How Do We Really Help Refugees?


The UNHCR reports that there are approximately 50 million refugees around the world at present. 50 million. That’s the population of South Korea, or double the population of Shanghai, or one and a half times the population of California.

And as we struggle to relocate them and provide for their immediate needs when we wake up each day there are more refugees than there were when we went to bed. While the world focuses on the deepening humanitarian crisis in the Levant how do really help the refugees, when the numbers involved are simply too large for the actions of even the most benevolent nations to make a lasting impact?

While it’s clear to see what they need, safety, security, food and shelter the problem at first glance may even appear simple. But sadly, the reality is that simple is not necessarily easy.

While food and shelter are material items that can be purchased and shipped to where they are needed, safety and security are not and providing them is much more challenging. Add this to the fact that if we can’t provide them safety and security all other efforts will be wasted. Of course, there is a pressing need to provide for their immediate needs, so we must do that but for how long can we provide aid when ultimately it is little more than a band -aid and in many cases, what we provide is often taken away?

So how do we fix this? How do we provide the safety and security that these people need, particularly as it is the most basic human right? Well, we have to look at whole problem. Whilst we treat the symptom we have to look at the cause(s). We have to look at the history of the problem, we have to look at the problem as it is now and we have to look beyond the problem and strive to create solutions that will allow all parties to move on from the problem. And there you have it, the answer in one sentence. Sounds simple, right? Now if only it were easy.

As many of us will have been told at school the best way to solve a big problem is to break it down into a series of smaller, more manageable problems. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. Which is good advice, but with problems of this magnitude we have to decide where we want be at the end, or as the military say, what is my desire end state? And in this case, our desired end state is to provide safety and security for 50 million refugees. By keeping this in mind, we will know at any stage of the process if we are doing the right thing.

Before we can fix the problem we have to understand that although on a macro level everyone’s needs are the same, how we get there will be different for each group and that whatever solutions put in place will have consequences that will need to be considered.

If we look at the problem in its’ simplest terms it can be easy to say that if people cannot be safe, then relocate them. But that’s not right for several reasons. People typically have an attachment to their place of origin and although many people do migrate throughout the world, most do not. As well as having an emotional attachment people have homes, businesses, jobs, schools and relationships with their family and friends that are centered around where they live. If we simply relocate them, we will take that away. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t relocate people or that we shouldn’t accept refugees, but it does mean that when we do we should make sure that we do it well.

For some people, we will never be able to provide the conditions necessary for them to safely return home, or if we can, it will simply take too long. So for these people the best option may be relocation, but we must still consider the consequences of doing so. As we relocate refugees we need to make sure that do so in numbers that can be managed by the communities that they arrive in and that they are supported so that they can successfully be integrated into their new community. If we don’t, we face the real risk that communities will become polarized and rather than providing the safety and security that we set out to do we will do quite the opposite.

Although relocation can work when done well, even with the best will in the world we cannot relocate 50 million people. And if we relocate everyone, the bad guys win, and we facilitate it. So if we really want to help refugees, we need to focus on providing safety and security in their place of origin.

With this in mind we need to make sure that everything that we do to help refugees is geared towards providing them with a safe and secure environment. If we take military action, which is often necessary, it must be with this end state in mind and if they involve offensive action there needs to be a clear vision for the subsequent transition to peace. If we take diplomatic or political action against governments such as sanctions they must also be designed to provide safety and security for those affected. And it is only by delivering complete solutions where we have an end state that will provide safety and security for refugees, either through relocation or by addressing problems in their place of origin, will we ever be able to truly help refugees.

It sounds simple, but simple isn’t easy.


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