We Must Not Respond to the Refugee Crisis With Fear and Ignorance

15/10/2015 16:21 BST | Updated 15/10/2016 10:12 BST

"We'll take any risk. You have to understand how bad it is back there. We have no alternative. We have to get to Europe. If you were me, you would do the same."

This is what a 19-year-old Syrian man told Mercy Corps recently on the island of Lesbos in Greece. He had travelled across the Mediterranean Sea from Turkey after fleeing Syria, his homeland, which he had left behind in ruins.

The public debate around the ongoing refugee crisis has fuelled many concerns. One which is currently taking centre stage is about the potential security risk posed by young, predominantly male, refugees. Other concerns include how to share the 'burden' of hosting refugees while some, thankfully, assert our collective moral and legal responsibilities for helping those displaced by war.

Unfortunately, much of this debate lacks a crucial element - namely, an informed understanding of who the people are who are fleeing to Europe's shores in their thousands, what motivates them and why they are here. Each person is an individual, each making human choices as best they can in the face of conflict, destruction and tragedy. If we in Europe, and elsewhere, are to make the right policy choices to respond to this crisis, it is vital that we understand better who these refugees are - otherwise, we risk making the situation worse.

For years, Mercy Corps has worked in countries including Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey - places in crisis that refugees are fleeing from, or moving through. From Syria alone, four million people have fled the country, and this number is growing. We have particular expertise in working with youth - the group that makes up more than two-thirds of the refugees arriving in Greece . This, combined with our new research from Lesbos, Greece, has provided us with insight into why young people are moving.

We know they are fleeing instability and violence at home. We know that in the short term at least, they will not stop coming. It seems for many, things have reached a tipping point and they have given up hope of going home. With this in mind, short-term barriers like extra border controls risk displacing the issue or making it worse by encouraging even more dangerous journeys.

We know that young refugees are mainly motivated by hope, a desire to make a better life for themselves and to make a contribution in a new country. And we know that they have found life to be unliveable in underfunded and overcrowded refugee camps and host communities in the Middle East. They see no future for themselves there.

Finally, we know that this group of people has much to offer their destination countries. They are aspirational and they seek work and education. Indeed, many are already educated and highly-skilled. But if their potential is to be realised, they must be welcomed.

So given what we know, what should we do? Above all, we need a political solution to the Syrian war. In the meantime, we need to find better ways to help the many people who are fleeing. Mercy Corps recommends that three things are needed.

First, local and national leaders in countries hosting refugees need to meet the particular needs of youth - helping them to integrate effectively with host communities. The refugees we have worked with are peaceful and optimistic and any risk of conflict lies mainly in the potential that a fearful Europe will reject and marginalise people, making concerns about conflict a self-fulfilling prophecy. This must be avoided.

Second, world leaders should negotiate a comprehensive plan of action for resettling large numbers of refugees from the Middle East and other countries in crisis. Only when people feel they have a legitimate path to a better future will they be likely to stop making dangerous informal journeys across the Mediterranean to Europe. This plan should include commitments from countries in North America, Latin America, the Middle East, Asia and the Pacific. If responsibility were shared more widely, the number of refugees each country was expected to take would be lower.

Third, countries in the Middle East, supported by wealthy nations, including the Gulf states, should improve conditions for refugees in camps and host communities - specifically by allowing them to work and providing more access to education. By providing them with a means for income and dignity, the push factors driving people further afield will be reduced.

The refugee crisis unquestionably poses challenges for Europe and the rest of the world, and with the recent escalation of military activity in Syria, we are likely to see a further, large scale movement of people. But the challenges this crisis brings can be met and turned to opportunity. Long-term, informed choices can alleviate this crisis. Short-term forcible measures are not only unlikely to be successful, they carry the risk of fostering the very conflict we want to avoid.