afghan refugeesThe recent resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan has sparked fear in Afghan citizens, resulting in large numbers of Afghans fleeing Afghanistan to seek refuge in other countries. Some countries have welcomed Afghan refugees with open arms, but others simply do not have the capacity to host large groups of refugees. As many countries around the world scurry to help Afghan refugees find shelter, Airbnb has stepped up to help. “The displacement and resettlement of Afghan refugees in the U.S. and elsewhere is one of the biggest humanitarian crises of our time. We feel a responsibility to step up,” says Airbnb CEO, Brian Chesky.

Airbnb to the Rescue

On August 24, 2021, Airbnb announced the offering of “free temporary housing” for roughly 20,000 Afghan refugees across the globe. Two days after, on August 26, the company added that any ordinary individual, not just the company’s “hosts,” can offer temporary housing through its services. This may potentially open up substantially more temporary housing options. For Afghan refugees, this offer of temporary shelter could bring some stability amid a crisis. For world governments, temporary housing could be key to avoiding a repeat of the Syrian refugee crisis.

Airbnb’s plan comes through its Open Homes platform, a tool created by the company in 2017 after former President Trump’s administration implemented a travel ban on several predominantly Muslim nations, including war-torn and heavily displaced Syria. At the time, countries such as Germany were grappling with a surge of refugees from Syria. Airbnb’s plan in 2017 looked to “provide short-term housing over the next five years for 100,000 people in need.” The company is building on that promise through the Open Homes platform.

How the Open Homes Platform Works

The purpose of Open Homes is to “Give people a place to call home in times of crisis.” Open Homes serves as a middle ground for refugees from Afghanistan and other conflicted nations to create a plan for more permanent housing. Airbnb’s platform works as a tool for hosts to open their homes to screened and approved guests including refugees. According to the company’s website, hosts receive a guide on the process of listing their home as a temporary residence.

The process is similar to Airbnb’s staple rental service. However, Airbnb’s announcement on August 26 made it clear that more than established hosts can use the platform to help. The platform relies on donations to cover the costs of temporary housing. Donations can be made by anyone willing to help cover the costs of refugee stays. For Afghan refugees, the platform is established and tested and may serve as an important tool in navigating the crisis.

The Importance of Temporary Housing

By definition, a refugee is an individual that cannot return to their home country due to reasons that jeopardize their safety and well-being. As the Afghan refugee crisis begins, there is precedent that can serve as guidance for how the U.S. can address this humanitarian issue. From past refugee crises, humanitarian groups find that shelter is one of the most important aspects of addressing the issue. Without a place to call home, refugees are denied the basic rights to adequate shelter and safety.

Temporary housing provides safety while refugees find more stable living situations. An influx of refugees with no place to go places greater strain on governmental agencies. This also potentially means more taxpayer money would go toward temporary housing subsidies and the governmental mediation of desperate refugees. Private options such as Open Homes can supplement the burden that the government and taxpayers struggle to fill.

According to the nonprofit Refugees Welcome!, asylum seekers lack “access to housing, food stamps or other benefits afforded to documented immigrants or citizens.” For people forcibly displaced by conflict such as current Afghan refugees, programs such as Open Homes provide a solution to the lack of safe and proper shelter for influxes of refugees. Open Homes may be the only viable option for families forced out of a nation.

To help address the Afghan refugee crisis, Airbnb’s Open Homes platform provides a commendable solution. Even an ordinary individual can get involved in this initiative, providing hope to vulnerable people with no place to call home.

– Harrison Vogt
Photo: Flickr

TusseThe 19-year-old singer Tusse recently represented the country of Sweden at the 2021 Eurovision Song Contest. Tusse first rose to fame after advancing to the semi-finals of Sweden’s Got Talent and later winning Swedish Idol in 2019. With the song “Voices,” Tusse took 14th place at Eurovision. As a Congolese refugee, Tusse uses his platform to educate and empower young people facing similar challenges as he has.

Tusse’s Journey

Tusse, whose real name is Tousin Michael Chiza, was born in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in 2002. At 5 years old, Tusse and his family fled to a Ugandan refugee camp due to the civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He left with his aunt, siblings and cousins. The escape effort separated Tusse from his parents. The family spent three years in the refugee camp until Sweden granted them asylum. The family then settled in Kullsbjörken, Sweden, in 2015 when Tusse was 13 years old. Tusse says that retaining his Congolese culture, filled with music and dancing, is what drove him to become a performer and singer, ultimately leading him to the Eurovision stage.

Civil War-Torn Country

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is the second-largest African country and has faced conflict for decades. The country experienced its second civil war from 1997 to 2003, only a year after the end of the First Congo War. Sometimes called the “African World War” due to the involvement of several neighboring countries, the war claimed close to six million lives directly through the effects of fighting or indirectly through malnutrition, financial despair or disease. Economic and political reasons surrounding the nation’s vast mineral wealth fueled the war.

Despite a peace deal at the war’s conclusion, violent conflict continued in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This conflict was due to poor governance, weak institutions and rising corruption. Armed conflict rose among dozens of rebel groups, consequently affecting and disrupting civilians’ lives. More than 2.1 million people were newly displaced in 2017 and 2018, nationally. In Africa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo has the highest number of internally displaced people at more than five million.

Overall, the conflict has subjected Congolese residents to significant human rights violations, extreme poverty and widespread rape and sexual assault. Efforts from the African Union and the United Nations to help implement sustainable development and defuse tensions have struggled to see success. As a result, most civilians are forced to flee and seek asylum elsewhere.

Sweden’s Relationship with Refugees

Sweden has one of the most generous refugee policies in Europe. Sweden has actively welcomed refugees seeking asylum in the country. However, there has been some domestic pushback to this hospitable policy, particularly in 2015, following the migration crisis when Sweden received more than 160,000 refugees, the most per capita in the European Union. This tension was heightened when many other European countries were unwilling to accept the influx of refugees. As a result, the Swedish government passed a temporary measure limiting refugee rights to the bare minimum of what the country had previously agreed to under international conventions. Despite this, Sweden continues to receive significantly more refugees than the rest of Europe.

Tusse’s Advocacy

Tusse uses his platform and story to empower other young refugees and educate his fans on refugees’ challenges. He works with UNICEF and recently performed at Sweden’s UNICEF Gala. UNICEF utilizes partners on the ground to deliver assistance to displaced families and support children’s needs and rights. Among other projects, the organization provides and distributes hygiene kits, clean water, vaccinations for children and treatments for malnutrition.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) supported Tusse and two other Eurovision performers with refugee backgrounds prior to the competition. Manizha, a singer representing Russia, fled Tajikistan in 1994, and Ahmad Jodeh, a Dutch ballet dancer, is a Syrian refugee.

Tusse uses his music to share and voice his experiences as a refugee. At Eurovision, he sang “Voices,” which is about “fellowship, freedom and the importance of all voices being heard.” By gracing the Eurovision stage, Tusse brought awareness to the struggles of his home country, the challenges of adjusting to life as a refugee abroad and the resilience of young refugees.

– Simran Pasricha
Photo: UNHCR

Syrian Refugees in Lebanon
Lebanon is currently experiencing an economic crisis that, according to the World Bank, is one of the most severe economic crises worldwide since the 19th century. The impact of the crisis is widespread. More than 70% of Lebanon’s population currently lacks access to basic necessities such as food. Not even the wealthy are insulated from the impact of the current crisis, as previously affluent families are being pushed into poverty. Syrian refugees in Lebanon are particularly vulnerable to the crisis.

The Status of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon

Approximately 1.7 million refugees are believed to be living in Lebanon as of 2020, with 1.5 million originating from Syria. Of these Syrian refugees, more than 80% are not legal residents, placing them in a precarious position. Syrians who have legal status either entered the country before 2015 or have a sponsor in the country. These Syrians must also pay a $200 fee every year. Lebanon practices non-refoulement of refugees, which should protect the right of Syrian refugees to live in Lebanon. However, the Lebanese government implemented policies that streamlined the process for Syrians to leave Lebanon in 2020 and expressed interest in having Syrian refugees return to their country of origin.

Syrian refugees in Lebanon often struggle to access services such as educational opportunities despite having the legal right to attend public schools. Because they typically live in temporary or informal housing, it can be difficult for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to locate Syrian refugees in order to help them. Factors such as language barriers can also present a challenge to Syrian refugees. Approximately 90% of Syrian refugees in Lebanon live on less than half of the Lebanese minimum wage.

Syrian Refugees in the Lebanese Economic Crisis

Due to political instability, debt, banking problems and economic stagnation, Lebanon entered its current crisis in October 2019. Prior to October 2019, approximately 55% of Syrian refugees in Lebanon lived in poverty, demonstrating that the Syrian refugee community needed support even prior to the crisis. Today, approximately 90% of Syrian refugees live in extreme poverty, showing a significant increase in poverty levels during the economic crisis.

As poverty levels among Syrian refugees in Lebanon increased, the value of Lebanon’s currency, the Lebanese pound, decreased. Between 2019 and 2021, Lebanese food prices increased by 402%. Consequently, Syrian refugees who generally struggled to afford basic necessities prior to the start of the crisis now have even less purchasing power. Syrian refugees in Lebanon are accumulating debt because they lack the funds to buy everyday necessities. Even for Syrian refugees who can afford everyday necessities, accessing products, such as medication, is proving difficult as pharmacies face shortages.

Not all refugees are equally impacted by the crisis. Syrian refugee households headed by women experience disproportionately high rates of food insecurity. Children in these households are particularly vulnerable to the crisis. Unfortunately, Lebanese child labor rates nearly doubled between 2019 and 2020. Additionally, the rate of child labor is higher in Syrian refugee households headed by women than in households run by men.

The economic crisis is also contributing to anti-refugee sentiments. Prior to the start of the crisis, Lebanese politicians used the pending economic crisis to justify anti-refugee rhetoric. As economic conditions deteriorate for the entire country, native Lebanese people blame Syrian refugees for taking their opportunities away.

Providing Aid for Refugees

Several organizations provide support for Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Organizations such as the World Food Programme (WFP) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) are longstanding aid providers for refugees living in Lebanon. UNHCR Lebanon has prioritized humanitarian assistance to Syrians through cash cards, vouchers and ATM cards in order for them to secure basic necessities at local markets. These purchases, in turn, stimulate the local economy. In 2018, the UNHCR provided cash support of $175 per month to nearly 33,000 Syrian households. Similarly, the WFP provides food assistance to Syrian refugees and struggling Lebanese by providing e-cards credited with $27 at the start of each month so that individuals can buy food from local stores.

As poverty increases in the country, the need for aid to the general population is increasing. With cities such as Tripoli facing poverty rates as high as 85% among their residents, the Lebanese government is focusing on providing widespread relief for the population. The Lebanese parliament recently approved measures to support more than half a million families in Lebanon, fortunately including Syrian refugees.

– Caroline Kuntzman
Photo: Flickr

Venezuela TPS ActVenezuela is currently experiencing “the second-largest migration crisis” in the world. More than five million people have fled the country in the past five years. Many Venezuelans look to the United States as a potential place of refuge to escape the extreme poverty in Venezuela. To help accommodate the refugees, Rep. Darren Soto (D-FL-9) introduced H.R. 161: Venezuela TPS Act of 2021 in the House of Representatives. The bill will grant Venezuelan refugees temporary protected status (TPS) and other authorizations.

H.R. 161: Venezuela TPS Act of 2021

Introduced on January 4, 2021, the Venezuela TPS Act of 2021 is a bill that would make Venezuelan citizens eligible for temporary protected status, allowing refugees to stay, work and travel in the United States for 18 months from the date of legal enactment if the bill becomes law.

Many Venezuelan refugees had to completely abandon their old lives and seek out a better one without a plan in mind. With 96% of Venezuelans living in poverty, it is clear that there are very few opportunities left in Venezuela. As a result, Venezuelans need support and opportunities to succeed in a country that is not their own. On March 4, 2021, the House referred the bill to the Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship for further review.

Accepting Refugees Benefits the US

The U.S. is currently experiencing labor shortages in low-skilled jobs in the wake of COVID-19. According to research from The Conference Board, 85% of companies in blue-collar industries are struggling with recruitment. These jobs range from factory work to service jobs with commercial fast food employers.

Venezuelan refugees are eager to work and earn money to provide for their families in essentially any role. Many U.S. citizens are not interested in such jobs and hold degrees that make them more suitable for the white-collar industry. However, most Venezuelan nationals would be more than willing to fulfill these roles. This allows the refugees to earn an income while also helping the U.S. reduce its labor shortages. In this way, the Venezuelan TPS Act will aid the U.S. economy while providing a path out of poverty for Venezuelans.

Federal Register TPS Notice

On March 9, 2021, the Federal Register posted a notice that Venezuela would be granted TPS for 18 months through September 9, 2022, just five days after Congress moved the bill to the Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship. President Biden granted this allowance as part of his campaign promises. This allowance makes 323,000 Venezuelan people eligible to receive the same entitlements expressed in the Venezuela TPS Act of 2021. The bill still remains alive in the House, however.

Columbia is a good example of an open-door refugee policy. Colombia has been a leader in the refugee crisis, granting TPS to Venezuelan refugees for up to 10 years. This has helped nearly two million Venezuelans in the process. It is important to realize that most Venezuelan refugees are not looking to permanently settle in a new country and would rather return to Venezuela once the country is no longer under the dictatorship of President Nicolás Maduro. In a survey conducted by GBAO, 79% of Venezuelan refugees said they would be likely to return to Venezuela if the president was replaced by “an opponent of the Maduro regime” and the economy improved.

Extended TPS for Venezuelans

An improved home country is likely going to take longer than 18 months given the scale of the crisis in Venezuela. As a result, the U.S. should grant Venezuela TPS for longer than 18 months. Making this change falls on the members of the Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship as the Subcommittee is responsible for deliberating and suggesting changes to the Venezuela TPS Act. Increasing the span of Venezuela’s TPS would grant more long-term stability to hundreds of thousands of Venezuelan refugees while providing the U.S. with its labor needs.

The Venezuelan TPS Act of 2021 ensures a better future for Venezuelan refugees. Amending the bill to match Colombia’s provision of 10 years of TPS for Venezuelan refugees will provide long-term protection and support as refugees await the end of the crisis in Venezuela in order to return home.

Jeremy Long
Photo: Flickr

5 Facts about the Burundi Refugee CrisisBurundi is a country in East-Central Africa with a population of about 12.2 million. Trying to escape violence in their home country, thousands of Burundians have fled and become refugees. These people seek shelter in several different countries, and as of October 2020, there are more than 150,000 Burundian refugees in Tanzania, according to Human Rights Watch. The Burundi refugee crisis comes with heartbreaking tragedies. Sadly, Burundian refugees face many obstacles for protection and are often forced to return to Burundi against their will.

Here are five facts about the Burundi refugee crisis.

  1. The Burundi refugee crisis began in 2015. After serving two terms, Burundi’s former president, Pierre Nkurunziza, was expected to step down. When Nkrurnziza refused to do so, civilian protests began and lasted for months. The military responded with violence and targeted civilian killings. Unrest and state-sanctioned human rights violations caused hundreds of thousands of Burundi citizens to seek refuge in surrounding areas. The conflict has killed more than 1,700 people since 2015.
  2. The U.N. Refugee Agency reports that the conflict resulted in more than 333,700 Burundi refugees seeking safety and shelter in other countries. Many of the camps are unable to provide adequate shelter, health services or education. Moreover, many Burundi refugees feel as if the population has nowhere to go.
  3. Tanzania, a country that took in a significant portion of Burundi’s refugees, is no longer a place of refuge. Since 2019, Tanzanian authorities have abused Burundian refugees. They have also forced many refugees to return to Burundi. More than 150,000 Burundians reside in Tanzania, and the Burundians are at risk of suffering the same violations that the population fled from.
  4. Some Burundians feel safe returning to the country following the death of Nkurunziza. Rwanda, in particular, working with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, has a program for the repatriation of Burundian refugees. Nearly 1,500 refugees have registered for the program. While many Burundians are excited to return home, a significant portion does not feel safe returning. The political stability of Burundi is still uncertain, especially with Nkurunziza’s passing being so recent.
  5. Often referred to as the “forgotten” refugee crisis, the Burundi refugee crisis is the lowest funded global situation. In 2020, the cause received only 40% of the funds required to offer protection to the refugees. Even as Burundians are beginning to return home, there is still a significant population of vulnerable Burundi refugees who need assistance.

The 2021 Burundi Refugee Response Plan will ensure that Burundi refugees will be safe wherever they choose to reside. The plan advocates for more education and vocational training and incorporates Burundi refugees into local livelihood activities. It also ensures that basic needs, including health services, food and shelter are met in refugee camps.

– Samantha Silveira
Photo: Flickr

brazil helps Venezuelan refugeesDue to the ongoing turmoil in Venezuela, many of the country’s citizens are fleeing for refuge in other countries in Latin America. According to the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the Venezuelan refugee crisis is among the worst in the world. Currently, more than 5 million Venezuelans are living in other locations because of issues in their home country. These issues include violence, poverty and a plethora of human rights concerns. Of the Venezuelans living abroad, around 2.5 million of them are living somewhere in the Americas. One country hosting these refugees is Brazil. Brazil helps Venezuelan refugees in several ways.

Brazil’s Relocation Efforts

Brazil has gone above and beyond for the Venezuelan refugees that have come to the country for refuge. Many of the Venezuelan refugees resided in the Brazilian northern state of Roraima. However, a relocation strategy that launched three years ago meant 50,000 refugees that were living in Roraima were relocated to other cities across Brazil. This effort is part of Operation Welcome and it has immensely improved the quality of life for Venezuelan refugees, according to a survey that the UNHCR conducted in which 360 relocated Venezuelan families participated.

Within only weeks of being relocated to a new city, 77% of these families were able to find a place of employment, which led to an increase in their income six to eight weeks after relocation. Quality of life improved for Venezuelans who partook in this survey. The majority of them were able to rent homes and just 5% had to rely on temporary accommodation four months following their relocation. This is a great improvement in comparison to the conditions refugees lived in before relocation. Before relocation, 60% of Venezuelan refugees had to rely on temporary shelter and 3% were entirely homeless. This relocation effort is a significant way in which Brazil helps Venezuelan refugees.

Brazil’s Social Assistance

Brazil helps Venezuelan refugees with its social assistance programs, specifically Brazil’s key conditional cash transfer program, Bolsa Familia. Social assistance programs are designed to help impoverished families, many of which are Venezuelan refugees. Currently, there are low but rising numbers of Venezuelans that are taking advantage of this program. According to the UNHCR, only 384 Venezuelans were using Bolsa Familia in January 2018. More than two years later, in February 2020, this number rose to 16,707. While the number could be higher, the past two years show an upward trend of Venezuelans using this important program to improve their living conditions in Brazil.

The Catholic Church in Brazil Assists

The Catholic Church in Brazil is providing its fair share of help to Venezuelan refugees. A center in the capital of Brazil is hosting Venezuelan migrants relocating from the refugee centers in the Amazon region. The center is receiving support from ASVI Brasil, which has a relationship with the Catholic Church, and Brazil’s Migration and Human Rights Institute. The effort was designed to support Operation Welcome, the Brazilian government’s initiative to address the Venezuelan migration crisis. The center will be able to house 15 Venezuelan families at a time and will rotate families every three months. The center will ensure working people from families have a safe place to live before moving on.

Brazil helps Venezuelan refugees by providing several forms of support. Many of these Venezuelan refugees have left their country because of unimaginable conditions of poverty and violence. The support from Brazil allows these refugees to avoid the hardships of poverty and secure shelter, basic needs and employment in order to make better lives for themselves.

Jacob E. Lee
Photo: Flickr

Refugee camps in Bosnia and Herzegovina
Bosnia and Herzegovina is a southeastern European country situated in the western Balkan Peninsula of Europe. The state has borders with Croatia, Montenegro and Serbia. The migration process that peaked in 2015 had an impact on many European states. A mix of civil wars, violence and bad governance in North Africa and the Middle East pushed people outside of their motherlands. According to the statistical data of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), more than 1,015,078 people irregularly crossed the Mediterranean Sea in 2015 and 3,771 people died or disappeared at sea during their journeys to reach Europe. These migrations have resulted in a need for refugee camps in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which has land borders with the E.U.

Refugees in Bosnia and Herzegovina

The number of asylum seekers and migrants arriving in Bosnia and Herzegovina drastically increased at the end of 2017. An average of 32 new arrivals registered per month between January-November, but in December, the number of newcomers reached 198. The tendency continued into 2018 and the number of asylum seekers and migrants increased from 237 in January to 666 in March. Since the beginning of 2018, approximately 70,000 asylum seekers and migrants arrived in Bosnia and Herzegovina via the Western Balkans migration route. Based on the United Nations (U.N.) statistics, around 8,000 asylum seekers and migrants are currently present in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In most cases, new arrivals were from Syria, Libya, Palestine, Afghanistan, Iran, Algeria and Iraq.

Due to economic and social reasons, new arrivals mostly do not have the willingness to stay in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Their main priority is to reach E.U. countries. However, strict border controls by the Croatian authorities and the slow readmission process by the E.U. have made the situation more complicated. In the last years, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and human rights groups have documented violence against asylum seekers and migrants by Croatian border police. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), there are five fully operational Temporary Reception Centers in Bosnia and Herzegovina. At the same time, 5,616 asylum seekers and migrants are present at Temporary Reception Centers and 8,116 asylum seekers and migrants in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Current Struggles in the Refugee Camps

The poverty level of the residents in refugee camps in Bosnia and Herzegovina remains very high despite the humanitarian aid of the E.U., U.N. agencies, humanitarian organizations and Bosnian and Herzegovinian authorities. Especially during the winter, all camps lack the most basic conditions for hosting people. Since the fire of the main camp in Lipa, residents of camps live in tents built by the Bosnian and Herzegovinian military. The refugee camps in Bosnia and Herzegovina provide minimum comfort from the harsh weather conditions and 13 people live in one tent on average.

Food security remains a significant problem in camps for asylum seekers and migrants. According to U.N. data, 67% of residents of camps eat one meal per day. Asylum seekers and migrants purchase second and third meals with their own money. Personal funds of people are running out and they do not have income sources. Some residents of camps beg for money or sell tissues in the streets. Also, food security can change by location. Camps in the Sarajevo area receive food on a regular basis. However, residents of camps on the east and west of the country suffer from a lack of food distribution.

At the same time, people do not have any access to education while they live in refugee camps in Bosnia and Herzegovina. By international law, asylum seekers have the right to primary and secondary education.

European Initiatives

Since early 2018, the E.U. provided €40,5 million directly to Bosnia and Herzegovina and project implementing partners. These funds help address the problems asylum seekers and migrants face in the refugee camps. Despite all of the humanitarian aid from the E.U., humanitarian organizations, non-governmental organizations and local authorities, problems remain. After visiting the notorious Lipa camp in the early months of February 2021, the European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson recommended a new European program for migrants and asylum seekers. However, to start a new program, consent is necessary from all E.U. members.

– Tofig Ismayilzada
Photo: Flickr

Stiller's AdvocacyThe civil war in Syria is in its 11th year, and unfortunately, there is no end in near sight. The start of the deadly conflict can be traced back to March 2011 when protests seeking government reform took place in Daraa, Syria. Millions of Syrian people have fled due to the deadly conflict in their own country. The Syrian refugees of the civil war have fled as far as the U.S and Europe, while many are still located in the Middle East. Turkey is home to the majority of Syrian refugees, with around 3.6 million living within Turkey’s borders. Refugees who live outside of refugee camps often do not have access to basic services and resources needed to live adequately. Actor Ben Stiller works to improve conditions for Syrian refugees and bring awareness to the situation. In 2018, the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) honored Stiller with the UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador title. Stiller’s advocacy on behalf of Syrian refugees shows his commitment as a humanitarian and not just a celebrity.

Stiller’s Travels and Fundraising

Back in 2019, Stiller’s advocacy took him to Lebanon, a Middle Eastern country that is also home to a large number of Syrian refugees. As a UNHCR ambassador, Stiller uses his celebrity status to help bring attention to issues of concern for the UNHCR. While in Lebanon, Stiller met refugees who impacted him profoundly. Stiller shared with CBS News a story about a Syrian woman named Hanadi who was forced to flee Syria with her three children. He expressed how tough daily life is for this mother of three.

Another experience of Stiller’s was an encounter with an 8-year-old child, Yazan. Yazan’s family fled Syria when he was just an infant. Yazan now sells vegetables on the side of the road in order to provide for his family. Stiller carried these experiences long after he returned home. Stiller shared his experiences in Lebanon to get public attention focused on the Syrian refugee crisis. While in Washington, D.C., Stiller provided testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in an attempt to influence the Committee’s support for Syrian refugees. Using his filmmaking skills, Stiller also created fundraising videos for the UNHCR. Stiller’s fundraising videos were so successful that in just one month he was able to raise $500,000.

Advocacy Projects

Stiller’s advocacy has also allowed him to participate in many projects dedicated to helping Syrian refugees. Using his filmmaking skills yet again, Stiller filmed an interview with supermodel, Adut Akech, who was previously a South Sudanese refugee. The purpose of the interview was to showcase the struggles of being a refugee to help foster understanding and show what the experience is like. Stiller’s participation in Syrian refugee projects also took him to Albany, New York, in 2020. Once there, Stiller advocated for the resettlement of Syrian refugees within the state of New York.

Stiller offered to narrate a UNHCR campaign promotion video as well. The video was for UNHCR’s 1 Billion Miles to Safety campaign. The campaign asked for the walkers, runners and cyclists of the world to dedicate the distances the members traveled to refugees in order to raise awareness.

A Voice for Syrian Refugees

The civil war in Syria might be raging on, but that does not mean that the refugees who have fled are not receiving help. Stiller’s advocacy has helped raise awareness of the struggles that Syrian refugees experience. Stiller has also used his specific skills and talents in filmmaking for UNHCR’s campaign adverts. By bringing attention to Syrian refugees, Stiller shows his humanitarian side and his commitment to improving the lives of the most vulnerable.

Jacob E. Lee
Photo: Flickr

A Pandemic in a Refugee Camp
Since the Venezuelan refugee crisis began in 2015, over 360,000 Venezuelans have fled to Ecuador where they have sought political and economic asylum away from the tumultuous governing in Venezuela. In Ecuador, Venezuelan refugees have created camps and have attempted to rebuild their lives to little avail due to xenophobia, limited job opportunities and harsh living environments. While these harsh living conditions have continued for the Venezuelan refugees for years, the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic has intensified hardships. Spending the pandemic in a refugee camp involving cramped and overflowing shelters has caused refugees to become extremely vulnerable to contracting and dying from COVID-19.

No Access

For the hundreds of thousands of impoverished and unemployed Venezuelan refugees living in cramped refugee camps, it is challenging to social distance or to retrieve information on COVID-19. Moreover, with limited money focused on food, shelter and provisions, refugees have little left to spend on personal hygiene or personal protective equipment. As a result, refugees do not have access to much-needed medical supplies to keep safe from virus transmissions such as masks, sanitizers, gloves or vitamins. Consequently, transmission rates in refugee camps are disproportionately higher than their urban Ecuadorian city counterparts, yet the medical care is disproportionately lower.

As hospitals in Ecuador have become overrun by sick patients and Ecuadorian first responders have become absorbed with endless virus-related emergencies, Ecuadorian healthcare workers have had to choose which patients they will actually provide medical care to. This decision oftentimes coincides with heavy racism against Venezuelan refugees. Consequently, first responders have often chosen to respond to the rich Ecuadorian citizens living in urbanized areas over the far away, impoverished Venezuelan refugee camps. Similarly, Ecuadoran doctors prefer to provide medical care to the more affluent Ecuadorian citizens who can surely pay their hospital bills rather than the refugees. In turn, Venezuelan refugees are not always able to use Ecuadorian healthcare and instead have to fend for themselves without medical supplies, information about the virus or the ability to social distance.

A Solution for Refugees Surviving a Pandemic in a Refugee Camp

Because solving xenophobia in Ecuador or empowering and enriching refugees could not rapidly happen in time so that they could receive proper treatment during the pandemic, refugees had to take matters into their own hands by looking to new initiatives to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Alongside the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Venezuelan refugee communities in Ecuador developed the Community Epidemiological Surveillance System in an attempt to rapidly discover COVID-19 cases in refugee camps. The system can detect individuals with COVID-19 for quarantine purposes and consequently reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission amongst refugee communities.

Once the system detects them, patients receive information about their diagnosis along with referrals for proper treatment. The system reports all cases to the national health authorities so that Venezuelan refugees can identify who they were in contact with so that all parties can undergo quarantine and testing for the virus.

How it Works

Since launching in July 2020, the Community Epidemiological Surveillance System has detected hundreds of cases and has prevented the further spread of the virus for thousands of refugees. By identifying a suspect COVID-19 case, the system is able to assess a localized community point of potential exposure for other refugees. Once discovered, the system registers all information upon a public health database that records exposed individuals and provides them with information and medical treatment for the virus. Furthermore, the Community Epidemiological Surveillance System records if a COVID-19 patient or exposed individual has access to personal protective equipment, has preexisting conditions or lives in overcrowded environments that would make them and their neighbors more susceptible to the virus.

UNHCR taught six refugee camps across Ecuador the process of contact tracing. Trained refugees can utilize the Community Epidemiological Surveillance System. This results in using telephone hotlines, community visits by healthcare workers and providing medical provisions. The system is curbing COVID-19 spread in a pandemic in a refugee camp for vulnerable Venezuelans who would have very few medical opportunities otherwise.

– Caroline Largoza
Photo: Flickr

Refugees in Austria
According to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it is a human right to seek and enjoy asylum from persecution. The number of refugees around the world has doubled since 2010, from 40 million to 79 million in 2019. During the Syrian War, where nearly 1.3 million migrants sought asylum in the E.U. in 2015, Austria became a crossing point. At the peak of the crisis, 89,000 people applied for asylum in the country, though it only accepted 15,000. The relationship with refugees in Austria is paradoxical in nature. Even though the country has accepted more refugees in the past few years, animosity toward these refugees is rising. These refugees face difficulties integrating into the Austrian society, forcing them into the outskirts of society and into poverty. At the same time, several initiatives continue to help support these refugees in creative ways.

The History of Relocation

In the past century, Austria experienced three main waves of refugees. The first came after 1945, where 1.6 million Jews, Hungarians, Romanians, Yugoslavians and German Poles escaped persecution from Germany. Only about 19% of these refugees stayed permanently in Austria. Another wave of 180,000 Hungarians, Czechoslovakians, Poles and Jews from the Soviet Union sought refuge in Austria in the 1960s. Only 10% of the Hungarian refugees stayed. The last major wave occurred in 1981 after the Polish Solidarity movements caused the country to become unstable. About 66,000 of the estimated 160,000 stayed in Austria. The last major wave came to Austria in 2015. That year, 89,000 mainly Syrians, Afghani and Iraqi applied for asylum.

Though Austria received international aid to handle the influx of refugees, the public still called refugees ‘ungrateful.’ Critics accused refugees of taking away jobs and housing from native-born Austrians. Since 1956, Austria has considered itself a place of first arrival and transit, but not as a place of resettlement. When the first 2015 refugees came, Austrians were welcoming toward the newcomers, waiting at the borders with supplies and support. Three years after the Syrian refugee crisis, public opinion shifted dramatically. It polarized, negatively affecting the relationship with refugees in Austria. The legislative election of 2017 brought a right-wing majority to the Austrian federal government, cementing the feelings of animosity toward refugees. By 2018, three years later, most 2015 refugees were still waiting on the results of their applications. Refugees coming to Austria face several problems, from the moment of their arrival to their integration at the economic and social levels.

Arrival

For Austrian authorities to consider a person a refugee, that individual must prove they are fleeing from persecution based on race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion. The Austrian police determine this during an interview with the potential refugees. There are, however, several ways to redirect these asylum-seekers in Austria. Under the Dublin Regulation, if a migrant does not receive asylum, they must go back to their country within six months. Austria also has a ‘fast track’ procedure that speeds up the asylum process when a migrant comes from a country that the government considers to be ‘safe.’ The historical mindset of sending people back immediately puts potential victims of human trafficking at risk. Moreover, gay people who come from countries that Austria considers ‘safe’ are at higher risk when they have to return to countries they fled. This is because these countries may prosecute queer people and women (who authorities do not question separately from male relatives).

According to the UN, host countries have a duty of care to identify the vulnerable situations of each migrant. In Austria, however, the identification methods are ‘random and unsystematic,’ where intervention occurs only when the vulnerabilities are visible or the asylum seekers state them themselves. This diminishes the rights of migrants to individual assessment, limiting their access to counseling, rehab and health services.

Economic Problems

Just over 1.2 million people in Austria were in danger of falling into poverty. While poverty threatened 39% of people with migration backgrounds in 2018, this percentage was 50% for people from non-European lands. Without these jobs, refugees are often at risk of falling into poverty. In 2019, 11% of people in poverty were from foreign lands, compared to 6.4% of Austrians. In total, 64% of people with migration backgrounds had employment. Syrians had the highest unemployment rate at 61.8%.

Access to the Austrian labor market as a refugee has limitations, especially before their claims for asylum have received acceptance. Even with diplomas from their home countries, Austria does not always recognize these diplomas. In 2016, about 22% of people with migration backgrounds were overqualified for their jobs.

Other major barriers to entry include discrimination, lack of social capital (both between members of the same ethnicity and with Austrians) and unfamiliarity with cultural nuances of how the host country’s labor market works. According to Amy Dudgeon, who has worked for more than 27 years with refugees and immigrants in New Orleans, Louisiana through Catholic Charities, a religious organization that provides immigration and refugee services, “The number one thing is the language barrier.”

Social Problems

The relationship with refugees in Austria is especially troubling in social integration. There is a rising intolerance for refugees in Austria. Though 41% of the population in 2020 agreed that Austria should help refugees, this is down from 51% in 2018. About 61% of the population also saw the coexistence of refugees and Austrians as ‘bad.’ Refugees themselves felt the discrimination. In fact, around 73% of people felt that their skin color, accent or where they come from caused them to face discrimination.

Finding Creative Solutions

These problems are not separate. In fact, there exists a causal link from social integration to labor market integration. When refugees create relationships within their ethnic communities, they can overcome their initial isolation and heighten their chances of getting their first job. Even better job opportunities open when refugees form relationships with people from Austria, as Austrians have insider and cultural knowledge about navigating the local labor market and job-searching process.

As Dudgeon pointed out, “I’ve met so many different people in so many different vocations in their home country, and then they come here and they can’t speak English so they have to do menial jobs. Just keeping an open mind, that just because they can’t speak English … it’s not an indicator of their intelligence or experience or anything like that.”

After two years, the employment rates of refugees start to converge with Austrian-born and other migrants. After seven years, they are as likely to receive employment as non-European migrants. The following organizations have found ways to aid refugees in Austria.

Organizations Helping Refugees in Austria

  1. Caritas: Caritas is one of Austria’s largest emergency help organizations of the Catholic Church. It has more than 16,000 employees, 50,000 volunteers and thousands of projects a year. Projects range from combatting homelessness to caring for young mothers. To support refugees, the organization offers “Lerncafes,” where children from 6 to 15 can receive free help for completing homework or learning German. Through interactions with both local volunteers and other refugees, these refugee youth learn how to integrate more fully into society. Additionally, these interactions prepare them to enter the job market.
  2. The Austrian Integrations Fonds (ÖIF): The ÖIF is an organization that the Republic of Austria and UNHCR created in the 1960s to help manage the influx of Hungarian refugees. Today, the organization helps all migrants integrate into Austrian society. One of its main targets is language learning with a focus on integrating refugees into the job market. To reach this goal, the organization offers free German-language lessons. The lessons range from beginner to advanced, with special courses involving business-specific knowledge. In 2017, the Austrian government spent 25 million Euros to support this organization, which allowed it to offer 20,000 spots to new language learners.
  3. CoRE Project: Beginning in 2016, this project brought together five partners, from NGOs to local governments. Together, they worked on a holistic approach to integrating refugees in Vienna, Austria, home to the largest number of refugees in the country. The project focused on empowering refugees by offering volunteer activities for them to take part in. By finding them places to volunteer, the project fought social exclusion, racism and intolerance. All the while, the refugees built personal and professional skills and competencies. Volunteering ensured that integration was a two-way street: refugees were able to give back to the country that took them in, making them equal citizens. Some volunteer organizations include Deutsch ohne Grenzen (German without Borders), which offers German language courses, free time activities and workshops around the topic of immigration.
  4. Refugees for Refugees (R4R): Refugees have been running this organization for refugees since 2015. The 150 members of R4R form events and activities that members can take part in, bringing refugees together through sport and culture. The organization, for example, regularly visits museums to help refugees integrate themselves into Austrian society.
  5. OLIVE: To help refugees and people of asylum status connect their previous professional and academic experience to their new lives in Europe, the University of Vienna offers free academic, bilingual non-degree programs. Some branches of the program include OLIVE Women and OLIVE Youth. These branches feature relevant seminars for each group to help them achieve both academic and professional goals.

Though the relationship with refugees in Austria is paradoxical, these five initiatives prove that Austria is beginning to decrease the discrimination that refugees in Austria face today.

Charlotte Ehlers
Photo: Flickr