Blog: World Humanitarian Day – From refugee crisis to local economic development


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As I’m sure that today, World Humanitarian Day, many bloggers out there will be frantically typing away on the many worthy issues related to the current ‘Migrant’ or ‘Refugee’ humanitarian crisis, I want to talk about what comes after the essential humanitarian aid we (try to) give to the migrants arriving on our wealthier shores.

Don’t get me wrong, of course I couldn’t agree more with UNCHR’s call to intervene in Calais, or Peter Sutherland’s (UN Special Rapporteur on Migration) call for the European Commission (EC) to protect those fleeing conflict, or the EC’s call to have member states ‘share the load’ of refugees as well as the new European Agenda on Migration calling on states to find European solutions, based on internal solidarity and the realisation that we have a common responsibility to create an effective migration policy. Moreover, I think the couple behind the privately led Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) is setting a clear example on what we should be doing, and doing more. Yet I also firmly believe that we need to start looking at the bigger picture.

As IOM Director General William Lacy Swing put it, we are in an era of unprecedented disasters and this means that today, a very large percentage of human mobility is involuntary, forced movement or displacement which is more than any other time since World War II and is affecting over 50 million persons. Moreover, we now live in a highly urbanized world with more than 50% of the World’s population now living in urban areas. These urban areas have also fast become the destination of choice for displaced populations with more than half of the world’s refugees and internally displaced populations now also living in urban areas.

humans resizedWhere do all these forcibly displaced persons end up? Deplorable and marginalized refugee camps or slums. Why? While UNCHR has three possible durable solutions for displaced persons: voluntary repatriation, local integration and resettlement, expert B.S. Chimni claims that the dominant states of the international system decide which solution serves their interest best at any given time. I have to admit that this makes much sense; if most refugees are left in camps and wealthier states are making it harder and harder for asylum seekers to apply for and enjoy asylum, then local integration and resettlement are clearly not the current priorities. Apparently more fences are. How is this even possible given all the International Human Rights and Refugee law out there? I would say that it’s due to the poverty gap between the Global North and the Global South, the glum aftermath of a global economic crisis, an austerity -focused Europe and the (mistakenly) perceived apocalyptic dangers of migration that most media outlets continue to spit at the general public. This, in turn, leads to increasingly de-humanising anti-immigrant rhetoric at the political level. You all know what I am referring to here.

What is the bigger picture then? Well, we can hardly imagine leaving over 50 million people to live, if that’s even the right word, in squalor in refugee camps. What we need to do is to start linking the migration humanitarian crisis response to the international migration and development agenda and offer real durable solutions by integrating refugees into urban settings at the local level. (If at this point you are suddenly starting to panic because you think wealthier countries can’t handle more refugees, then read this eloquent and enlightening article by the Guardian.)

That leaves us with the minor issue of getting round politics and public perceptions…easy? Not quite, but definitely possible in my view if we stop seeing forced migration as a temporary humanitarian cause and start seeing it as a long-term development opportunity. Aren’t refugees and asylum seekers simply another kind of migrant that can (and do!) contribute to their host and home communities? Indeed, as highlighted by researchers like Zetter and Zyck, refugees and displaced populations have many assets, skills and resources, and evidence confirms the economic and social contributions they can make. Moreover, the positive contribution of migrants for inclusive growth and sustainable developmenthas further been recognized with the inclusion of various targets directly related to migration including promoting migrant workers’ rights and improved migration governance in the new Sustainable Development Goals. The path has been set – we simply need to bite the bullet and take it.

Giving increasing urbanization trends and the fact that displaced populations tend to settle in urban areas in zones where the poor or other migrants live, it is therefore local and regional authorities (LRAs) that will be at the forefront of dealing with providing for displaced and other migrant populations. LRAs are indeed being increasingly recognised as key development actors with increasing decentralisation processes happening globally as the added value of working at the grass-roots level can no longer be ignored. So, if you were a city mayor working towards local development and social cohesion, wouldn’t you rather see displaced persons integrated, working and contributing to society? As opposed to prohibited from working and stuck in camps with social tensions rising as xenophobia and hatred rule the proverbial roost? Examples like the recently approved Charter of Palermo, through which the City Council of Palermo aims to abolish the migrant residence permit and radically change the human mobility law to reflect the right to mobility as a human right, is a clear cut sign that local and regional authorities are stepping up and flourishing this role as migration and development actors. The Joint Migration and Development Initiative is also supporting the emerging policy dialogue among mayors and other local and regional authorities through the Mayoral Forum on Migration and Development whereby sub-national authorities come together to share expertise, knowledge and foster partnerships for the management of migration for local development. Even Europeans are getting involved, for example, through this German website “Refugees Welcome”, a web-based service that helps refugees and asylum seekers find a place to stay with a German family and fundraises to pay for their rent where possible. Yet with over 50 million displaced persons worldwide, this is simply not enough.

So if all of the International Human Rights and Refugee conventions are not enough to convince states to open welcoming arms to refugees, maybe the prospect of development and economic growth at the local level might. This may not be a very humanitarian or dignified approach, but it might just do the trick.

Author: Joanne Irvine, Knowledge Management Expert

Organisation: Joint Migration and Development Initiative (JMDI) led by UNDP in collaboration with IOM, ITC-ILO, UNITAR, UN Women, UNFPA and UNITAR and financed by the European Commission and the Swiss Development Agency. The JMDI aims to maximize the potential of migration for local development through the delivery of targeted support to local authorities and non-state actors.

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