Time and again throughout history millions of people have been forced to leave their place of origin to find safety as the result of armed conflict. As wars are fought individuals, families, and even whole communities take what they can carry and embark on hazardous journeys as they try to refuge, sometimes internally, sometimes internationally.
What happens next may appear like a lottery, where tragically, some will perish while others may be relocated or even return home when conditions allow while others will spend years or even decades in refugee camps that will literally become their new home. And as observers look on some may regard that those are relocated ‘won’ the lottery, this isn’t always the case.
Now, it is true, that many refugees achieve great success in their new home. They start business, go to college and enjoy many benefits that otherwise would not have been available. Some enter politics and reach the highest levels and others find professional success in their own field. Sadly for many, there are no success stories and although they have found safety and security they haven’t necessarily left all their problems behind.
People have migrated for centuries, millennia even, and for many reasons. In a modern context millions of people have migrated for economic reasons throughout the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. Every year people move between countries and continents to chase professional opportunities, to study and to seek a better life. They take the fellowship at Oxford, the great job in Rio de Janeiro or move to closer to family members who moved to Sydney years before. But these are the lucky ones that are moving on their own terms. They get their affairs in order, sell their homes, have leaving parties and research employment opportunities. But for refugees, it isn’t that simple.
Refugees don’t leave on their own terms and they don’t leave after getting their affairs in order. They leave out of necessity, not choice, and the decision is often made for them. They take what they can and leave the rest behind in the hope that they will find safety. And for those that are considered to be genuine refugees, unable to return home as the environment is not safe for them, relocation often brings another set of challenges.
While their new home will likely be safe and secure and they will be able to enjoy many more freedoms, being relocated to a new country is not necessarily a universal panacea. The challenges of resettlement can bring some harsh realities. Their qualifications may not be recognized and their professional experience may carry less weight than it did in the ‘old country.’ There can also be language barriers and cultural differences relating to clothing, religion, observance of holidays along with other reasons that make it difficult for refugees to feel at home. This new life in a safe haven can be daunting and even frightening prospect.
And the challenges aren’t just confined to the refugees themselves. At times the existing communities struggle to understand the new arrivals with their different culture, language and traditions and see them as a drain on already stretched resources such as social services, healthcare and schools. For the outsiders looking in, it can often appear that the refugees are being given what existing residents have worked for years to achieve, prompting resentment, and worse.
So, does this mean that we shouldn’t resettle refugees? Perhaps they’d be better off in camps or temporary accommodation closer to their place of origin until conditions allow them to return? Absolutely not. Not only to those of us that are privileged to live in safety have a moral obligation to help those that aren’t, it doesn’t have to be that hard. This doesn’t mean that we should accept every migrant claiming refugee status, but we should accept those that truly cannot return home and we should facilitate their success.
Just as refugees don’t choose to leave their homeland they don’t choose to live on handouts either. And by giving them a hand up to succeed we increase the likelihood that they will. Leaving one’s home through necessity is a frightening experience and the desire to maintain a connection to their home nation through the use of their own language and observance of cultural holidays is reasonable expectation. We don’t need to give them the farm but we do need to help them find meaningful work that will enable their own success. In doing so we will increase improve their integration and assimilation into our own society. If we don’t, we increase the risk that they will be isolated and even polarized, which is where the real risks begin.