What is the “Refugee Crisis”? And why should you care?

AKA: why are there suddenly refugees everywhere, and when are they going to go away? (Hint: never)

This is a summary of the notes I took on the first day of the effect.org “Hacking the Refugee Crisis” expedition in Athens. More on that in a bit, but first…

Crisis, What Crisis?

Today, globally, there are 65 million displaced people. More than ever before.

Refugees have always existed. In the past, a country would go to war; people would be displaced; they’d spend a year or two as refugees; and eventually return home.

Today though, the problem is chronic. Global warming and permanent instability means displaced people no longer have homes to return to. Folks are born and grow up as refugees.

By 2050, there are expected to be 250 million displaced people in the world.

Aren’t they just economic migrants?

I mentioned 65 million displaced people. There are fewer refugees: 22.5 million.

What’s the difference? People fleeing conflict, or risk of personal persecution, are refugees. Those fleeing environmental disaster or lack of jobs are displaced.

Newspapers tell us non-refugees are “economic migrants”?—?eager for an easy life. But think about it. If you had no money to put food on your plate, what would you do? Would you starve, or go look for work?

Climate change is already destroying farmers’ livelihood. Those former-farmers move to cities. There is no work in the cities and so, in ever increasing numbers, they “get on their bikes”, like Norman Tebbit’s father, desperately looking for work.

As global warming worsens, ever more people will have need of their bikes.

Why has this suddenly happened?

As well as global warming, global conflict creates refugees. Western intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq has had a knock-on effect throughout the Middle East.

Locals who collaborated with US forces— Afghan and Iraqi translators, drivers and other staff?—?receive death threats at home. Those who lived, fled. Many now wait in camps in Greece, the USA will not take them in.

At the same time, ancient and new rivalries?—?between Sunni and Shia, Kurd and Iraqi, Afghan tribes, ISIS/DAESH and, well, pretty much everyone?—?resurfaced and forced former neighbours to take to the road.

For a long time, these huge movements of people were invisible to Western eyes. Turkey housed over 2 million displaced people, but became overwhelmed. Desperate folks took to the sea, and were washed up on the shores of Europe. Over 1 million have landed on Greek shores, making people smuggling “the most successful startup of 2015”.

What happened next?

Most of these 1+ million have not stayed in Greece. Angela Merkel’s welcoming stance made Germany the preferred destination for refugees.

To get there they must cross Europe, through countries who would rather not have them, and who (under Dublin treaty) must send them back to Greece.

Germany is happy to accept well-educated Syrian families, but folks from other nations are sent elsewhere. Greece ends up with those nobody wants: young, single males?—?the people who are most at threat from radicalisation.

So what?

The problem is not going away. Even if we can keep refugees off European shores, there are knock-on effects.

People fleeing ISIS are met on European borders with walls and barriers, distrust and antipathy, hunger and waiting?—?endless waiting. They say “we expected bad treatment from ISIS, but we didn’t expect this inhumane reception from “civilised” Europe”.

They’re right. Where has our humanity gone? Why do we treat them as less than human?

Hearing the news, second and third-generation children of immigrants become understandably angry. Some turn against the nations in which they were raised. We are recruiting for ISIS.

How can we fix things?

There is no simple answer, but there are ways to improve things.

Here are some…

Grassroots charities

Multinational NGOs can, and do, alleviate suffering. But often their approach is bureaucratic, slow to adapt, impersonal, and geared towards work inside desperate and failed states, not inside the same European democracies who fund them.

Small, highly targeted, grassroots organisations provide a complementary approach. Just as with the trend in “agile” software development, small fast-moving charities do a better job than big and slow ones. Campfire Innovation is pioneering this approach in Greece, networking small teams, helping them access resources they lack.

Appropriate aid

Too often, aid puts the ego of the donor before the needs of the recipient. Of course, it is important for the donor to feel the warm glow of doing good (I speak as the grandson of Harold Sumption, who invented the modern discipline of charity fundraising, and placed the donor at its heart). But not at all costs. If you give 10 teddy bears to 30 refugee children then you’ve not made the world a better place, instead you have created 20 crying children.

Help them to help themselves

Ultimately, we must allow displaced people to work, to build their own good in the world. Right now, they languish in camps, through weeks?—?months?—?years of boredom, waiting for change.

Vinay Gupta speaks of turning refugee camps into universities and this, to me, sounds practical, doable, and human:

If we won’t let them get jobs and work, let them get PhDs on the internet and become huge academic centres of excellence. There is no problem in this world that access to 150 million more educated human beings would not improve, and maybe in the long run they could fan out across the globe as school teachers.

Footnote: who am I and why am I writing this?

I am a software engineer at Autodesk and am currently volunteering in Athens with effect.org. I’m working here with 15 talented people from Google, Salesforce and Autodesk, helping grassroots charities in Greece to make more efficient use of their resources, to help as many people as possible with the limited money available to them.

This article is based upon my notes from the information-dense first day of my expedition. I welcome your comments and corrections?—?I am no expert, and am writing this late at night in an effort to get my own thoughts straight.

Finally, if you are able to make a donation, however small, to my fundraising page then my ego will thank you, as will your warm glow. More importantly, your money will be doing real good, here on the ground, in Greece and around the world.