Refugee compassion and response: Ideas to mitigate disasters now and in their future

Their homeland becomes a forbidden territory for them and more likely than not, their journey to foreign soil is no less traumatizing, not to say deadly. It is crucial to help refugees live a life of dignity and purpose.

COE-EDPCOE-EDP | Updated: 13-11-2020 07:39 IST | Created: 09-11-2020 09:53 IST
Refugee compassion and response: Ideas to mitigate disasters now and in their future
Representative Image Image Credit: Twitter(@UNOCHA)

There are more than 6.6 million men and women registered as refugees from Syria, according to UNHCR. In Bangladesh, more than one million Rohingyas have found safe haven from the military's persecution in Myanmar.

Stories of refugees during the time of the height of the Syrian crisis in 2015 still paint a shocking picture of what displaced people had to go through to survive. Yet there are millions of other stories of plight and plunder that refugees from conflict-hit regions still face every day. Their homeland becomes a forbidden territory for them and more likely than not, their journey to foreign soil is no less traumatizing, not to say deadly. To understand their misery and figure out ways to reduce their hardships, we must understand their circumstances.

Understanding their challenges:

The struggle of Rahima Akter in getting an education has made several headlines over the years. She is a young Rohingya refugee in Cox's Bazar district of Bangladesh. Having lived in a camp on the city's periphery throughout her life, she understands the nuances of living as a refugee. Camped in makeshift structures made so close, their boundaries are impossible to delineate. She describes her living inside the camp as safe from the Myanmar military but open to harm in many other ways. Their camp does not have a sewage system, drainage, or proper lighting. The refugees do not have any political representation or any identity in the country, making it almost impossible to raise their concerns. Governments, owing to domestic political compulsions, are not willing to offer refugees more than a tiny piece of land and packed food that they let aid agencies distribute. Accessing government medical facilities or education is considered equivalent to denying locals their rights as public services are already stretched.

Akter had to bribe local officials to get an education in Cox's Bazar but even then she was evicted from university because it was illegal for refugees to attend universities. European nations have done better in this regard but even their cultural differences have often lead to clashes between communities, threatening the continent's liaison with liberalism.

Geographical challenges pose further risks to refugees. Many camps in Africa or even in the Middle East are based in conflict zones, making it harder for aid and humanitarian agencies to help. Extreme weather is yet another challenge regularly faced by refugees who often have to stay in makeshift camps. DPR camp in Cox's Bazar often faces the problem of flooding and landslide, further compounding the misery of refugees.

Refugees are also often more susceptible to illness as they might lack immunity to local strains of viruses that can cause a range of diseases and can spark public health issues. Clamped refugee settlements create favorable conditions for disease transmission.

How to build a secure and resilient future:

After arriving at a safer land from their homeland due to a range of issues that can range from poverty to prosecution, challenges faced by refugees depend primarily on factors like the location of their camp especially the country or region in which it is located, the government of the country and the political scenario of the land to which they have migrated.

For example, the refugees who went to European countries are relatively better off compared to Rohingyas or refugees stuck in conflict-hit regions. This is because the EU has made concrete plans to make their acceptance easier, the efforts include teaching them the local language and providing them training to earn a livelihood. EU's liberal system provides a conducive atmosphere for their inclusion and then diffusion in societies.

In contrast to this, Bangladesh has only been able to accept them as temporary migrants owing to political and economic reasons. Their stay is cogent on their restitution to their homeland. The approach has led to refugees' prolonged stay in poorly built and overcrowded huts which are sensitive to vagaries of nature like storms and floods. Their settlements also lack street lights and measures to reduce violence are inadequate.

To overcome problems like these, a holistic infrastructure-building project that aims to reduce the plight of refugees at the same time make locals more open to accepting their stay is paramount. The infrastructure building project should aim at reducing the pressure on existing public infrastructure such as roads, transport, health system while also targeting the creation of durable physical assets like drainage system, permanent marking of boundaries between refugee settlements, street lights that could be powered with renewable energy sources, improving sewage system and make settlements less prone to natural disasters which include installation of the early warning system, identifying high-risk zones to further help in reducing losses by responding to their needs. Such a project will also make the settlements clean as a result less prone to diseases like malaria, diarrhea etc. The street lights and a functioning police system inside the camp will help in making the camps safer.

Apart from the infrastructure, refugees also require help in overcoming trauma inflicted on them due to atrocities that led them to flee and hardships faced during the journey itself. The people who flee from conflict zones are very likely to have lost their loved ones, many of them have faced physical and mental abuse.

The process of recovery should begin by identifying high-risk individuals and helping them in accessing required treatment. Programs like community engagements or small-scale gatherings should be encouraged to increase cohesion among people living in the immediate vicinity. The process will also help in forming new relationships leading to a greater purpose in their lives. The relationships will provide them greater security and should prove vital in times of hardships thus increasing the resilience of communities living inside the camp.

Hurdles in bringing the change:

While the above ideas will significantly improve the lives of refugees, it's hard not to acknowledge that their implementation can be troublesome. The support of the local government, communities, and international organizations are essential first steps in bringing these ideas to fruition. In these difficult times, the challenge is to provide enough aid money for these projects to be undertaken on the required scale.

Integrating refugees within the local community would be another challenge especially at a time when globalization has taken a hit and so has economic growth due to the drastic hit caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Removing the restrictions on education, on movement, and in the job market is critical to allow refugees to fend for themselves but it will be hard given that public resources are already stretched in most countries.

In doing, so it must not be thought that these liberties will motivate these people to settle in a foreign land. Many refugees will still prefer to go back as and when it becomes possible for them to feel safe in their homeland. Till then they must be allowed to live a life of dignity and purpose.

VisionRI's Centre of Excellence on Emerging Development Perspectives (COE-EDP) aims to keep track of the transition trajectory of global development and works towards conceptualization, development, and mainstreaming of innovative developmental approaches, frameworks, and practices.

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