Opinion

The Continued Need to Focus on Refugees

Only days after the U.S. administration announced it was cutting back refugee resettlement numbers to the lowest in decades, world leaders gathering in New York to launch a new session of the UN General Assembly will no doubt discuss the plight of the globe’s most vulnerable people. The Global Hope Coalition’s Annual Dinner in New York is set to pay tribute to leaders and nongovernmental organizations from Bangladesh, Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, and the United States that have responded with dignity and compassion to the plight of refugees.

The UN refugee agency estimates that there are now nearly 25.4 million refugees around the globe. Over half are under the age of 18. With few prospects for jobs and a dignified life, many will become faceless numbers in a lost generation. Some will be exploited by obscurantist and violent anti-Western ideologies that thrive on despair and alienation.

A decade ago, former World Bank President Jim Wolfensohn warned that there was a ticking time bomb in “the millions of unemployed, desperate young men with no hope and no future” in Africa and the Middle East. That time bomb exploded in our face with the rise of jihadi terror and the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq that is now spreading to Western Europe and other Middle East countries. The crisis in Syria, in particular, has the potential to create a lost generation that may provide potential recruits to extremists for years to come if not properly addressed.

Some states are doing more than their share. Lebanon, with a population of 6 million, has taken in 1.5 million Syrian refugees living in cities and makeshift camps. Turkey and Jordan are also assisting millions of refugees.

Regrettably, populist parties and demagogues in some European states are exploiting the suffering of families forced to flee their homeland for fear of death or persecution. Concerned about the electoral consequences, centrist and progressive political leaders seem at a loss as to how to respond to the overtly xenophobic appeals of “fear of the other.”

In this bleak situation, nonprofits are stepping up and making a real impact. Take the example of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which awarded a $100 million grant to Sesame Workshop and the International Rescue Committee to work on early childhood education for children displaced by conflict and persecution in the Middle East. The idea is to implement an evidence-based early childhood development intervention designed to address “toxic stress” experienced by refugee children in the Syrian response region.

This project is already a groundbreaking initiative, because it highlights the scale of the solutions that are needed to tackle the latent crisis of the “lost generation.”  Indeed, it will require innovative initiatives such as this and a grand vision for education in the Middle East and Africa to blunt the allure of violent extremism.

Not all governments have cowered away from responding to refugee crises. At a time when countries in different parts of Europe turn to nationalistic intolerance to bar refugees and migrants, it has become more important to highlight the stories of countries and leaders who honor the sacred legacy of harboring those fleeing persecution and conflict.

Bangladesh, Greece, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Uganda have opened their doors to refugees. The millions of newcomers have placed a huge burden on the meager resources of these nations, particularly the smaller ones, and yet both governments and indigenous populations have accepted their persecuted neighbors with compassion and dignity.

A quarter-century ago, then-French Prime Minister Michel Rocard raised eyebrows among his socialist colleagues when he proclaimed that his country could not “host all the miseries of the world.” He was right; no one country, or region, can take responsibility for all the teeming masses of dispossessed peoples in the world. But governments can and must work together in regional and multilateral frameworks, and in cooperation with international organizations, nonprofits and local activists, to forge an effective response that is both realistic and compassionate.


Wendy Chamberlin is a former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan who served as the U.N. deputy high commissioner on refugees from 2003-2007. She recently retired from the presidency of the Middle East Institute, which she held from 2007-2018.

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