Dealing with the Refugee Crisis

Peacebuilders and the Refugee Crisis

What follows is one peacebuilder’s take on the refugee crises gripping Europe and the Middle East. Please don’t read it as the official statement of my own or any other organization. In fact, I’m writing it in part to focus our own thinking about how my colleagues and I at the Alliance for Peacebuilding should respond

In the last few days, more and more observers have realized that we have to focus on what caused tens of thousands (so far) to flee as well as on the consequences of their arrival in and for Europe. Frankly, as difficult as it will be to integrate them, that should be doable. After all, a far weaker and poorer Germany integrated millions of refugees at the end of World War II.

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As Nicholas Kristoff of the New York Times and others have pointed out, it is even more important for us to deal with the conflicts in Syria and beyond. And, as he and so many others have pointed out, that will not be easy.

That said, we in the peacebuilding community are honing in on three sets of things that can be done that are not yet on many people’s—let alone politicians—radar screens. No one of them alone will come close to solving the crisis—or better yet crises. However, it is high time we started thinking about short, medium, and long term responses starting with these.

Short Term.Opting_Out_CoverIn several of their books, Chip and Dan Heath talk about what they call bright spots. In almost any crisis, you can find something that “ works” because it somehow defies the odds. In this case, there is no shortage of exmaples of ways people created “end runs” around the violence that could be built on and expanded—but rarely are. Thus, my colleagues the Collaborative for Democratic Action recently published a book on communities that opted out of war in many of the world’s hotspots at the time. A blog post the Alliance for Peacebuilding reprinted this week documented dozens of ways Syrians are showing their resilience by growing food, caring for their children, and more even while the violence rages around them. There are also bright spots waiting to be “lit.” Steve Hilton used part of his recent op-ed column in The New York Times to  show how abandoned industrial complex in Jordan could be repurposed to create jobs and livelihoods for Syrian refugees who are stuck in camps a couple of kilometers away.

Medium Term. Kristoff—and everyone else—who writes about intractable conflicts acknowledges that negotiations to settle them will be long and protracted. However, in the case of Syria and many other troubled places around the world, American law makes it hard for us peacebeuilders to do what we do best and build bridges we people on “the other side,” however you choose to define the other side. To cite but the most obvious example, it is illegal for us to give “material support” to anyone on the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations. No one knows what “material support” actually means, but our members are reluctant to do their jobs which includes reaching out to the likes of Hezbollah or even ISIS itself because we run the risk of going to jail.As the Charity and Security Network advocate, ending or even loosening those restrictions, would make the kinds of informal or Track II negotiations that have had such positive results all but impossible to hold regarding any threat that has any echoes of terrorism in general or 9/11 in particular.

imgresLong Term. We also have to deal with the issues that gave rise to this crisis in the first place. Today’s complex revolts and protests have equally complex causes, many of whose roots have to be traced back over the course of centuries. The Sunni/Shiite split, tensions among Muslims, Christians, and Jews, the imperialism of the last few centuries, poverty, injustice. No one country or organization can solve any of them completely in the foreseeable future. It may also be that the government in Washington is particularly ill placed to take the lead. But here, too, there are bright spots. A growing body of research shows that we have learned a good bit about resolving conflicts over the centuries and doing so with less conflict than was the case in, say, 1015. Hans Rosling’s imaginative videos show how much progress has been made in eroding poverty around the world. The United Nations new Sustainable Development Goals will link peace, prosperity people, planet, and partnerships as a guide to its actions for the next fifteen years.

I’ve only been able to scratch the surface in each of these three areas. No doubt, you could add many more. And that’s the point. We need to get creative about the plight of the refugees and everything that lies behind it.



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