President Obama, Help Young Refugees Live With Dignity

As Obama makes his final international trip as U.S. president to Greece, Kari Diener, deputy director of policy at Mercy Corps, outlines what the outgoing president can do to help the refugee crisis before his term ends.

Written by Kari Diener Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Sonia, aged 12, is pictured outside a tented settlement called Malakasa camp north of Athens that mainly houses Afghan refugees.Sara Hylton/Mercy Corps

ATHENS – “Do I not have the right to live?” This was the gut-wrenching question posed by a 15-year-old Afghan girl at a Mercy Corps-sponsored community space for girls going through difficult times in Athens.

She is among the many people stuck in limbo in Greece while waiting for asylum, reunification or resettlement, in increasingly poor conditions. Many of the young women and girls at the community space are about the same age as the daughters of Barack Obama, who is visiting Greece on his final international trip as U.S. president.

In September, Obama led a global summit on the refugee crisis in which he called on nations, nongovernmental organizations, businesses and other groups to do more for their fellow human beings. As Obama tours Greece this week, Mercy Corps is urging him to reinforce his call for a more coordinated effort to help the European Union better respond to this protracted crisis.

So far in 2016, more than 340,000 refugees have crossed over to the Greek islands and Italy, hoping to resettle in Europe. Children – often without an adult to look out for them – make up nearly 30 percent of arrivals, and, so far this year, more people have died or gone missing while attempting to make the journey than throughout all of 2015.

Despite Europe’s wealth and stability, European governments, institutions and nongovernmental organizations have coped poorly with the refugee crisis. The conditions for many refugees in Europe are below minimum humanitarian standards. The asylum system in Greece is completely overwhelmed and people are waiting months for preliminary interviews, not to mention final decisions. We must acknowledge that this situation will continue for many months, if not years.

It’s time for other governments to provide more asylum officers and move beyond basic humanitarian needs to address broad-based refugee integration, including education and opportunities to work legally.

Marzia, 15, from Afghanistan, displays a story she wrote at the Melissa Center in Athens. The Melissa Center is a community space for girls going through difficult times, a place where they can receive support and meet others with similar experiences. (Sarah Hylton/Mercy Corps)

Marzia, 15, from Afghanistan, displays a story she wrote at the Melissa Center in Athens. The Melissa Center is a community space for girls going through difficult times, a place where they can receive support and meet others with similar experiences. (Sarah Hylton/Mercy Corps)

In Greece, Mercy Corps works with local partners to provide young refugees with psychosocial support, language classes and skills activities. We are particularly concerned about this demographic, as our research consistently shows that youth and adolescents between the ages of 15 and 24 years old are often overlooked in humanitarian crises.

When affected by war and displacement, this generation is particularly at risk of alienation and despair. We must explicitly carve out resources for these young people. Our work in more than 40 countries has confirmed the importance of helping the youngest of refugees during their formative years.

Refugee host communities also need support and financial incentives to adopt appropriate policies for refugee integration. The world must prioritize more robust data collection on the existence of integration policies and practice in hosting countries. And, as data comes online, a pool of funding should be made available, tied to a “refugee integration index,” in which countries that welcome refugees, respect their legal rights and provide them with tangible opportunities to secure a positive future are given additional support.

We must provide better choices for those who seek refuge; everyone deserves safe and legal routes for flight. In the next two months while Obama makes way for new leadership in the White House, we ask him to reaffirm the United States’ obligations under international humanitarian law, and the right of all to claim asylum.

We also urge the next administration to continue to influence countries that host refugees to quickly allow refugees to legally earn a living and support their families.

As the humanitarian sector and governments address the needs of tens of millions of people on the move, we must not forget why most refugees have been forced to flee – violent conflict at home. We must address the drivers of violence, redoubling commitments to reduce and mitigate conflict by increasing investment in prevention and peacebuilding, and addressing major human rights violations that are so often the forerunner of these complex conflicts.

U.S.-funded foreign assistance programs have been proven to make countries safer in the past and this should not be abandoned by future administrations. Bipartisan support for foreign aid has been strong in Congress, and our hope is that this continues.

Finally, we are calling on Obama to work to combat the increase in anti-immigrant and anti-refugee rhetoric, which is often used to political ends. We ask him to remind the U.S. and the European Union that only 1.2 million of the estimated 21.3 million refugees are in Europe, and the world is watching our response. If the policies put in place by the U.S. or the E.U. breach fundamental rights, the ripple effects around the world in countries that host higher numbers of refugees could be catastrophic.

As a world grappling with major political and economic shocks, and ensuing conflicts that have accelerated displacement, we can and must do more to protect the basic human right to live with dignity, so that fewer young people question if they do indeed have the right to live.

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

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