Compassion for refugees is important, but it must be the spark that leads to action and change
Every year, on June 20th, World Refugee Day allows some space for us all to consider the millions of people fleeing human rights violations, wars, climate disasters, or other horrors that make life in their homes impossible.
Today more than 108 million people have been forced to flee their homes.
This year’s theme is “compassion” – a vital emotion - that allows human beings to stand in solidarity with one another regardless of color, race, gender, religion or nationality. Compassion breeds solidarity and this is the better side of our collective humanity. With it we see people’s suffering, demonstrate concern, lend a welcoming kind word, and open our hearts and even homes to refugees. Compassion is not pity and cannot become pity. Pity does not help us.
Compassion must be founded upon the certain fact that refugees are only as we all are – people with dignity, agency, hopes, skills, creativity, and potential – only for the fact that have been pushed from their own homes by extraordinary circumstances. They can be doctors, teachers or nurses.
No-one – no-one- ever wanted to become a refugee.
But our own human compassion today is itself being undermined by the many discriminations, restrictions and exclusions that limit refugees from accessing their rights. These cultural and political man-made difficulties make refugees’ lives harder. They also turn into propaganda that make us forget that refugees are equal human beings.
Compassion alone is not enough. We need to recognize that even well thought-out policies can end up degrading refugees and undermining their rights. As women refguees ourselves, we have felt the hope to arrive to a country of “refuge” after living the horrors of war and deprivation back-home. But we have also seen first-hand the different pain and trauma many refugees endure in fighting to secure basic rights and needs in their host-country. Basic like securing a home, work and education.
Our own refugee-led organisation has also helped hundreds of women and orphaned children – who survived immense pain and trauma back home -to attain their legal status so that they can enjoy work or education and fully integrate into their host-countries rather than being vilified. What refugees need most today is to turn compassion into action and tangible efforts that enable them to live with more dignity and to realize their full potential.
We ourselves are refugees and female activists leading refugee-led organizations, and we have seen first-hand many examples of ‘compassion-turned-action’ everyday in many places around the world, including in areas where its is least expected. We are really encouraged to see people continuing to welcome refugees into their lands and homes, and who protest unjust laws and policies that restrict refugee rights and freedoms. We also encouraged by the partnerships growing between refugee-led organizations and scholars around the world.
But there is more to do. Here are a few tangible ways that we can translate compassion to action.
Listening to refugees
Refugees have voice, but they need spaces where their voice can be heard. While many host governments, international NGOs, and host communities, are undoubtedly working on improving refugees’ lives those at the forefront of the response are always the refugees themselves. When crises strike refugee leaders are by definition in the eye of that storm. They have intimate and immediate lived knowledge of it. They have strong networks within their communities. They can reach most impacted people quickly. The trust they have built within their communities enable them to reach those who traditional aid organizations cannot. Refugee leaders work quickly and ensure no one is left behind.
Refugee-led organizations have also been closely working with forced migration scholars to better understand the refugee community. They are already doing the hard work to holistically understand the socio-economic needs and strengthens in order to help governments and societies better integrate refugees. At the Global Refugee Network, for example, we have studied how women refugees have found work doubly hard.
Despite the proven successes of our efforts, our work is often overlooked. Refugee leaders rarely receive the necessary trust or financial support from donors. We rarely sit around high-level meeting tables that determine refugee laws and policy. Only two percent of participants at the Global Refugee Forum are actually refugees despite our repeated calls to ensure a minimum of 25% participation. This needs to change.
Even when refugees do participate in these forums, we are often “spoken for”, “spoken at” or “spoken over”. Our voices are often sidelined, twisted, paraphrased – they can feel stolen. Governments and donors must invest more in the work of refugee-led organizations, so that they can scale up their own efforts to support their own communities. Refugees’ voices must be at the heart of decision making. We will only fulfil our central rallying cry “nothing about us without us” when refugee leaders are involved in all areas of global refugee management.
Integrating refugees in society
True compassion can only honestly manifest when refugees are fully intergrated into the societies that host them. Integration marks an end to one’s “refugee” status, and the beginning of being treated as equal human beings with full rights and responsibilities. Compassion without belonging feels like pity. Governments must provide refugees with enough resources to help them live in dignity as they settle in. There are really smart and concrete ways that governments can use law and policy to help match refugees’ wide skills to the job market, so that they can rebuild their lives while contributing so much to society in their host country.
Beyond services, host governments can lead the way in educating society about refugees, using real and data-driven evidence about the social and economic opportunities that refugees typically bring with them. With so much sadness, the opposite is often more true: that refugees are instead vilified, and shown up as “competition” against communities already settled, which stokes xenophobic attacks and even killings.
Compassion is important. But true compassion is an action, not just a word. We need to look past a limited view of compassion to see the true potential of refugees even with the context of their struggles. We need refugees to sit at all decision-making tables that will lead to their full integration as citizens into their host society, enjoying equal rights, opportunities and freedoms.
Compassion doesn’t just flow in one direction. Refugee leaders, forced migration scholars, refugee led organizations and networks are also themselves responding to migration crises and are working to strengthen communities that provide welcome.