Strong leadership is the antidote to fear

A mother and her children at the Berkasavo border crossing between Serbia and Croatia, where thousands of refugees travelled daily on their journey to safety in Europe. Politicians lack the necessary leadership and vision to generate lasting solutions to support refugees in Europe, writes Director of Cordaid Simone Filippini. Photo by: Meabh Smith / Trócaire / CC BY

Has fear become a sentiment that characterizes the Dutch people? You would almost think so. Nine hundred of 1,000 Dutch people surveyed want the migrants who are currently arriving to leave again as quickly as possible, according to a major European study. And one in five believes that people from war zones should not be offered care, even though not doing so is a violation of international law.

And yet I do not believe that our country is as anti-refugee as this picture suggests. Sure, we are critical. Many are right to be concerned. But in the meantime hundreds of thousands of compatriots are rolling up their sleeves and helping the asylum seekers. In a short period of time, 320,000 Cordaid donors — concerned people, like everyone else  — have donated almost 1 million euros ($1.06 million) to support the refugees. But these silent helpers are not making the news.

What are the politicians doing? They are playing along with this sentiment of fear and even feeding it, and they lack the necessary leadership and vision to generate lasting solutions. ‘‘Basic emergency services” is the best they have come up with for the refugees, and their “discouraging” initiatives have taken absurd proportions. Wait in a container or tent for a year or so? Sure, why not? These are panic measures, pure and simple.

Strong leadership is the antidote to fear. Anyone with even a hint of a feeling for geopolitics knows that a tragedy is unfolding in the Middle East that will leave an enduring mark on Europe in the coming decades.

“He who speaks the loudest has the most to hide,” my grandma used to say when we had an argument. I still think about that sometimes. Because while the refugee debate hardens in the Netherlands, more than 4 million refugees are being driven deeper into impoverishment in what we have begun to call “the region.” Another 8 million Syrians are stuck in their own country, sucked into the maelstrom of a global conflict.

I was recently in “the region” again — in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan — to see what more we can do as a development organization to help people in need. These host countries are going to pieces as a result of their solidarity. It is a miracle how people are patiently and generously willing to share the little they have with traumatized newcomers. They share their energy, their water and their houses, and still 14 percent of the refugees end up in formal refugee camps. They share their villages, their hospitals, and their work.

It is not enough. The Lebanese Beqaa Valley alone — which is home to 1.2 million refugees — has 1,700 informal camps, rows of wooden contraptions with pieces of fluttering canvas. In the winter, mothers shovel snow from the roof to prevent the tents from collapsing and burying the children in snow. In the summer, there is nowhere to hide from the scorching sun.

The waste services in villages and cities are working overtime. Schools are running four or five shifts a day to accommodate the Syrian schoolchildren. In vain. Two hundred fifty thousand refugee children in Lebanon are not attending school. Local authorities are completely overburdened and the local population is losing patience, because their children are receiving fewer lessons, the poor health care infrastructure is strained, and Syrian refugees are taking over the illegal and underpaid jobs of the Lebanese.

Four million refugees in the region — that means 4 million semi-permanent new inhabitants who often have to scrape by, often for years (the average refugee worldwide is on the road for 17 years), just to survive in a system of failing emergency care. No work permit, no status, no opportunity to contribute to the country in which they are staying. No prospects.

This massive influx of refugees is a potential source of a new conflict — especially in a country like Lebanon, which is just recovering from a civil war.

The Netherlands is set to chair the European Union starting January 2016. That is a golden opportunity to demonstrate leadership and direct sentiments instead of playing along with them. A golden opportunity to come up with real solutions.

In the Netherlands and Europe we need to be brave enough to admit that this crisis is going to last for years. Do not invest in the most basic emergency accommodations for refugees — invest in a meaningful and dignified life. Provide them with the opportunity to integrate and to work, to contribute to the host country’s prosperity, and to help rebuild their home country. Do not lock them up in asylum seeker centers for years, but make immediate use of their talents and potential. Integrate them into neighborhoods, spread across the Netherlands, let their children go to school, provide language teaching, let the parents work.

Collaborate with housing corporations, with host families, with schools, companies, mosques, and churches. Europe is big and has a big enough heart. A big enough heart to do it better this time than in the 1960s and 1970s when we hid away the guest workers — those who were so important to our prosperity — in ghettos and gave them the low-skilled jobs that we were too good for.

And in the region? People there also have to realize that the refugees are there to stay for the time being and that long-term solutions are needed. As a result, “the region” needs large-scale and multiannual assistance, from Europe as well — in order to prevent millions of people, refugees, and host communities from withering away in despair, and to boost emergency aid.

As chair of the EU, the Netherlands must engage in constructive talks with Jordan, Lebanon, northern Iraq and Turkey and support these countries’ efforts to absorb refugees. The EU, the United Nations, the World Bank and other investment banks need to find out what is needed to strengthen and adapt the education system, the health care system, and the labor market in these countries for the newcomers. In doing so, we must ensure that the host countries, which are already investing so much to accommodate refugees, are not saddled with an additional debt burden. Discuss with these host countries what it will take to give the refugees legal residency. Because the influx of refugees into Europe will not end as long as millions of people continue to have no prospects.

Providing support to communities in the Middle East to give refugees some prospects is the best way to invest in peace and security. And the best way to provide refugees with the opportunity to someday go back — without any outside help — to their country of origin. Let’s make every refugee an ambassador for the host country!

In the study mentioned above, the same Dutch people surveyed said they believe that actively supporting social and economic development in the region is a solution. Well-spotted, I would say. Now for the politicians!

Join the Devex community and access more in-depth analysis, breaking news and business advice — and a host of other services — on international development, humanitarian aid and global health.

About the author

  • Simonefilippini edited

    Simone Filippini

    Simone Filippini is CEO of Cordaid, the main Dutch development organization, since July 2013. A former diplomat, Filippini describes herself as a passionate, unconventional broker who takes a business approach to the nonprofit sector.