Za’atari camp for Syrian refugees – Jordan’s fourth biggest city. Tom White/ Oxfam

The endless stream of Syrian refugees seeking asylum in Europe has drawn world attention to a civil war that has displaced millions of citizens of that Middle Eastern country. But they are not the only ones, as the author of a new book, Failure and Hope: Fighting for the Rights of the Forcibly Displaced, reminds us.

Christine Mahoney, Associate Professor of Politics and Public Policy at the University of Virginia, points out that there are over 65 million people displaced by violent conflict. And most of them are stuck in camps – in some cases for decades, with no right to work or move freely.

Why has advocacy to end this situation failed so miserably? In the following interview with the Social Trends Institute, where she spoke recently about her research, Dr Mahoney answers this question and proposes a way to address a situation that amounts to the “warehousing” of vast numbers of people. 

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What “failure” do you allude to in the title of your book?

In fact, I tell the story of many failures: the failure of current humanitarian responses to effectively care for the displaced, the failure of rights advocates to effectively fight for the rights of the displaced, and the failure of the international community to pay attention of tens of millions of people living at the edge of existence.

The Syrian displacement case is unique – it is currently the largest in the world and it is receiving regular news coverage. With over 715,000 asylum-seeking applications to the European Union in 2015, bodies of refugee families and children washing up on shores of Greece, and easy access for journalists to tell the story of their ordeal – Western media outlets began paying attention to the issue of forced displacement for the first time in decades.

However, the Syrian crisis is not the only displacement crisis; there are over 60 other major displacement crises globally, with over 65 million people displaced by violent conflict – the highest number since World War II.

The current refugee regime fails them all. The UN Convention on the Status of Refugees, written to aid the refugees from World War II, only mandates the UNHCR to help those who have crossed international borders, not internally displaced persons (IDPs) trapped inside their own borders. Refugees and IDPs have suffered the same types of violence, require the same types of aid, and are currently being denied the same rights by the international response to displacement crises.

Host governments almost always prohibit refugees from working or moving freely outside the camps set up to “temporarily” house them. The fundamental problem with this policy is that the displaced often remain displaced for years, or decades, trapped in limbo with no right to work and no right to move –a situation the US Committee on Refugees and Immigrants refers to as “warehousing.” Whether Somali refugees in Kenya or Tamil IDPs in Sri Lanka, the displaced are interned in camps, unable to provide for themselves or their families.

This policy of warehousing leads to countless bad outcomes from aid dependence, to drug addiction, to sexual exploitation, and militia recruitment, further fueling violence, devastating lives and leading to conflicts between the host communities and the displaced.

The question I started to ask myself was: Why has advocacy to end this situation failed so miserably?

How did you go about answering that question? And, what did you find?

I collected data on all 61 protracted displacement crises worldwide, carried out fieldwork in 7 conflict zones in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America, conducted in-depth interviews with over 170 humanitarian aid workers, government officials and refugees, and in case after heartbreaking case I found massive barriers to effective advocacy at every level of governance.

Instead of looking only at the exceptional case of Syria, I studied the attention given to every major case of massive protracted displacement and the advocacy on behalf of those vulnerable citizens. Through this unique research approach, we see more clearly than we have through any previous research on global advocacy, that most disadvantaged populations have no voice. The displaced are powerless not only in the places they have fled from but at every level of governance where advocates might take up their fight. 

What are the barriers at the International Level?

At the international level, the majority of the displaced populations around the world do not even have advocates fighting for their case in particular. The generalist refugee rights groups and human rights groups are working on tight budgets to raise the alarm about hundreds of fires simultaneously. Even when there is a mobilized campaign like the Save Darfur Coalition or the International Campaign for Tibet, activists have a very difficult time breaking into the thoroughly saturated media landscape. Maintaining attention is even more difficult.

The result is that the majority of cases of massive displacement receive no attention at all. Since most social problems only see governmental or intergovernmental action when there has been significant attention paid to the issue by the media and the public, there is no pressure to act. Syria is the exception that proves the rule: Western powers only moved beyond words to actions when hundreds of thousands of refugees started showing up on the shores of Europe and European citizens started pressing governments to do something about the migration crisis. 

In most cases the governments of the West are unlikely to respond in a similar fashion. We have not seen similar mobilization in further afield conflicts, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Central African Republic, Colombia, or Sudan. Without clear national security implications for the West, military intervention aimed at stabilization is unlikely. In cases where there are not millions displaced but merely hundreds of thousands, Western powers are unlikely to have their foreign policy driven by concerns of a minority.

Exploring the trends in coverage of all 61 protracted displacement crises for a decade in the New York Times further confirms that most issues receive little to no coverage. Even when millions are displaced for decades, there will be often none or just a handful of news stories on their plight over ten years.

The few cases that do receive coverage in the media outlets of the Global North do so because of their geo-strategic importance in the Global War on Terror. Displaced populations in the Palestinian Occupied Territories, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Chechnya and Lebanon see the most coverage, but it is often a secondary mention, with the focus of the coverage being the conflicts that led to their displacement.

Content analysis of the articles makes clear that if it is not geo-strategic importance driving attention, it is violence. Violence sells, and only particular spikes in violence or new types of violence seem to warrant coverage of massive displacement by the Western media.

Can human rights advocates be more effective in the countries where refugees are seeking safe haven?

In-depth fieldwork in seven displacement zones showed that the conditions for effective advocacy are also severely constrained in the countries of first asylum. For both refugees and internally displaced persons there are at lease 5 major challenges to successfully advancing access to rights, particularly the right to work and the right to move freely.

Advocacy is not the priority of most organizations aiding the displaced, they are focusing on life-saving food, medicine and shelter. Any humanitarian aid worker you speak with wants improved access to rights for the refugees— for them to be able to move freely, work, or to be able to go home. Unfortunately home is an endless war zone and the rights to food and water are not even being met. Advocacy takes a back burner when the basic necessities are lacking.

Most host countries are developing nations with their own infrastructure, health and sanitation needs – they have a responsibility to their own citizens that they often do not yet have the capacity to provide. Providing rights to refugees is not a priority.

Any humanitarian relief groups that do try to press for freedom to work or freedom to move are doing so in a context of no political leverage. When advocates lobby for a certain policy in democratic systems they usually have two points of leverage: votes and money. Advocates can threaten to mobilize votes or resources against a policymaker during the next election cycle if they don’t do as the advocate proposes. International NGOs and the UN can make no such threats – all they have is their arguments, to which many host governments have no interest in listening. 

Not only do aid groups not have any political or economic leverage, the pressure being applied is often in the opposite direction. Corruption leads government officials to extract concessions from aid groups, not the other way around.

An additional barrier that is particularly relevant in IDP cases, especially those where the displacement is due not to the government’s hostilities but to rebel group violence, is a lack of capacity. In some cases the government may have the will but not the capacity to improve the conditions of the displaced. In these situations, advocates are in a particularly difficult context.

Is there anything that can be done?

Yes, that is captured in the “hope” portion of the book’s title. I suggest a strategy that capitalizes on advances in social entrepreneurship and micro-finance to begin empowering the displaced to rebuild their lives and livelihoods. I propose a campaign targeted at concerned citizens of the Global North to mobilize new pools of investment for displaced entrepreneurs. The impressive amounts of giving during humanitarian disasters like the Tsunami in South East Asia and the earthquake in Haiti show that concerned global citizens are willing to act, if the “ask” is clear.

Mobilizing concerned global citizens to invest in the future of the displaced is more feasible and more promising. A thoughtful, well-executed campaign targeted at citizens of the wealthier countries of the world, could convey the plight of the world’s displaced as well as a clear and simple ask: donate $5-$25 to invest in the displaced. Aggregating these small individual contributions could create significantly sized micro-finance grant pools. Partnering with corporate sponsors to match crowd-funded pools could double the resources available.

These micro-finance pools would then be deployed in two different ways depending on the context and the nature of the host government. Hostile host governments like the Syrian regime would be bi-passed. Partnerships with aid organizations on the ground would be used to distribute and support micro entrepreneurs in refugee and IDP camps.

Friendly host governments would result in advocacy and negotiation. A centralized campaign backbone organization would communicate that new pools of resources are available to displaced and host community populations but the release of those funds will be conditional on the host government allowing the displaced to work and move freely. Again, the funds will be deployed through partnerships with aid organizations already operating on the ground.

Through this new campaign of investment, the displaced could begin rebuilding their professions and small business, empowering them to care for themselves and their families and moving toward a life of dignity and independence.  

Christine Mahoney is an Assistant Professor of Politics and Public Policy at the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy at the University of Virginia. This article is reproduced from the Social Trends Institute with permission.

Failure and Hope: Fighting for the Rights of the Forcibly Displaced is published by Cambridge University Press and is available for purchase at