My previous blog highlighted some troubling aspects to EU and member state migration policy. As an alternative to sole reliance on such policies, there has been a more recent increase in complementary civil society initiatives.

A recent UNHCR national conference on refugee sponsorship programs and student scholarship schemes highlighted but a few of these initiatives, together with the concrete results already achieved: this in the hope that similar ideas might take hold in Ireland. Among the civil society initiatives addressed included the Canadian Refugee 613 refugee sponsorship program, the student refugee program of the World University Service of Canada (WUSC) and the Portuguese student scholarship program. These programs essentially work on an individual-to-individual basis, with minimal state input: individuals looking out for individuals. The strength of these initiatives is that they bring to the fore the similarities, on many levels, between the migrant beneficiaries and their host sponsors. The notion of “the other” slowly dissolves.

Refugee 613 – the Canadian refugee sponsorship program

Refugee 613 is a coalition of citizens, sponsorship groups, NGOs and local government bodies working to open legal pathways for migrants into the community and assisting them in the initial stages of integration. The legal pathway operates through sponsorship groups, who are then assisted in their efforts at welcoming refugees through the Refugee 613 coalition. Refugee 613 acts as a central hub providing information to potential and acting sponsors and connecting the sponsorship groups with such community services as housing, education and health in order to ensure a group effort in assisting refugees in settling in to their new communities.

Sponsorship groups are essentially groups of five or more Canadian citizens or permanent residents who join together to sponsor a refugee and his/her dependents to come to Canada. The sponsorship group must demonstrate that it has the required minimum capital to financially support the refugee beneficiaries for a period of one year. The sponsorship group among them not only provide financial assistance, but also a social network in which refugees can find emotional and practical support.

Initiated in the 1970s, this program is now well established. While primarily a private or community-based initiative, the Canadian government plays a considerable and important part all the same in the initial selection process and security screening in countries of origin. Overall, this initiative has proven a tangible way in which individuals can form part of the global response to the great need of refugees across the world. Not only is it an incredibly rewarding experience for the sponsors, but it has also enriched the communities of Ottawa with diverse skills, energy and perspectives.

WUSC student refugee program

The Student Refugee Program of WUSC is similar to the sponsorship groups assisted by Refugee 613 but on a more specialised basis of education. Through youth-to-youth sponsorship, WUSC’s Student Refugee Program helps student refugees achieve their educational goals by building the capacity of young Canadians to act as sponsors, providing legal pathways for student refugees to pursue their education at a Canadian university as permanent residents and supporting these students in their new environment in Canada.

Student sponsors again provide financial, emotional and practical support to refugee students for a period of 12 months. Most of the finances related to these student sponsorships are raised through fund raising, as well as waivers of tuition fees and some government levies.

One former beneficiary of this initiative described their experience:

“My experiences as a child soldier could have destroyed me, but instead fuelled a passion for championing human rights. In 1993, I finally escaped my captors and spent two years in various refugee camps, until I received the news that a group of young students at the University of Alberta were giving me a chance to pursue my post-secondary education through WUSC’s Student Refugee Program. At a time where I felt powerless, I was given a chance for a better future for myself, my family and my community. I had the drive to survive the horrors that I had seen and lived as a child and teenager, and finally I had an opportunity to change the outcome of my life.” (Alfred Orono Orono, Lawyer, International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), Former Sponsored Student)

A Syrian Student’s account

A Syrian beneficiary of the Portuguese Student Scholarship Program, which functions on a similar basis to the WUSC model, Alaa’ Al Hariri, spoke at the conference and explained how she had never dreamt that she would face problems in continuing her education. On being finally forced to flee her country and following a year-long journey across Europe, she learnt of this program and applied for a placement. She is now doing very well in her architecture studies and acts as a brave advocate for more understanding and human decency in respect of other Syrian migrants. She describes the Portuguese family with whom she lives as her second family in her second country. Her face lit up as she spoke of observing that the lady of the house heartily encouraged her to eat well, in a similar manner to the behaviour of mothers in Syria. Such maternal instincts transcend borders.

The importance of education

Another speaker at the conference, Liam Cunningham (yes, Davos of Game of Thrones renown, but who also works with World Vision to raise awareness on refugee issues), emphasised that the individuals he met in refugee camps across the Middle East had a burning desire for education, almost as great as for food or shelter. Parents in these refugee camps, like any parents, saw education as a means by which their children could pursue their goals away from the confines and limits of the camp. Children equally saw education as a way out of their current nightmarish existence. Education affords these children self-respect and facilitates them in continuing to play their own meaningful part in the global community, in a similar way to refugees who have gone before them, including such talented and vibrant individuals as Albert Einstein, Bob Marley, Oscar Straus, Sigmund Freud, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Jackie Chan, Rachel Weisz and Victor Hugo.

Turning our backs on these young people now will have more serious consequences down the line. Where children in particular are bored, disenfranchised and vulnerable, they will turn to those who offer them an open hand. While it is important not to propagate such irresponsible rhetoric as associating refugees with extremism (I don’t like using the term “terrorism” as there is no internationally agreed definition of this term and so those who use it cannot know to what they refer), it is important to acknowledge this serious risk to young and vulnerable migrants. It is equally important to acknowledge however that while disenfranchisement is a factor, racism and poverty are arguably more so, and that these factors span well beyond the remit of the camp into broader society. It is in our interest to offer that open hand first in order to allow these children pursue their educational goals rather than grow to resent the international community for turning its back on them.

Individual action

Measures that individuals can take need not be huge, and sometimes generosity of nature and an attitude of goodwill can come through in the simple use of a word. Cunningham described how in the refugee camp in the coastal town of Lesvos, Greece, where the economy had plummeted as a result of the decline in tourist interest in a region overwhelmed by refugees, the Mayor, Spyridon Galinos, describes the refugees as guests. Every small gesture counts.