Creating a new norm for refugees

By Sheikha Shamma bint Sultan bin Khalifa Al Nahyan


Emily Eldridge

Education, access to training in vocational and business skills, and fostering entrepreneurial spirit will help make it possible for refugees to integrate within their communities, to live with dignity and partake in the global economy writes Sheikha Shamma bint Sultan bin Khalifa Al Nahyan.

The plight of people fleeing persecution and natural disasters is worsening, causing a global humanitarian crisis of immense proportions. This has led to 70.8 million people being displaced and causing a development challenge. In light of the current economic system, where infinite growth is the new norm using finite resources, and the climate crisis facing the world, mass migrations are showing little sign of abating.  

Countries shouldering the bulk of the burden are, themselves, developing nations. The majority of refugees who have fled from Syria are hosted by Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. According to the United Nations Higher Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), high-income countries around the world have taken in less than 20 per cent of the refugee diaspora. 

We are seeing the refugee crises becoming more protracted, and people’s lives affected by a lack of funding. As of 2018, there has been a funding gap of 94 per cent, and official developmental assistance has been decreasing. Many countries are reducing their foreign aid, so it is of utmost importance that we recognise and address the issues of integration and self-reliance. 

Refugee populations are at risk of becoming ‘forgotten populations’ as a result of the lack of integration. An example of this is the Dadaab camp in Kenya, where refugees have lived for 27 years after fleeing Somalia. Another well-known example of the negative impact is the plight of the Palestinian people who have been in camps for over 70 years. The concept of housing refugees in ‘camps’ was originally created as a temporary solution, and a relief mechanism to accommodate the large influx of displaced people moving across the border. 

The irony is that our world is so globalised, and yet so polarised. How can we change the narrative of refugees and see them as humans with the ability to contribute to the global economy? How can we give them meaningful work and dignity, using their talents to improve their livelihoods? The one thing that all these people have in common is time. This is the one commodity they can exploit to learn new skills and trades. I recently heard about a wonderful initiative where women at a camp in Jordan were being trained as stone masons, a trade that is traditionally linked to men. Of the 45 students, all of them have since found employment, and have the skills to reconstruct historical buildings and preserve heritage. 

During my time researching the entrepreneurial intentions of youth in refugee camps, I conducted a survey that included a question asking them what profession they wanted to pursue. Among the hundreds of responses received, one young girl stated, ‘Anything, but not a refugee’. Statistics show that 90 per cent of refugee children suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. However, research has shown that low to mid-levels of post-traumatic stress can have a positive effect by stimulating post-traumatic growth: in other words, increasing the individual’s desire to improve their situation. Regardless of gender, my study within the refugee camp produced a surprising result; all the young people surveyed expressed high entrepreneurial intentions. 

“We should ensure that all refugee children receive an education”

Sheikha Shamma bint Sultan bin Khalifa Al Nahyan

We must change mind-sets and remove the fear that many people have by showcasing the benefits refugees and migrants bring to their host countries. The power of the media can play a crucial role in promoting empathy, building unity and eradicating the fear of differences. 

Unlike economic migrants, refugees do not possess visas, and often face issues relating to the lack of human and socio-economic rights. A critical issue is that not all refugees can be processed or documented at an international level. Fleeing without documentation occurs because documents can easily be destroyed. These documents are crucial when looking for work. An initiative called ID2020 has been created to help recognise 1.1 billion people who lack any recognised proof of existence.  

The Middle East is home to the largest number of youth in the world. We should ensure that all refugee children receive an education, and that they have access to training in vocational and business skills. A study was conducted that showed a definite relationship between a lack of youth employment opportunities and conflict and violence, especially if the young people in question had no education or a low level of education.

A recent report published by the UNHCR showed that in 2019, 77 per cent of refugee children were enrolled in primary school, however, enrollment figures for secondary school stood at a significantly lower 31 per cent, and only three per cent at the level of higher education. The relentless spread of COVID-19 has only heightened this challenge. While the pandemic has disrupted the education of children across the globe, it has been particularly detrimental to the youth in already vulnerable communities. Limited access to technology and connectivity means that these young people do not have the option to utilise the e-learning platforms from which their counterparts in other parts of the world have benefited.

In addition, not enough emphasis has been placed on the role of business in alleviating the burden on countries hosting refugees. I believe that the private sector has a great deal of untapped resources to provide opportunities for refugees. Nowadays, some corporate revenues exceed that of some country’s economies. For example, Apple Inc.’s market capitalisation of US$1.3 trillion accounted for 1.5 per cent of global GDP in 2018, and Walmart’s revenues in 2017 were greater than the GDP of Belgium in 2016. 

With an uncertain future and with a majority of people living near coastal areas or earthquake zones, we need to share the responsibility of our planet and care a little more for our fellow humans. My hope is that refugee camps will cease to exist, by making it possible for all refugees to integrate within their communities and live in dignity with the means to partake in the global economy.