGOs but by ordinary citizens. A striking example of an approach taken by volunteers is Berlin Refugee Help, a Facebook group set up by Nine Yamamoto in July 2015 to help refugees who had just arrived in Germany’s capital. Yamamoto, an artist and media theorist, had noticed that many refugees needed help with translation when visiting LaGeSo, Berlin’s State Office for Health and Welfare. So she assisted refugees in a project called the Refugee Phrasebook, “a multilingual tool aiming to empower refugees who just arrived in Europe by providing basic useful vocabulary.”

Its phrases are now available in Arabic, Farsi, Finnish and Spanish, among other languages. The Facebook group, with over 2,500 members, now arranges for refugees to be welcomed at the city’s various train stations with clothes, food and drink, and is also a hub for organizations providing medical services and support for women’s rights.

Collaborating with the private sector

There have been frequent calls for corporations to play their part, with few more emphatic than Déirdre de Búrca, World Vision Brussels and EU Representation’s director of advocacy and justice for children.

“World Vision is absolutely convinced that, without the support and assistance of the private sector, we’re not going to effectively address many of the humanitarian crises that confront us at the moment,” she told Devex. “We certainly welcome the inclusion of the private sector in the discussions as part of the World Humanitarian Summit [in May in Istanbul, Turkey], but we also want to be assured that the private sector will respect the fundamental principles of humanitarian law.”

World Vision’s Déirdre de Búrca talks to Devex associate editor Richard Jones.

As it stands, many businesses have been reluctant to enter this space, perhaps due to a desire to remain apolitical. Yet, despite these concerns, there is still a huge role for the private sector to play: whether through job creation, by making its existing services cheaper, adapting those services for refugees’ specific requirements, or coming up with new ideas altogether. Most straightforwardly, the private sector can provide employment. Recently in Berlin, the German government — through its Federal Employment Agency — collaborated with 211 companies to host a job fair, which was attended by over 4,000 job-seekers.

Moreover, given that refugees need mobile phones to keep in touch with their relatives and ready access to cash, private companies are often best placed to help them. For example, mobile provider Ericsson has collaborated with Refugees United to reconnect families separated when fleeing across borders, in a project that has already served hundreds of thousands of users. Meanwhile in Jordan, a partnership between the government and Cairo Amman Bank has allowed refugees to withdraw money without the need for a PIN code or bank card. The service is now being used by tens of thousands of families, and is capable of being replicated in other similar scenarios.

Refugees also rely heavily on money transfer services. However, the transaction fees are sometimes prohibitive; and in such cases, where the ability to assist collides too abruptly with the profit motive, policymakers must intervene. To this end, the High-Level Panel on Humanitarian Financing has recommended that money transfer agencies reduce or even waive their fees in times of crisis.

Private companies are also using technological innovation to address the migration crisis. In summer 2014, Mike Butcher, editor-at-large of TechCrunch, set up Techfugees, an online community of tech startups and developers, as a hub to develop creative solutions for some of the problems that refugees face. One of the initiatives it has recently championed is MONI, a Finnish company that aims to provide micro-banking services for anyone anywhere in the world; another is the Refugee Aid App, which provides “a single point for refugees to find information, connection and support and a single point for NGOs and charities to share their resources with refugees.”

Looking ahead to May — and beyond

As more refugees settle in the countries of their final destination — and the rate of their arrival slows down — host nations will turn their attention to longer-term solutions.

There will be a major focus of these efforts at the first ever World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul, Turkey, in May, where the European Commission has recommended action in the areas of “efficient and sufficient funding” and “partnership with the development community,” among others.

As part of this, many expect more incentives for private companies to contribute expertise, as well as a multiyear funding program that accounts for the significant overlap between humanitarian and development work. And beyond May’s summit, many expect governments to make greater investment in education and training so that refugees are better equipped for their new job market.

We might also expect to see more funding for housing, following the example set by the European Investment Bank in December 2015, when it loaned up to 120 million euros to the German Federal State of Brandenburg for the refurbishment and construction of refugee accommodation.

This and other steps currently under consideration should lead to a scenario where there is not only a greater diversity of donors to address the refugee situation, but also a series of sustainable, flexible financing mechanisms that will more effectively support solutions to evolving problems.

What are the most effective and sustainable ways of helping refugees on their arrival? Have your say by leaving a comment below.

Across Borders is a monthlong online conversation hosted by Devex and partners — World Vision, the European Commission's Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department, the U.S. nonprofit partner of the International Organization for Migration and United Nations Volunteers — to analyze and amplify the discussion on global migration and current refugee crises through the lens of global security, development cooperation and humanitarian aid work, and more. Visit the campaign site and join the conversation on social media tagging @devex and #AcrossBorders.

About the author

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Musa Okwonga

Musa Okwonga is a journalist, poet, broadcaster, musician, and PR consultant currently based in Berlin, Germany. He has written for several publications, including The Guardian, The New Statesman, ESPN and The New York Times, and is the author of two books on football, the first of which, A Cultured Left Foot, was nominated for the 2008 William Hill Sports Book of the Year. Find out more about his work at www.okwonga.com.


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