Like many of you, I am still learning about the refugee crisis. These past months I have been reading news articles and commentaries on the causes, issues, and concerns surrounding not only the Syrian refugees, but refugees all around the world. I have spoken with people in the US who work with refugees who are being resettled here, and listened to speakers and read stories of those who have visited or worked in the refugee camps in the Middle East.
I watched in anguish as the news broke of tiny Aylan Kurdi. Images of his body as it washed up on the shores of Turkey, having drowned in his parents’ attempt to save him from the dangers in his homeland, struck a cord across the world. Stories poured in of thousands of overcrowded rafts making their way across the Mediterranean Sea and the many lives lost in the process. Until that time I really hadn’t given boats too much thought.
Last month I read an article about Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres) working with Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) using large ships in the Mediterranean Sea to rescue refugees who were fleeing Syria. MOAS and MSF were picking these refugees out of the sea, some literally. These boats have been outfitted and staffed to house refugees, feed them, and provide for their medical care.
I couldn’t get over this idea. Brilliant!
Why are we not doing more of this?
And not just with a few MOAS boats , but with old cruise ships and out-of-date military boats. While I have never been on a cruise I have a pretty good idea what they are like. These large boats were designed for people to live on. Maybe not forever, but they have sleeping quarters, ample facilities for meal preparation, sanitation facilities (toilets, showers), and lots of space for medical needs, education, and the mountains of paperwork that would come with moving people during an international crisis. Think about how long sailors on a Navy vessel can live on board a battleship. Everything necessary is right there.
I had been pondering this idea for weeks, wondering why it hasn’t been done when I got my first real understanding of why my brilliant plan might not work as well as I had hoped. I was watching a video put out by IKEA of all places. It said that the average length of stay for a refugee in a refugee camp is 12 years. Twelve years. According to the US State Department that number has actually grown to 17 years in in situations where there is long-term conflict. Young children brought into a refugee camp may spend their entire childhoods living in one of these camps. Many will grow up without schooling. Parents are unable to work due to a variety of factors such as a lack of paperwork to allow them to work in a foreign nation and the lack of jobs available. Families will subsist on what international government and NGO (non-governmental organization) aid is available.
Living on a ship might work for a few months or even a year or two in a pinch. It could provide immediate relief to crisis situations, maybe as the first line of action after an international incident breaks out. Longer-term problems on the other hand require more permanent solutions. Fortunately, engineers have been working on this problem. The IKEA Foundation is working to provide more durable shelters that are easy to assemble, contain solar panels to provide indoor light, have better temperature control, and provide better protection from the elements. They are expected to ship 10,000 of these out to UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) in 2015.
Technological advances have been very beneficial to refugees in the recent years. The publicity of the Syrian Refugees has added to increased funding for refugees, which has been life saving. UNICEF’s “No Lost Generation Initiative” is aiming to provide Internet-based educational services to the 13 million children who are being deprived of their education as a result of the Syrian conflict. Refunite is a charity that is helping refugees and internally displaced persons connect and reunite with loved ones using their mobile phones. Of course, in order for those mobile phones to work, there must be cellular service. GSMA and its Humanitarian Connectivity Charter are seeing that service becomes available for the agencies working the crisis as well as the refugees.
So whether it’s a boat outfitted as an aid station, or a cellular network providing communication services, people from all sectors and all nations are coming together to make a difference. Your skills are needed no matter what they happen to be, and your funding support is essential in seeing that these much needed projects can succeed. For the families who will be living in these camps for the next decade or two, these are more than comforts; they are real necessities.