A recent conference, Investing in the Future: Protecting Refugee Children in the Middle East and North Africa, hosted by the Ruler of the emirate of Sharjah, Sheikh Sultan Bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, highlighted the extent of the problem and renewed the call for “massive financial support” for the countries that are hosting refugees.
Making a difference
TME: Speaking at the Sharjah conference Queen Rania of Jordan said she could not remember a time when the political situation in the region had been more volatile and with more people seeking refuge from violence. You personally visited a refugee camp in Syria; can you describe what you found there?
Sheikha Jawaher: Visiting the refugee camp was an experience full of sad moments and moments filled with hope. On the one hand it is heart-breaking to see so many people who have been wrenched away from their lives, often removed not only from their homes but also from their families, friends, and loved ones. The pain and suffering that they have encountered is unmistakable. Yet, it was also an uplifting experience, because, despite the terrible events that they have lived through and despite having lost almost everything, these people are not giving up. They are determined to find some way forward and that is extremely inspiring.
I must also admit that I felt great pridewhen visiting the Emirati-Jordanian Refugee Camp, because of the way it has been set up. Too often refugee camps become places where people lose themselves in despair. We have all seen reports of camps with poor shelter, inadequate hygiene, and a lack of basic provisions, all of which further contribute to dehumanising their inhabitants. In this respect the Emirati-Jordanian camp is an example of what a refugee camp is supposed to be – a safe haven; a place where people can find refuge as they prepare to rebuild their lives.
TME: One of the topics the Sharjah conference highlighted was how intolerable burdens of responsibility for the welfare of refugees are put upon individual states, often countries without vast resources of their own. How can we make sure the costs of giving sanctuary to refugees is more fairly balanced?
SJ: It is a sad fact that although governments are quick to agree that humanitarian aid is a necessity in ensuring the wellbeing of our global community, the matter of funding this aid is often a thorny issue. To address this challenge I believe we need to start with the acceptance that we all carry a responsibility towards others, in greater or smaller measure. This might seem an abstract concept, but without a willingness to shoulder this responsibility, any solutions reached will at best be short term.
Making others aware that they need to be part of solving these problems is one of my key functions with the UNHCR. We are quick to point out that, with the advancements of technological age, the world has become a much smaller place – a global village in which we can move around with greater ease than ever before and communicate with almost anyone at will. This however also means that the very definition of who we can consider our neighbours has drastically changed as well. There are no more isolated problems. We are increasingly becoming a more integrated and interdependent system, and for such a system to not only survive but to thrive, every part of it needs to be healthy and well taken care of.
TME: There have been complaints that many countries promise aid, in one form or another, to help refugees but then fail to deliver. How can we tackle this problem?
SJ: I would like to see much great transparency in the way that aid and the promise of aid is tackled. Governments, and organisations for that matter, need to stop looking at aid as a favour being done as an afterthought, and start treating it as a priority. Although policing pledges of aid is logistically very difficult, making the process transparent and on public record means that those involved have to consider their future credibility if they renege on their promises.
TME: The “Sharjah Principles”, which set out ways of protecting children from the exploitation they suffer as refugees, are undoubtedly worthy aspirations but who, do you believe, is in the best position to see that they are implemented?
SJ: At this point in time if there is any single agency that is positioned to at the very least lobby for the implementation of these principles it is the UNHCR, with the backing of the UN of course. What is important to remember here is that principles, by definition, cannot be enforced. The only way they will truly come into effect is by governments, agencies, grass roots organisations, and communities working together to instil the values that the principles adhere to and thereby changing the way in which people go about protecting refugee children.
TME: The Sharjah conference underlined the importance of seeing every refugee child as an individual, not just as a series of facts and figures. Many thousands of children and young people have been traumatised by the effects of the conflict that rages in parts of the Middle East region. Is it probable that these damaged individuals can be sufficiently healed to develop and grow into well-adjusted human beings, or is the region likely to be reaping the effects of the vicious conflicts that displaced them from their lives and their homes for generations to come?
SJ: I wish there was a clear-cut answer to this question. Unfortunately there are never any guarantees when dealing with human trauma. People are not machines that can simply be fixed when they are broken, every person responds differently to conflict and crisis. That being said, I am hopeful for the future and resolute in my belief that we need to do everything in our power to help these young people rebuild and heal themselves. We cannot be sure that they will all recover and there is undoubtedly a price to be paid. The one thing we can however be sure of is that if we do nothing, that price will be much, much higher.