The following blog was written by SVI’s Membership Coordinator, Lukia Nomikos.
World Refugee Day falls each year on 20th June and is dedicated to refugees around the globe. It is an international day designated by the UN to celebrate the strength and courage of those who have been forced to leave their homes behind, to build empathy and understanding for their plight, and to recognise their resilience in rebuilding their lives.
The world is currently witnessing the highest levels of global forced displacement on record. An unprecedented 82.4 million people – more than 1% of the world’s population – have been forced to flee their homes due to persecution, conflict, violence, human rights violations, and, increasingly, climate change. Unfortunately, the relief of escaping imminent danger is often short-lived and refugees are soon met with the realisation that the hardships endured are far from over.
People who run for their lives and cross international borders without papers often put themselves and their families at great risk. Without many legal or safe routes available to them, refugees and migrants accept the risks of other, more desperate efforts to reach their destinations. These are treacherous journeys with dangers at every step of the way, and many refugees do not make it. Over 7,000 have died along the US-Mexico border since 1998, mostly from dehydration, and just two months ago, at least 130 Europe-bound migrants drowned after their boat capsized off the coast of Libya and SOS calls were ignored by European and Libyan authorities. In fact, deaths of migrants in the Mediterranean are commonplace and a significant number of these have been linked to illegal pushbacks by EU Member States – just last month, a group of human rights lawyers launched legal action against Frontex, EU’s border agency.
Refugees and migrants also face a heightened risk of exploitation and abuse during their journeys and fall victims to kidnapping and extortion, torture and rape, and are beaten, shot and killed by criminals or border officials.
Additionally, the living conditions of refugees during their journeys and at their destination can be dire. Due to lack of resources, refugee camps are often overcrowded, unhygienic and dangerous. Authorities offer little support or information, and many refugees are unable to meet even their most basic needs, with access to shelter, food and water, medical care, employment, and education often being very limited.
For those who manage to survive the journey and arrive at their final destination, the welcome can be hostile due to misconceptions of refugees being a financial burden on host countries, a drain on public services, competition for employment, or even worse – dangerous criminals who pose a threat to the security of the host country. As a result, refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants throughout the world are the victims of discrimination, racist attacks and xenophobia.
This climate of hostility is at least partly caused by negative and inaccurate portrayals of refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants in the media and by the inflammatory, xenophobic rhetoric of many politicians and public officials. If we are to tackle the racism and discrimination that refugees face, we must advocate for the rights of refugees, debunk myths and challenge the deeply politicised and dehumanising discourse surrounding refugees.
The treatment and reception conditions of refugees are particularly shocking when considering just how much they can enrich our societies – refugees are an extremely diverse group, and in many cases, come with knowledge, skills and experience of great value to the host country. Given the chance – in other words, by respecting their human rights, ensuring their safety and well-being, removing barriers to integration, and providing proper support – refugees will continue to contribute to a stronger, safer and more vibrant world. When all people are empowered to make use of their skills and knowledge, everyone stands to gain.
The Covid-19 pandemic is a strong case in point. While the pandemic has been particularly tough on the most vulnerable and marginalised populations, bringing with it many new threats and challenges to refugees, it has also highlighted just how vital the contributions of refugees are to our societies. Displaced people have been prominent among those stepping up to make a difference on the frontlines of the response – from camps in Bangladesh to hospitals in Europe, refugees are working as nurses, doctors, scientists, teachers and in other essential roles, protecting themselves and giving back to the communities that host them. All of a sudden, the origins and legal status of displaced people seems to matter a great deal less than the skills, knowledge and experience they can bring to bear on our shared predicament. Allowing all people to fulfil their potential is in everybody’s interest and this has never been clearer than now during the pandemic.
Although refugees and migrants bring great value to our societies, economies and communities, it is vital to remember that respect for the rights and human dignity of refugees is not dependent on this. It is both our moral and legal obligation to offer shelter to those who need it, regardless of any other factors.
At this point, you may be wondering how exactly this all fits into the social value movement and our work here at SVI. Tackling inequality in all its forms, achieving social justice, and maximising well-being is at the core of everything we do. This starts with ensuring the rights, safety, health, and well-being of the most vulnerable and marginalised groups within our societies, including refugees. We believe that key to this is using a broader definition of value in decision-making that places impact on people and the planet at its centre.
It is also vital that the design and implementation of any policies, practices and services that affect refugees, take into account their voices, in accordance with ‘Principle 1 of Social Value: Involve Stakeholders.’ Those most affected accumulate invaluable insights and are therefore best positioned to inform decision-making relating to the relevant matters. Moreover, involving refugees in the search for solutions to the challenges they face transforms them from passive users to agents of change, both in how they see themselves and in how they are perceived by others, as a recent report by the Migration Policy Europe and International Organisation for Migration notes. It also fosters a stronger sense of ownership, limits the risk of avoidable design errors resulting in waste of resources, and weaves more diverse perspectives and expectations into the process, thus questioning prevalent power dynamics.
In short, making way for proper refugee engagement can both support their effective integration and simultaneously help tackle the host population’s negative perceptions of them.
In its evaluation of the Belgian co-housing project CURANT – which from 2017 to 2019 housed unaccompanied young refugees with young Flemish ‘buddies’ who supported their integration – the University of Antwerp systematically included refugees’ views on what project success would look like. This allowed for the identification of certain tensions between the expectations of the refugees in the project and those of project partners, which could then be addressed. For example, to resolve the tension between the desire of many refugees to find work quickly and CURANT’s goal of guiding them into education opportunities, the project started favouring shorter, more tailored educational opportunities to fill skill gaps in a more time effective fashion. This clearly shows that involving refugees (and all stakeholders) in the decision-making process, enables organisations to align their work with the needs of the stakeholders or beneficiaries – ultimately leading to a greater positive impact than could otherwise be achieved.
The social value movement has the potential to go even further when it comes to the plight of refugees and actually help tackle some of the root causes of forced displacement, including conflicts and climate change. We believe that by ensuring that those in power are held to account for their social and environmental impacts, we can realise our vision of a more equal, stable and sustainable world – a world in which people would rarely be forced to flee their homes in the first place.