By Naomi Steer, Australia for UNHCR National Director
Of the many images and experiences in my 17 years working with refugees, one stays with me. A young South Sudanese boy who had just crossed into Kenya with a cardboard sign hung around his neck. I first thought he might be begging, but with a closer look I saw written on the sign in English his name, age, mother's name, and a mobile number of a clan leader in Juba to call if anyone knew or had seen her. He was alone as hundreds of new arrivals milled around him. A little boy alone in a sea of humanity, totally lost.
I can't imagine how my teenage son would ever cope in such circumstances. It's heartbreaking to see even one child alone. But increasingly in the many refugee situations I visit I am struck by the sheer number of children, many by themselves and extremely vulnerable. It has become a major part of refugee response work to support unaccompanied children by supporting them in safe spaces, organising foster family placements and tracing lost family.
"It’s time to stop seeing refugees as a ‘problem’ and start seeing the opportunities they bring to all of us."
Only a few weeks ago I returned from Uganda, which now hosts the largest number of refugees in Africa. More than 1.25 million refugees from nearby countries have fled into Uganda to escape conflict and famine. Children make up 62 percent of these refugees, and more than 75,000 refugee children have crossed South Sudan's borders without their families. Many children have been separated from their parents during the fighting or have been sent ahead because it's safer.
UNHCR reported on 19 June that at the end of 2016 there were 65.6 million people forcibly displaced worldwide -- that's 300,000 more than a year earlier, and a new record high. That's 65.6 million stories like the little boy I saw in the camp.
With someone becoming displaced every three seconds, the scale of the crisis can seem overwhelming. And as the number of displaced people grows, we see more and more governments closing the door.
At this critical point in history we must find long-term solutions, while still meeting immediate needs. A global movement underway is the creation of a new Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF) -- an initiative adopted by all 193 Member States at the UN Refugee and Migration Summit last September. Its vision is to redefine our global response to mass displacement. In real terms this means greater support for countries hosting the highest number of refugees, and a more sustainable approach to humanitarian aid that integrates with economic development.
We know that it is consistently the poorest countries, like Uganda, that host the greatest number of refugees. At the end of 2016, 84 per cent of refugees were in low- or middle-income countries.We also know that last year less than 1 percent of refugees were accepted for resettlement in a third country, leaving the vast majority unable to move either back to their homelands or forwards to a new life.
We need more sustainable solutions to help these long term displaced populations, and the countries that are hosting them.
Perhaps there is something Uganda's approach that we can all learn from. On arrival, refugees are given plots of land to farm and live on. They are free to come and go, seek employment and contribute fully to Ugandan society and the economy. Ideally, refugees should live in communities not camps, and host communities should be supported alongside them to help integration.
At a micro level, this philosophy can manifest itself in many ways. In Uganda's Kyaka II settlement, a vocational training centre is being built. The centre will assist 5,000 young refugees, some of whom arrived as unaccompanied children, to learn new skills, become self-sufficient and hopefully set up their own businesses. Courses such as carpentry, agronomy and electronics. Crucially, the centre will offer 2,000 additional enrolments for the local community, which will also take ownership of it once established. This illustrates how humanitarian aid for refugees can dovetail with development for the host country.
Technology also presents concrete economic opportunities. Displaced people with limited access to banks and ATMs can use mobile phones for mobile banking. This is encouraging the emergence of accessible micro-loans for local business development. There is a huge opportunity here for humanitarian aid and economic development to be brought into line.
Ultimately with one in every 113 people displaced worldwide, we need new solutions and a new approach to displacement. It's time to stop seeing refugees as a 'problem' and start seeing the opportunities they bring to all of us.
This piece was first published by HuffPost Australia on 20 June 2017.
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