by Anna Vogt
Everywhere we traveled in the Middle East, part of an MCC advocacy learning tour, people opened the doors to their homes or offices and proudly proclaimed: “You are welcome here!”
We were greeted with conversation, delicious food, and a glimpse into the challenging and beautiful work of responding to people on the move. Migration, especially forced displacement, has shaped many of the realities in the countries we visited. Protracted conflict, often exacerbated by foreign military interventions, has heightened tensions and insecurities throughout the Middle East region. Many people have been forced to leave home and seek a different life.
We spent time in Jordan, one of the most hospitable countries in the world with a long history of receiving people on the move. One in fourteen people in Jordan is a refugee and the country hosts the second highest shares of refugees per capita globally. Jordan is also a crossroads for people from around the world who arrive to work, study or search for different opportunities, including MCC workers. Many of the people we meet who are currently responding to arriving refugees had their own stories of displacement and journeys to Jordan to share with us.
When we visited Jesuit Refugee Services, an MCC partner located in Amman, Jordan, one of the teachers in the community centre identified as being from the West Bank. With exclamations of delight, MCC staff who have previously worked in Palestine played a unique version of the Mennonite Game as they realized they had taught members of her family.
Many Palestinians were first displaced when the State of Israel was established in 1948. During the Six Day War in 1967, 300,000 Palestinians fled from the West Bank and Gaza to Syria, Jordan, Egypt and elsewhere. Currently, according to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, there are more than 2 million registered Palestinian refugees in Jordan. The ongoing conflict in Syria has meant that Palestinian refugees living in Syria have once again been forced to flee and make the difficult journey to Jordan, along with thousands of Syrians.
Today there are over 750,000 persons of concern registered with the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) in Jordan. This includes over 650,000 Syrians, accounting for about 10 percent of Jordan’s population. As of April 2019, 86,632 people were from countries other than Syria: 66,823 Iraqi, 11,477 Yemeni, 4,211 Sudanese, 819 Somalis, and 1651 from other countries.
For many refugees, as with Palestinians, displacement is long term and most likely takes place in a country neighboring their country of origin. Today, a refugee or asylum seeker spends a global average of 10 to 26 years in a state of displacement, without the possibility of return to their home or resettlement to a third country. Contrary to common perceptions, this usually doesn’t mean life in a camp, but rather an attempt to earn a living on the margins of urban centres. In many countries, governments don’t provide access to work permits or crucial services to refugees, making stability and local integration a challenge. Humanitarian assistance is helpful, but in many cases, the vital development, peacebuilding and long-term projects that allow for integration and a life of dignity are often lacking.
In response to Syrians arriving in Jordan, the international community and the Jordanian government have tried to change this pattern by putting a major effort in place to support Syrians and vulnerable Jordanians. This collaborative response has included access to work permits, education and visas, along with increased humanitarian and development funding.
As we sat and visited with partners in Jordan, often over tiny cups of Arabic coffee or mint tea, organizations expressed concerns that this approach, however well intentioned, has meant that Syrians have ended up receiving preferential treatment by the international community and major NGOs. This doesn’t mean that Syrians do not deserve attention. Rather, all refugees, including those fleeing violence from the many different conflicts in the region, should all be able to experience the same level of response and care.
We heard that this differential treatment of refugees according to nationality groups has resulted in fragmentation. Due to the focus on Syrian refugees, the needs of non-Syrian refugees aren’t considered to the same extent when projects are planned or access to funding is granted. This has real life impacts on access to public services, opportunities for legal work, and development programs. It is harder for NGOs to get funding to provide support for non-Syrian refugees. Concerns are growing that tensions between groups can arise as access to life giving assistance is further stretched as displaced populations grow.
MCC partners advocate for a one refugee approach, in which all refugees are able to access the same services and supports, no matter where they come from. Along with advocacy, MCC partners attempt to fill in the gaps, to vulnerable Jordanians and refugees alike, providing humanitarian, development, and psychosocial assistance to meet urgent needs while also focusing on people’s ability to live well in Jordan over the long term.
The focus of the international media on conflict and stories of Syrians on the move has generated an impressive and needed response. It’s important, however, as we pay attention to news stories and when we feel compassion to respond, to consider the stories that we may not be seeing, both of those in need and those responding. Asking questions about the larger context not only helps us respond in a way that creates less harm, it also provides insights into creative ways of welcome that cross borders, nationalities and official definitions.
For example, we met Palestinian refugees providing educational services to those fleeing more recent conflicts. Citizens by birth and recent guests, migrants and refugees, work together to open doors to newcomers and all who need support. Those who may have experienced forced displacement or have lived experience in peacebuilding and conflict understand what approaches are needed to ensure that all are treated with dignity. Leadership and expertise by refugees and people on the move themselves are vital to help identify gaps and new ways of working that we may not realize based on our limited perspectives and experience.
And of course, our work must continue to be dedicated to ensuring that people can move by choice by addressing some of the root causes of forced migration, including economic inequalities, disasters, a changing climate, and conflict.
As we celebrate 100 years of relief, development and peace, I invite you to pay attention to all people on the move, including but not limited to those areas of the world that connect with our borders or are heavily featured on the news. Think about how migration has shaped your own life and join us in asking the Canadian government to address some of the root causes of forced migration by providing more support to local peacebuilding and ending Canada’s military mission in Iraq.
Anna Vogt is Director of the MCC Ottawa Office