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The Refugee’s Dilemma: Stay Put or Risk Death

Many people trapped in extreme poverty, chronic violence and instability are willing to risk everything to build a better life in Europe or beyond. Closing borders will not stop people from seeking new routes to safety. We must find bold, smart fixes, writes Mercy Corps CEO Neal Keny-Guyer.

Written by Neal Keny-Guyer Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes

In the next three hours, someone trying to flee her or his homeland for a safer place to live will die on that journey. An estimated 45,000 people have lost their lives this way since 2000. If you’re a Syrian escaping a savage war for the security of Europe, you’ve embarked on the world’s deadliest migration route: That trip is 12 times more likely to kill you than crossing the Sahara Desert.

The fact is more people are being forced from their homes by violence and repression than ever before – 59.5 million at the last count. The engines driving forced migration are well-fueled and roaring at full power: Conflicts are raging in places such as Afghanistan, Yemen, Nigeria and Somalia. More and more countries are trapped in deep poverty and chronic violence and instability. But for politicians in the U.S. and Europe, it seems the refugee dilemma is a problem that can go away if we build higher walls, bolt the doors and pull down the shades.

The recent deal between the E.U. and Turkey – which seeks to keep more Syrian refugees close to home, in Turkey – is a powerful example of that thinking. We can all understand the messy politics involved; without compromise, our political system cannot work.

But closing borders will not stop people in fear for their lives from finding new routes to safety; they truly feel like they have nothing to lose. We know this because we work with them – in Greece, Syria, Turkey and elsewhere. They’ve told us their dilemma is they have limited options: Stay put and get bombed, live in the most basic shelter in a nearby country without access to jobs or schools, or risk their lives and those of their children in the hopes of surviving the journey and building a better life in Europe or beyond.

If we want to fulfill our obligations to international law and better meet the desperate needs of these fellow humans, we have to approach the so-called “refugee problem” with foresight, not fear.

The United Nations says the global refugee system is broke. The truth is worse: It’s not just broke, it’s broken. It was built over 50 years ago for a different world. The solution is not just more money – we need something different and sustained. The U.N. refugee convention should remain the bedrock of international protection, and on that foundation we need to build a new, global coalition of national governments, international organizations, philanthropy and business that can meet the urgent needs of today while building resilience among refugees and host communities.

First, we need to get people to safety. Right now, the U.N.’s refugee agency shoulders most of the work in determining who is a refugee based on the U.N. convention; organizations such as Mercy Corps deliver humanitarian assistance to help refugees survive. A new coalition can not only deliver “smart” aid, but also set up a mobile resource that can be rapidly deployed to “hot zones” to run efficient refugee processing centers on site. Those centers would offer a fair, timely and decisive determination about who qualifies for a new humanitarian visa. States in the global coalition would each offer up a quota of places for those visas, issue them and resettle the refugees. Humanitarian visas can be flexibly designed to reflect the reality of today’s conflicts and crises, offering temporary protection in asylum states if needed. The benefit? Fewer refugees would then opt out of the process and risk their lives with traffickers. The pressure of illegal migration flows would lessen. Nations could buy into an efficient, secure process and, by offering an adequate number of humanitarian visas for resettlement, invest in the stability of countries in the Middle East, which today host the vast majority of refugees.

Second, we can realize the promise that refugees bring to their new homes: They can be a powerful driver for growth and stability. Cash assistance would be deployed on a large scale so that refugees can buy what they need for themselves and their families while pumping that money into the local economy. Investments would be made in “free economic zones” in refugee host countries to drive economic opportunity and social inclusion for both refugees and the local population. Specialized enterprise funds would help kick-start businesses that create new jobs. Workforce training programs would equip local citizens and refugees with professional skills relevant for the job market.

Does all that sound like a tall order? Yes, but this year the world has two great opportunities for the big brokers of the international community to step up and fix the global refugee system: the World Humanitarian Summit in May and a special high-level meeting of the U.N. General Assembly on refugees and migrants in September. We all need to push world leaders – from nations, big business, the U.N. and civil society – to get serious, move beyond short-sighted fearful politics, attend these summits and make bold, smart fixes that affirm our common humanity and actually work. If we have the courage to govern with foresight, not with fear, we can turn today’s refugee dilemma into tomorrow’s untold possibility.

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

Top image: Syrian refugees face risky journeys as they flee for safety. This Syrian refugee woman and child arrived by dinghy from the Turkish coast at the northeastern Greek island of Lesbos.

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