The Refugee Opportunity

by Robin Low

The plight of refugees is something that many Singaporeans don’t think about. The stance of “We can’t afford having them here” has been ingrained in many people, and many don’t even want to be in a discussion when you utter the word refugee. “We don’t want to create a Palestinian situation. We cannot afford a population of embittered, inchoate refugees.” Are words uttered by the foreign minister, and the government very much sticks to this position.

In the past few months, I have been working with various local groups, individuals and engaging the UN and related parties on looking into the refugee crisis. I have been “trained” to think that there are no easy solutions to the refugee problem and therefore I should not help, but with further engagements with refugees and groups close to the ground, it is apparent that the situation is getting worse and no being part of it will only make the situation worse.

Who are refugees?

A refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. There are also refugees who have left their homes as the environment became hostile due to natural or man-made disasters. They are also known as Internally Displaced People (IDP)

The UN estimates that more than 1 billion people globally are refugees due to conflict, environmental degradation, and lack of economic opportunity.

Factors as varied as conflict in Syria, civil strife in Burundi and El Salvador, rising sea levels in Louisiana, and droughts in India all have contributed to this total. Six million people have been displaced in the last twenty-four months alone. The EU has allocated $6 billion this year in charitable aid to meet the basic needs of displaced people both within, and outside of, its borders. The US spends an additional $5-10 billion per year resettling refugees and asylum seekers, providing temporary assistance, medical care, housing, and more.

Change is constant. The sea level is rising, weather patterns are changing and the most vulnerable people who are already living in poverty are affected most. On top of that, conflicts seem to be increasing, and economic discrimination leaves victim with no opportunities.

This situation is not just going to go away. In fact, it will only get worse. The current system is not working and our apathy may create a situation when we realize that we need to act but the problem will become so bad that we ourselves get affected.

What can we do?

We should lift the curse and look at refugees in a different light. Many of these people are survivors. They have survived despite all odds and can contribute their skills and abilities to humanity.

Here are some facts:

Refugees are a diverse group. (They have different skills, experiences and cultures)

Refugees are escaping a variety of hardships.

  1. Conflict is the largest cause of displacement
  2. Environmental degradation is an emerging threat for 50 million people.
  3. Economic discrimination leaves victims with no opportunities

Becoming a refugee cripples dignity and prosperity. (Most of them lost all their physical belongings to escape their fate, but their capacities remain)

If we can utilize human capacities and maximize their potential, there are great opportunities to be found, but the current system is failing us, there is not enough resettlement options, “refugees” become a political point where many unethical politicians leverage on it to create a climate of fear — and fear sells. Lastly, aid and nonprofits are not able to generate enough revenue to create sustainable economic activities for all the refugees.

Flipping the problem into resources of impact

Relief 2.0 is developing an open platform with a diverse crowdsourced collection of self-contained lessons that can be completed in 15-90 min and taught by anyone, with visual elements, in digital, printable and interactive formats with instructions for learners and trainers.

This platform – Impact immigrants – will allow content that go beyond conventional topics to areas of strategic interest to our society. From social norms to disruptive areas of innovation where opportunities continue to rise.

A certification program can be completed within the camps and access to the local startup ecosystem for employment opportunities, inspiration and partnership will allow these human capitals to be tapped and used. http://www.relief20.com/immipact

Rebranding of the word “Refugee”

Today, we associate the word refugee as something negative. I have worked with disaster survivors in the past and their abilities and resilience often surprises me. Recently, I have met many Syrian refugees in the camps and though face to face engagement, I realize that many of these refugees are no different from me. In these camps, many refugees are well educated, and have professions like doctors, engineers and accountants. They speak multiple languages and are hardworking people.

Culturally, Syrians are hardworking people who are not used to receiving charities. From young, Syrians are trained to earn their keep. The young Syrians have to do chores in the house to be allowed to own their cell phones, and when they receive free education, they tend to want to give back and teach others who are younger. Being in a refugee camp where there is no economy gives many of them depression and anxiety. Not only have they lost their belongings and have to flee to an unknown place, they are not allowed to work and have income, they are not allowed to choose what they eat.

Knowing that some of the refugees that I’ve met last year have committed suicide due to depression drives me to act. It was never their intention to leave Syria, nor did they want to have war. It could happen to anyone, and yet, our attitudes to refugees have not changed.

The Refugee status is a powerful status but the label is also a stigma that many political parties leverage to push their agendas, and the refugees colored to fit their narratives. It is our failure to allow propaganda claiming that these survivors escaping terror to be suspected to be terrorists, even after a mandatory security check which takes easily up to 24 months to complete.

It is a failure of our collective imagination that we have yet a solution to harness the skilled survivors allows these human capacities go to waste.

Without rebranding and recognition that we are getting a lot of skilled refugees, it is hard for the bureaucracy of the government to act and see that there is an opportunity to choose some skill professionals that the country lack, and perhaps offer them non-immigrant work visas so that they can contribute to the economy and perhaps even pay some taxes for other programs that will fund training of other refugees. For example, refugees who are doctors and nurses could go through some certification program and work in their respective countries as trainees to learn the processes and procedures used in that country, and after training, their skills can be put to good use.

With disasters, climate change and wars, there will only be more refugees, and it is important that we look at refugees as an opportunity for diversity and skilled labor. The facts clearly show that many of the skilled refugees have integrated into society and their families have contributed much.

By talking to some friends, I have actually found that many of my friends were either internally displaced people once, or they were kids of refugees. We need to look at the “Refugees” with a different light, and we should not pity their plight. We need to think of how to engage and utilize these unused capacities which any society can benefit and not just donate and give them things. It is the collective responsibility of us to use our creativity to continuously come up with more options and solutions as we will never know if we may in turn become refugees one day.

How can you help?

I am currently invited to speak at the Klosters Forum in Switzerland and I have several solar kits and other products to bring to the Refugee Camps in Europe.

I have just started a crowdfunding campaign to help me get to the Forum. I work with the UNHCR, but as a Singaporean, they will not fund me, and Singapore’s stance of not helping refugees is not helping me either. I am seeking financial support to get to Switzerland and Paris.

Here is my crowdfunding site: https://give.asia/story/help_me_get_to_klosters_forum_to_speak_for_refugees_and_work

When the platform to support the refugees is ready, you can help contribute your knowledge on disruptive technology, curate information to help the refugees interested in the topics to learn.

Learning that refugees are diverse groups, and some of them have skills we can use is half the battle. The other half is to convince others and together, let us think of how we can create more options for refugees.

Robin Low is the co-founder of Relief 2.0, Civil Innovation Lab and the author of a book. “Good Intentions are not enough.”