With the sheer scope of the global refugee crisis – the biggest the world has seen since WWII – it’s natural to quantify, homogenize, and bureaucratize the issue. But when we do so, we lose the one thing that refugees need more than anything else: humanity.
Refugees need food, water and other basics to stay alive, but after enduring such danger, humanity is essential and it does not cost a thing. Friendlier faces, processes, and language might be the greatest investment any state can make, with greater impact than other projects that cost far more. Traumatized human beings who barely survived unspeakable horrors, who have lost everything they worked for and cared for, and who were forced out of their homes need more than inflatable tents and food upon arrival in a foreign land. They need more compassion than bureaucratic institutions offer, more tenderness than the border control and police officers show, and assurances that they can rebuild their interrupted lives. Instead, they are often greeted by the loud calls of populists who now rule much of the free world; who are compelled to close doors and shut borders on them.
As someone who has worked with displaced people seeking asylum from Africa and the Middle East, I have experienced first-hand how difficult and costly it is to help all those affected by conflict. However, if there is no humanity in humanitarian assistance, then the battle is lost from the start. The words of one refugee I worked with in my time in Germany – Mustafa – sum up the dehumanization of the asylum process perfectly:
I didn’t take so many risks on this journey for this kind of treatment. I endured feeling like livestock on the back of that truck only for the chance of feeling like a human being again. I don’t need Germany’s money or shelter, I just want my humanity to be acknowledged – I am a living breathing person, not a number or a statistic. I’m heading home not because Syria is safer than how I left it, but because despite the fear, I felt more human there than I do now. I may or may not live for much longer after I go back, but at least I will feel human for as long as I will live. I just wish Germany will start treating those who are staying at least the way dogs are treated in Germany. That would be a major leap forward.
Mustafa filed for a retraction of his asylum application soon after and signed up to return to war-torn Syria. That’s the last I heard from him. The 24-year-old engineer, fluent in Arabic, English, Japanese and German, felt so dehumanized by the process that he preferred to take his chances with Assad and ISIS.
How can we re-inject humanity into humanitarian aid, and how will humanization actually help? First, we must recognize that humanizing responses to the refugee crisis can be part of the solution to the crisis itself. Among refugees worldwide are millions of doctors and lawyers, teachers and engineers, entrepreneurs and agriculturalists – every profession under the sun, ready and willing help both their fellow refugees and their newfound host communities. Instead of harnessing this extraordinary talent, it too often goes unknown – squandered in idleness or red tape. In Germany, I saw PhDs, MDs, and professionals from every field who were perfectly able to improve the world around them, yet had no choice but to suffer inertia in shelters for months, restricted from helping others or even themselves. Allowing refugees to use their skills would benefit them and their host countries immensely.
Second, humanizing the response to refugees invites the population of host countries to participate directly. Although I’m not technically a refugee myself (not in the legal sense, at least), I can personally attest that no amount of formal assistance, benefits, or legal status can measure up to the astronomical value of the human attention and solidarity from a few caring individuals. Such people helped me get through the harrowing days of uncertainty, anxiety and sadness after leaving my country. If we could pair small groups of refugees with individuals from host countries (perhaps using an app similar to popular dating apps), it would humanize the refugee experience while simultaneously building intercultural and interfaith understanding among citizens of host countries.
Finally, incoming refugees who feel welcomed, cared for, and fully humanized are more likely to integrate quickly into their host countries. This offers direct advantages for the country itself. This type of integration would soothe tensions and encourage refugees to become productive, tax-paying citizens of their new society. Integrated refugees would not be a burden; instead, investing in refugees would reap dividends both immediately and into the future.
We should turn the way we view the refugee crisis on its head. The last time we witnessed a refugee crisis like this – during World War II – the world was a very different place. Unfortunately, in many ways, the refugee process has stayed the same. Instead of viewing refugees as gigantic problem to be solved, why not look at the issue through the lens of opportunity? This is a chance to allow new talent, expertise and perspectives to enrich us all. Nobody wants to leave their home and everything they know and hold dear. But if we recognize the humanity of each and every refugee, we can offer real help to those who need it most, while paving the way for a better future for all of us.
Mohamed Abubakr is a Sudanese human rights activist and peacemaker with over a decade of experience in the nonprofit sector. He has founded or directed multiple NGOs focused on humanitarian programs across MENA and volunteered in, worked for, and founded numerous national and international civil society organizations including in Darfur, South Sudan, Sudan, Egypt, Israel, and the Palestinian Territories. Since arriving in the United States, he has become a sought after voice at the State Department and in Congress concerning policy and human rights issues.