The writer is founder and CEO of Seenaryo, an NGO working with refugees
For Syrians, Vladimir Putin’s tactics in Ukraine are chillingly familiar: siege, bombardment of civilian areas, massacres and reports of rape as a weapon. Equally familiar is the resulting refugee crisis. As of today, almost 6.6mn Syrians and 5mn Ukrainians have been forced to flee their home countries and many millions more have been internally displaced.
The last decade’s great refugee crisis holds many lessons for this decade’s. It is my hope that governments will learn from the Syrian experience as they settle Ukrainian refugees, so that mistakes are not repeated.
The first thing host countries must remember is that most refugees remain refugees for a long time. Globally, the average length of displacement is 20 years. While blanket drives and emergency crowdfunders are valuable, the less glamorous work is much slower and more painstaking.
Tensions will build over time. For all the inspiring generosity of the Poles towards Ukrainians, cracks will appear, particularly since the two nations share a turbulent past. These problems will be exacerbated in poorer regions hosting high concentrations of refugees. This happened in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, and will probably occur in Poland’s two impoverished provinces bordering Ukraine.
Lebanese families welcomed refugees at the start of the Syrian war but the mood grew bitter by 2014, when an economic downturn began to bite. Aid agencies did not help by delivering programmes that were initially aimed solely at Syrians. In 2016, I interviewed a group of Lebanese fishermen. They had just been forced to decline an EU grant that required the majority of beneficiaries to be Syrian. “But the refugees don’t know how to fish. They don’t even come from the coast!” a fisherman told me. To avoid stoking tensions, governments and organisations should plan long-term support for host communities and newcomers.
Small-scale, long-term initiatives designed by service users are valuable and often more cost-efficient, such as the Tahaddi centres in Lebanon. Local people feel more ownership over such schemes, and are therefore more invested in their success. But these programmes are easily crushed by obscure bureaucratic funding structures. Flexible funding should be made available, with imaginative routes to shift the due diligence burden required by large donor countries away from small organisations.
Nor can we ignore the specific challenges faced by women refugees, who are often the sole caregivers for children or the elderly, or survivors of gender-based violence. Small grants for women-led initiatives, physical safe spaces and leadership programmes are required to help them steer their communities while in exile.
There is a broader opportunity in this crisis to shift the consensus on helping all refugees, regardless of their origin countries. There has been justified disquiet about the contrast between many western governments’ warm welcome towards Ukrainian refugees, and their attempts to deter refugees from the global south.
Rather than outsourcing its responsibilities to Rwanda, the UK should show moral and political leadership by setting achievable refugee quotas for Ukrainians and others alike. Rory Stewart’s global refugee settlement coalition provides a road map for this. Similarly, the EU’s speedy activation of its never before used Temporary Protection Directive, offering Ukrainian refugees three-year residencies and the immediate right to work, should be used as a blueprint for helping other displaced peoples.
The requirement now is for policies that will help not only Ukrainians but the refugees of the future. Until we get our approach right, refugees will struggle to integrate and thus continue to be used as bargaining chips and geopolitical weapons, eroding the principles of universal human dignity on which our democracy is founded.