How One Syrian Family Has Started Reshaping Global Refugee Policy

04/05/2016 16:34

In October last year, Renes, 13, his three-year old sister, two brothers and parents arrived at Moscow Sheremetyevo Airport seeking asylum. They were detained, put on the cold floor in a glass smoking room in the airport and were kept there for over 70 days. They could not take a shower, were not allowed to get a warm meal or even be examined by a doctor.

This was a very unusual scene for Russia - a country, which is far from being the first choice for asylum seekers.

Yet Gulistan Issa Shaho, Renes's mother, was among the few people who decided to take her family there, after their city in Syria was taken over by ISIS. Her sister Tama already lives in Russia and has Russian citizenship. But that did not help. Gulistan's family were refused asylum again and again, while their story was making news all over the world.

'They were prisoners in Moscow Airport. But instead of a cell, they stayed in a glass a fish tank', - says Tama, Gulistan's sister. 'All our kids wanted was to fall asleep not fearing the bombs over their heads. They are just running away from the war. That's all'.

Humiliated, Gulistan and Tama did not back down and connecting via mobile phone they started a petition on asking the Russian Federal Migration Service to grant their family temporary asylum and let them leave the airport.

It took them just over six months, but last week thanks to over 160,000 people who signed their petition, they have finally won. "I still cannot believe that our dreams came true. And all this happened thanks to you!", said Gulistan in a petition update to all her signers just before she declared victory on the site.

This family's fight is truly inspiring. Not only because Renes and the other kids can now start school and not fear for their life, but mainly because what Gulistan has done can potentially reshape global refugee policy.

The current refugee crisis has taught us that what we had thought was an effective policy to deal with such crises has turned out to be a massive failure in the face of millions of people exiling Syria. Physical relocation as we saw it in the last year ended up with barricades in Hungary shutting down any access to people who needed our help the most.

As Alexander Betts and Paul Collier put it in their Foreign Affairs' article, some 54% of the world's refugees have lived in exile for more than 5 years, often without freedom of movement or right to work. And for them, they add, an average length of exile would be around 17 years -- all while we, "the more stable states", are trying to figure out solutions to effectively integrate them into our more peaceful societies. "As the result, their lives are put on hold", conclude the authors.

This particular article then argues that economic integration of refugees to labour markets is a solution to shaping a new refugee policy. But I think there is a crucial stepping stone that is missing to solving this problem: the actual voice of refugees.

Their voices can be strong enough to be part of any decision-making that directly influences their future.

Gulistan and her sister have proved just that: using only their phone and the Internet they have organized themselves and mobilized tens of thousands of Russians to change their lives and set an example for others. They have made themselves heard and pushed for a solution.

Tareke Brahne did the same. He fled from Eritrea when he was 17, and now based in Italy, he launched a campaign to get EU to deploy a major search and rescue mission in the Mediterranean so that thousands of drowning refugees could get a chance at survival. Over 400,000 people signed his petition. Did it make his voice stronger? Absolutely.

Or Meltem Avcil in the UK, who along with 100,000 people who have signed her petition is trying to close down the Yarl's Wood detention centre in Bedfordshire, where hundreds of refugee women are locked up indefinitely, and where she was locked up when she was just 13.

Technology is already here. And the best part is that among 150 million global users on there are definitely thousands of current and former refugees who just like Gulistan, Tereke or Meltem are already using it to empower themselves and directly improve their lives.

Listening to what they have to say and letting them be part of the decision-making process is an important first step to reforming global refugee policy. And with all the technology that lets people organise effectively, they don't have to reshape it alone, but can do it together with the refugees.