The situation in the Middle East makes World Refugee Day that of particular importance this year, we’re not celebrating returning refugees to their homes, rather the displacement of over 1.5 million people from their homes and their shift to a makeshift life of agony and despair in cramped refugee camps.
In a region torn by wars and internal conflict, it’s inevitable for it to be occupied by people affected by non-existing citizenships. From the 700,000-turned-5-million refugees of Palestine’s Nakba, to the millions of Iraqi refugees, to those exiled during the Egyptian, Libyan, and Syrian conflicts – it seems that growing up without a country is becoming just as normal as growing up with a country, and the lives of human beings have turned into stagnant statistics.
History repeats itself
The Zaatari camp was set up in Jordan to aid Syrian refugees less than a year ago, but within weeks, it had reached its maximum capacity. Over 65 years after the great 1948 exile of Palestinians from their homeland, the Nakba, Palestinian refugee camps still exist. Why do refugee camps like al-Yarmouk in Damascus and Baq’a in Jordan still exist, decades later? The dwindling conditions of the camps make life near impossible to bear, and build a dependency on international aid organisations and government aid. The mounting dependency, coupled with the population growth rate makes the situation unsustainable.
Refugee camps must exist, yes, but they cannot serve as a temporary solution to a permanent problemYara al-Wazir
Granted, the political situation surrounding the camps are also unsustainable; refugee camps must exist, yes, but they cannot serve as a temporary solution to a permanent problem. Refugees must be given the opportunity, backing, and support to restart their lives so that they can eventually make their own way back to their homes, once the political situation has stabilised.
Had the Palestinian families who fled in 1948 been subjected to the same curfews and regulations of the camps currently exercised in Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan, they would have never made it out, and I would have spent the rest of my life living in a temporary clay house.
Women and cattle in camps
Perhaps the most worrying and shocking statistics about the refugee camps are those regarding women: Al-Arabiya has shed light on the marriage crisis looming at the camps and how women are close to being treated as cattle on the market, trading freedom for marriage. Fear of the future is blinding, and although realistically, there’s no proper method of monitoring this situation closely, women’s rights and access to education is something that can be given more attention, as well as access to primary healthcare facilities. With education and awareness, comes maturity and understanding that temporary marriages too cannot serve as temporary solutions to permanent problems. At the end of the day, these women fled everything they know and all that is familiar in plight of a brighter future, only to find themselves tuck between a sandy rock and a hard place.
Moving forward, going backwards
Once the wars are over and the sand blows over, what happens? Since the rules and regulations of some camps dictate curfews, which impede on opportunities, one must wonder where will the refuges find the money to get home? How will they rebuild their homes that have one turned to rubble? Without integrating them into the geography and economies of the countries in which they seek refuge, the situation will become another unsustainable cycle, similar to the Palestinian camps scattered around the region.
The UNHCR’s efforts in the region are not to go unnoticed; its very existence as an organisation gives hope to those in conflict, however, the stagnancy of the development of refugees, both personal, emotional, and economical is worrying. Even once allowed out of the camps, the future of the refugees must be monitored until they return to their homeland, after all, Kuwait’s expulsion of 400,000 Palestinian refugees in 1991 who had indeed rebuilt their lives in Kuwait is not forgotten.
The perpetual refugee status and dilemma of being denied the citizenship rights of the countries that these refugees helped build is not only emotionally and physically draining on them, but also on the economies of the respective countries in which they sought refuge. Rather than investing in property and businesses, they continue to live in fear of what may happen tomorrow. Rather than creating businesses that can stimulate the economy, they shut down their entrepreneurial spirits and accept any job that comes their way.
If the political situation is not changing, we must change our response and not let people suffer. The aid we give can not be limited to tinned-foods and blankets, but must go beyond our own personal comfort zones: accepting that not all governments know how to treat their people, nor do all aid organisations know how to do their jobs. We must accept these refugees, and not just by awarding them the refugee status, but accept them into our communities, integrating them, and giving them the opportunities that we once had. After all, at one point in our family tree, we all fled a war.
Yara al-Wazir is a humanitarian activist. She is the founder of The Green Initiative ME and a developing partner of Sharek Stories. She can be followed and contacted on twitter @YaraWazir