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There’s Another Way for Canadians to Help Refugees

Providing aid and support to camps may have a broader, longer-term impact than resettlement.

By Rabia Mir 15 Mar 2017 |

Rabia Mir is a graduate student in Vancouver and works at the Global Reporting Centre. She does not know how to answer simple questions like, “where are you from?” as she has worked and studied in multiple countries in different fields. Her current project is to understand if she can decolonize her own education.

Do you remember Steve McCurry’s iconic picture of an Afghan refugee girl published on the cover of National Geographic in 1985? The picture was of a 12-year-old orphan girl, Sharbat Gula, who lived in a refugee camp in Pakistan along the border with Afghanistan. Decades later, when McCurry followed up with Sharbat Gula, she was still in Pakistan unable to go back due to the renewed conflict in Afghanistan.

According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, there are 21.3 million refugees in the world (including the 5.2 million Palestinian refugees registered with the UN Relief and Works Agency.) The three top hosting countries are Turkey (with 2.5 million), Pakistan (with 1.6 million) and Lebanon (1.1 million).

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has set an example of welcoming refugees into Canada. His stance stood in contrast to the U.S. when, during a press conference with President Trump, the two leaders expressed opposing views on Syrian refugees.

As the world praises Trudeau on this openness, there is debate within Canada about how the government is handling the Syrian refugee issue. Depending on the political stance of the media outlet, there is commentary on whether the Liberal government misspent or wisely spent the funding for the refugee crisis. There are also those who question whether funds allocated for supporting the resettlement of 35,000 Syrian refugees would be better spent on issues at home.

However, less prominent are the voices questioning the efficacy of resettlement as a way to help refugee crisis. Countries like Turkey, Lebanon and Pakistan face the vast burden of supporting refugees.

Due to the drawn-out nature of conflicts, countries now support refugees for longer and longer periods of time. In 2003, UNHCR wrote a report estimating that refugees stay in protracted exile for an average of 17 years. This does not include Palestinian refugees throughout the Middle East. Though the number is still widely quoted today, I was unable to find an updated version. But it is safe to assume that many refugees are still left in limbo for decades.

The vast majority of the world’s 21.3 million refugees cannot be settled in developed countries. There are just too many. Temporary humanitarian aid for shelter and medical supplies is insufficient for those who live in camps for decades.

Within the academic world, Canada has focused most research on how to use funds to better assist resettlement within Canada. But would our taxpayer dollars be better spent on programs in larger refugee camps where they can address longer-term needs?

There are some examples in the largest refugee camp in the world, Dadaab, Kenya, which hosts more than 250,000 refugees (mainly from Somalia). There are 19 primary and six secondary schools for Dadaab, too few for the more than 118,000 school-age children who live there. Classes hold 80 pupils rather than the stipulated 45 and quality suffers.

Yet Dadaab is one of the very few examples where there has been some resource allocation to providing education to refugee children in camps. Professors from University of British Columbia’s Faculty of Education have partnered with Moi University, Kenya, to offer a secondary teacher education certificate to address the dire need for quality teachers within Dadaab.

Work and learning from such efforts has the potential to provide opportunities for refugees embroiled in conflict for generations. Those who lose access to education also forego a chance to rebuild life out of poverty even if they get an opportunity to go back or to resettle in their new homes. For example, since September 2016, UNHCR has assisted 25,000 refugees in returning to Somalia from Kenya. Only 13 per cent of those returning had attended school.

In his mandate letter to then foreign affairs minister Stéphane Dion, Trudeau instructed him to “support the deeply held Canadian desire to make a real and valuable contribution to a more peaceful and prosperous world.” The bigger refugee crisis gives Canada a chance to show leadership in addressing a refugee need that will have large-scale impact, and might also be politically more acceptable for both sides of the aisle at home.  [Tyee]

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