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Fresh Start on Advocacy for the Displaced

Professor Christine Mahoney, author of “Failure and Hope: Fighting for the Rights of the Forcibly Displaced,” argues from the World Humanitarian Summit that traditional political advocacy is of limited value in improving the lives of refugees and IDPs.

Written by Christine Mahoney Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Turkey world humanitarian summit 2
World leaders and humanitarian organizations from across the globe come together in Istanbul on May 23-24, 2016, for the first World Humanitarian Summit, focused on how to reform a system many judge broken.Yasmin Bulbul, Anadolu Agency, via AP

Over the past two years the expanding reach of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) across Syria and Iraq has dominated global headlines. But the collateral damage of this expansion – the displacement of civilians – has received less explicit attention. Fighting between the extremist group, state forces and other rebel groups triggered the flight of citizens in every direction: more than 1 million Iraqi internally displaced people (IDPs); more than 3 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Europe; and more than 7.5 million Syrians internally displaced inside Syria.

The conflict in Syria has been ongoing for more than five years, since the 2011 Arab Spring sparked democracy protests against the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Barrel bombing and indiscriminate attacks on civilians, as well as the fighting of rebel groups, have led to massive displacement. The conflict has dragged on, with destruction inside Syria unceasing and more territory under the control of a range of rebel groups, including ISIS. Peace and return home appear further and further out of reach.

With more than 715,000 asylum-seeking applications to the European Union in 2015, bodies of refugee adults and children washing up on the shores of Greece and easy access for journalists to tell the story of their ordeal, Western media outlets began paying attention to the issue of forced displacement for the first time in decades.

But while the Syrian displacement case is unique – it is currently the largest in the world with 11 million people displaced, and receiving regular news coverage – it is by no means the only case worth noting. There are 61 other major displacement crises. In fact, 2015 marked a new record: 60 million people displaced by violent conflict globally – the highest since World War II.

The current refugee regime fails them all. The U.N. Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, written to aid the refugees from World War II, only mandates that the U.N.’s refugee agency, UNHCR, helps those who have crossed international borders and not IDPs trapped inside their own borders. Refugees and IDPs have suffered the same types of violence, require the same types of aid, but are currently denied the same levels of rights by the international humanitarian system.

Host governments almost always prohibit the displaced from working or moving freely outside the camps set up to “temporarily” house them. The fundamental problem with this policy is that the displaced often remain displaced for years or decades, trapped in limbo with no right to work and no right to move – a situation the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants refers to as “warehousing.”

In the Syrian case, hundreds of thousands of the more than 3 million refugees have rationally responded by migrating to the gateways of Europe, hoping to resettle and start a new life. Conditions inside Syria and the refugee camps had become so dire that many risked using human smugglers to attempt dangerous crossings of the Mediterranean Sea on rafts and lifeboats.

But similar conditions apply to other protracted displacement situations that are not getting enough attention. Whether Somali refugees in Kenya or Tamil IDPs in Sri Lanka, the displaced are interned in camps, unable to provide for themselves or their families.

This policy of warehousing has many negative consequences including aid dependence, drug addiction, sexual exploitation and militia recruitment. The stagnation fuels violence, devastates lives and leads to conflicts between the host communities and the displaced. There is a pattern to their suffering. In country after country, the displaced endure similar conditions and face similar barriers to escaping their destructive situation. The question we must pose at this juncture is: Why has advocacy to end prolonged displacement failed so miserably?

For the past five years I’ve been documenting cases of advocacy failures on behalf of the displaced. In exploring 61 protracted displacement crises worldwide, my fieldwork entailed gathering testimonials from 170 humanitarian aid workers, government officials and refugees in seven conflict zones in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America. Almost every case was a result of barriers to effective advocacy at different levels of governance.

The humanitarian organizations aiding the displaced are not currently equipped with the resources to expend on human rights advocacy and those few groups that do attempt to fight for refugee rights find they lack the political leverage or financial resources to do so effectively.

In a series of articles in Refugees Deeply over the next four weeks, I will lay out the major barriers to effective refugee rights advocacy and propose alternative ways to improve the lives of those who have been forced to flee their homes to find safety, including through social entrepreneurship, crowdfunding and microfinance.

I do so at a moment of great opportunity. For the first time in the 70-year history of the U.N., the secretary-general has convened the World Humanitarian Summit to bring humanitarian leaders together to develop innovative ways to address the highest level of human suffering since World War II. The time has come for fresh ideas.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

Using the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul as the starting point, Christine Mahoney launches a series of commentaries for Refugees Deeply on effective advocacy for refugees and IDPs, applying her field research from 61 displacement crises across the world.

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