Lavinia Limón is President and CEO of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting the rights and address the needs of persons in forced or voluntary migration worldwide. Learn more at www.refugees.org
In the many years that I have worked for refugees, I’ve been fortunate to see great accomplishments as a result of the collaborative effort of governments, organizations and individuals. The United States has provided great leadership when it comes to the international aid of refugees. Last month, the U.S. committed $100 million for those fleeing Syria, which I applaud. Yet, there is one unfinished task that is pivotal if we are to improve the lives of refugees. We, as human beings, must end the practice of warehousing.
Eight million out of the world’s 12 million refugees are “warehoused” living in refugee camps. People are kept in these camps living in deplorable conditions and, in many cases, deprived of their basic rights. How bad is the problem? Let’s put it this way: The world’s largest refugee camp, Dadaab, just turned 22 years old. Can you imagine living with your family in a refugee camp for more than two decades?
UNHCR acknowledges three main solutions to refugee crises: repatriation back home, integration in the country of asylum, and resettlement in another country.
Repatriation only works when a political conflict or a war has ended and the country is deemed “safe” for refugees to return home. It takes years, if not decades, to rebuild countries destroyed by wars.
Resettlement is only enjoyed by about one-half of 1% of refugees in the world. While I want to see the number of people benefited by resettlement, this is clearly not a practical solution for the majority of the world’s displaced. What do we do with the 99.5% of refugees that do not get to resettle?
Integration into the country of asylum is not a welcomed idea in most host countries because through “their lens” it is not in their best interest. They believe, with good cause, that international assistance will cease and their nationals will resent the foreigners. So for a quarter of a century, durable solutions for most refugees have failed. Now add over one million Syrians to this equation and the sum is considerably larger.
Refugees may not have much, but they have rights. The 1951 United Nations’ Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol clearly state these rights. People fleeing persecution and crossing international borders have the right to live a normal life, the right to earn wages, the right to be in business, the right to own intellectual property, the right to freedom of movement, the right to travel documents, the right to elementary education, and the right to public relief, among others.
Most refugees are not enjoying most of the aforementioned rights. Human rights are universal and as obvious as it sounds, at times, people must be reminded that refugees are human as well. I am aware that addressing the warehousing problem is a daunting endeavor. I know this issue requires political resolve worldwide. Different circumstances call for different answers. Nonetheless, in our search to find solutions, there are two realities that we must face: First, the enormous expense of keeping people encamped, poor, and dependent on assistance. “The warehousing industry” is a billion dollar a year business. Do the math. What could a billion dollars multiplied by “any number of years,” could have done for the economy of any host country?
Second, consider the cost of wasted human potential.
Instead of pumping aid into temporary solutions, picture something different: investing a billion dollars for better schools and hospitals, outside camps, where citizens could tend to their fellow compatriots while simultaneously serving refugees. This is a win-win situation. The host country benefits from new jobs, while the refugee gains access to better services. Imagine good infrastructure and hospitals. Think of the possibilities.
Unleashing human potential is always a positive action. Allowing refugees to work will positively impact economies. With earned money they will buy goods and services. Just take a look at what the Vietnamese community has contributed to the United States over the years. Many of them have created jobs as small business owners.
Allowing refugees to work will require responsible supervision by host countries. They will have to identify each refugee with proper documentation. UNHCR—with approval and funding of donors — could commit to reimbursing host countries for incurred expenses by granting refugees their rights. UNCHR would also monitor the transparency in the financial allocation process to ensure that resources go to benefit refugees.
Refugee rights are human rights. Giving refugees their rights is not an option, it is an obligation. I’m conscious that the term “warehousing” might offend people. However, I believe the practice is more offensive than the word because a warehouse is not a home.
- Lavinia Limón
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