From protecting borders, to protecting people

By Simon Missiri 21 March 2016

Will Europe turn the migration crisis into an opportunity to build peace? How can the humanitarian community help build inclusive communities to support conflict resolution and build cultures of peace? Photo by: Fotomovimiento / CC BY-NC-ND

Ten years from now, will we see peace being restored; people rebuilding their lives, their futures and developing prosperity at home? Will people who fled their homelands be able to return? Will Europe turn the migration crisis into an opportunity to build peace? If the answer is yes, then we can talk about success.

In the present, we are witnessing a tragedy unfold. People moving far away from their homes, their cultures and their ancestors’ soil — escaping insecurity that threatens the lives of their loved ones and their own. Many say they want to return home when peace resumes, but the reality of instability and conflict — such as the war raging in Syria, with no end in sight — means most have left their homelands permanently.

This does not just affect the families that have been displaced, but the cycle of development in communities and entire countries. When a nation’s citizens — skilled laborers, doctors, children who will become future leaders — exodus from their homelands, who will be left to rebuild communities when and if peace resumes?

The tragedy is made greater in Europe by the man-made obstacles that further endanger vulnerable migrants’ already perilous journeys. The erection of barriers does not prevent people from fleeing for safety: 1 million people proved this last year despite fences, scenes of tear gas and squalid camps. It is anticipated that 1 million more will attempt the same journey in 2016.

I find it hard to witness the current state of affairs — where human beings at their most vulnerable have become bargaining chips in politics. I worry, with you, that rhetoric has led to the growth of fear, division and polarization of host societies.

We must always put humanitarian needs first, and we must be relentless in asking others — governments, funders and decision-makers — to do the same. With the current fixation on the protection of borders, we must insist on the protection of people.

Our job as humanitarians is to protect lives and human dignity. More than 100,000 Red Cross and Red Crescent staff and volunteers are responding daily to this call in 28 countries in Europe, with a special focus on the provision of health care, lifesaving information and restoring family links.

What can we do better? What does a successful future look like?

It’s hard to speak about success when thousands of people are stranded in makeshift camps on borders without enough food, water or heat, separated from the people they love. What I can speak about are factors that will create an environment to enable the protection of people.

With all of the disruption, polarization and politicization, we must focus on helping to solve the humanitarian issues in the places people are fleeing from. This is a massive task, in dozens of countries, affecting millions of people, representing a major break down of the development and humanitarian imperative in these vast territories. We must focus — together with the international community, governments and local actors — on improving conditions on the ground so people won’t need to flee in the first place, so they can build a future at home.

In Europe, migrants who have already arrived must be protected. Fellow human beings — mothers, fathers, grandparents, children — who escaped danger at home and then survived a journey of migration fraught with unimaginable terror: near drownings, freezing temperatures, thousands of miles walked, and now indiscriminate policies of return. Again, protecting lives and human dignity must be an unconditional priority.

All of this will be for nought, however, if in the long term we do not foster peaceful integration, both ways: for migrants and local populations. With those who will stay longer, we must build bridges between cultures. We must highlight the positive side of the mass movement we are witnessing. After all, it is human migration that has been the key driver of development on our planet through centuries.

One million people came to Europe last year representing 1 million hopes and dreams of safety. They brought with them skills, courage and cultural diversity, offering these to the communities who would welcome them. Are we, the humanitarian community, ready to help build inclusive communities, to support conflict resolution, to build cultures of peace?

The road we share will be long. Together, we must prepare for a long journey.

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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Simon Missiri

Dr. Simon Missiri is the regional director for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Europe. He sets the strategic direction of the IFRC regional office for Europe in Budapest and several sub-regional and country offices (including Brussels, Athens, Moscow and Kiev), in providing IFRC support and policy work with National Red Cross Red Crescent Societies in 54 countries.

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