When a series of jarring images—a dead toddler on the beach, a TV reporter kicking migrants—set social media aflame this fall, the world responded with outrage and Europe opened its doors to thousands of refugees.
But as the outrage faded and the magnitude of the challenge became clear, Europeans and their governments started to struggle with how exactly to manage this massive influx of people. Even in the most welcoming countries, such as Germany, loud voices started to warn of the resource drain and security threat these new arrivals would become.
At Mercy Corps, we have worked with millions of refugees around the world over the last 35 years, including many affected by the ongoing war in Syria. We have learned much about what works and what doesn’t in helping refugees, and we feel strongly that European policymakers would benefit by adhering to four guiding principles as they grapple with integrating these newcomers, who number more than 700,000 just this year. (We have also written a research brief, “Behind Them, a Homeland in Ruins,” to share lessons from our experiences in much greater detail.)
1. Choose engagement over isolation.
In devising a response to this crisis, making the choice to engage refugees rather than isolate them is the most important and overarching decision. Empowering refugees and helping them build happier, more productive lives will benefit both those arriving and the communities hosting them.
2. Counter fears that refugees are terrorists.
The refugees pouring into Europe are predominantly young and male. In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack and other tragedies, it is not surprising that the arrival of thousands of young Muslim men fleeing a war zone might raise some flags for security officials. But in our experience with Middle Eastern youth over the past several years, including young refugees coming ashore in Greece this fall, we found overwhelmingly that these young people optimistically see life in Europe as the best hope for themselves and the families they had to leave behind.
“We are not terrorists,” declared Qhosay, a 25-year-old Iraqi university student. “We are running from the terrorists.”
In fact, a common narrative emerged: an increasingly desperate family back in the Middle East pooled its money and sent its most resilient members to Europe to get established and help support the rest of the family. In almost all cases, these people would have rather been home, but dangerous, hopeless conditions drove them away.
3. Don’t make decisions based on fear; focus on understanding and potential opportunity.
In the debate over how to manage this crisis, we can see a real danger that fear, rather than an informed understanding of who these people are and why they are moving, will drive policy choices. Instead, policymakers should focus on understanding and potential opportunity. Consider these two points:
First if communities and politicians focus on keeping refugees out, or letting them in but marginalizing them, they may actually trigger the tension and conflict they are trying to avoid. Fences and border patrols will not keep people out. And they see no prospect of a better life in overcrowded, underfunded refugee camps where they can’t go to school or work.
“We’ll take any risk,” a 19-year-old Syrian man told us. “You have to understand how bad it is back there. We have no alternative. We have to get to Europe. If you were me, you would do the same.”
Rather than focusing on restrictions that will make movement harder, European countries should focus on providing a range of safe and legal routes for refugees. More broadly, the international community needs to work toward a common asylum policy that helps migrants of all types better understand their options.
Second, incoming refugees can be an important asset to Europe. According to the European Commission, the aging population is among the continent’s most serious social and economic challenges. These refugees are young, motivated, and often come with skills and education. Engaged properly, they could become an important tonic for a graying European work force.
We have seen refugees integrate into host communities, but they need opportunities to go to school and work, build social capital with their new neighbors, and have a voice in the decisions that affect them. Even with that support, there is bound to be tension between refugees and their hosts; relocating and resettling people isn’t easy. For Syrian refugees displaced in Jordan and Lebanon, conflict mitigation programs that bring host and guests together can be powerful in defusing the inevitable tension.
We need to be intentional about this, or we run the risk of replicating, on European soil, the isolation, grievances, and hopelessness that many suffered for years back home.
4. Remember that peace is still the priority.
Refugees will not stop coming until the dynamics pushing them to leave their homes— violence, terrible living conditions, poverty—have been addressed. First and foremost, that means finding a political solution to the war in Syria. Short of that, we need to do a better job of meeting refugees’ needs—school, work, housing, medical care—closer to home.
We have to get this right. There are more refugees in the world right now than at any time since World War II. While Syria is the biggest global exporter of misery at the moment, there are plenty of places where conditions are similarly intolerable, from Afghanistan to Eritrea to Yemen. It is possible that this flow of humanity will only intensify.
If we ignore the lessons we’ve learned, the impact of this mass displacement will be felt for decades, if not for generations, to come.