How Can I Help?: Syrian Refugee Crisis Q/A With Emily Arnold-Fernandez

Last week, a tragic image of a drowned Syrian boy whose family was crossing the Mediterranean Sea as refugees made international headlines. The UNHCR estimates that over 4 million Syrians have fled their country since the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011- and the number is still rising.

Last year, Emily Arnold-Fernandez, Founder & Executive Director of Asylum Access, an organization that advocates for refugee rights around the world, provided her insights for our blog on global refugee work rights. For this blog, we asked Emily specifically how donors can help in this latest humanitarian crisis.

Center: What are some things that donors should know about the Syrian refugee crisis?

This is the worst refugee crisis since World War II. Not only have four million Syrians fled their country, but another 6.7 million have been internally displaced, often multiple times. Given recent media coverage, it’s easy to assume that Europe is taking in the most refugees.

However, as Human Rights Watch pointed out in a recent article, the number of refugees entering Europe this year is the equivalent of 0.068% of the EU’s population. Compare that with countries such as Syria’s neighbors, such as Lebanon, for example, whose population is now 20% Syrian refugees.

Donations are much better given where most refugees remain. Refugees face immediate needs- food, water, shelter, and medical attention- and there are many organizations that are helping to address these needs on the ground (see below).

Even more valuable in the long run, however, is political will to change the circumstances that keep refugees desperate in countries like Lebanon and Jordan. Last year, I wrote an op-ed in Forbes explaining the barriers to economic opportunity for refugees in host countries. Most refugees seek safety in countries that bar them from working to feed their families, leading to a cycle of dependency on aid and inability to rebuild their lives. I argue that, in providing aid, we should incentivize host countries to develop transition plans that allow refugees access to equal rights and economic opportunities.

Center: What are the different ways that donors can help?

  • Support organizations providing on-the-ground relief: The list at the end of this blog includes key organizations that are providing food, clean water, medical care, and rescue services for displaced Syrians. While not exhaustive, this is a good place to start for donors who wish to help meet these immediate needs.
  • Support advocacy & legal organizations: Most refugees also need legal aid. Getting refugees to the US, for example, requires processing them where they’ve first fled, usually somewhere in Africa, Asia, or Latin America. Asylum Access and the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project are two organizations that assist with this processing across multiple countries.

St Andrews’ Refugee Services in Egypt, Refugee Solidarity Network in Turkey, Refugee Law Project in Uganda, Kituo Cha Sheria in Kenya and Hong Kong Justice Centre in Hong Kong do the same, but in single countries. Most of these organizations also advocate for changes in law that let refugees live and work freely and safely in their countries of refuge.

  • Engage in direct advocacy for refugee rights: The U.S. has resettled fewer than 2,000 refugees. I encourage individuals to call your Congressional representative and ask that we resettle more Syrians in the U.S. You can also ask them to fund local advocacy organizations in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia that can effectively lobby their governments to treat refugees better, to let them work and rebuild their lives.

Billions of dollars in aid can’t keep up with millions displaced. If the laws don’t change in host countries, refugees will remain severely limited in their ability to rebuild their lives and contribute to the economies of these countries.

The following organizations have been previously profiled by the Center for relief efforts, and are all currently engaged in Syrian relief efforts:

Médecins Sans Frontièrs (Doctors Without Borders): In addition to providing critical medical care to refugees, the agency’s three rescue ships in the Mediterranean can carry hundreds of people to land; on September 2 alone, MSF rescued 1,658 people.

Mercy Corps: Provides clean water, food, temporary shelter, and hygiene kits to families.

Oxfam International: Provides clean drinking water, cash, relief supplies, and connections to medical, legal, and support services. Oxfam has also built shower and toilet blocks in refugee camps, informal settlements, and on deserted routes used by refugees.

Save the Children:  Distributes essentials like diapers, hygiene kits, and food for Syrian children and supports education in Syrian refugee camps.

UNICEF: Delivers vaccines, winter clothes, food, and clean water for children in Syria and neighboring countries.

UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR): Delivers rescue kits (thermal blanket, towel, water, food, & clothing) to survivors arriving at refugee camps; runs reception centers where refugees can be registered and receive medical care; provides temporary emergency shelter, and provides specialist support and care to children travelling alone.

World Food Programme (WFP): Delivers food to people affected by conflict, malnourished children, pregnant women, and nursing mothers.

Note: We have removed International Rescue Committee from this list of organizations engaged with Syrian relief efforts pending investigations into some of the vendors they contracted with in Turkey.