Refugees in focus: dignity in aid

Refugees in focus: dignity in aid

This year, the EAIE Leadership and membership tried to find ways to respond to the refugee crisis in Europe. A series on the EAIE blog last year highlighted first-response efforts taking place throughout the continent. A Spotlight Seminar in June had participants discussing existing best practices and exchanging experiences. At the conference in Liverpool, we take this effort a step further and discuss long-term policies and practices that will allow refugee students to thrive. This 13-session track taking place over the next three days is a must-see for anyone grappling with how to respond to the great educational needs of refugee arrivals in Europe.

Kilian Kleinschmidt began his keynote address with harrowing figures: 1.2 million people have been displaced from their homes over the last year. The total budget available for all aid, including refugees, natural disaster assistance, etc, worldwide, is approximately US$20 billion. “Compare that to the money spent on real estate development and you understand why aid is the wrong concept. Aid is an arrogant concept of charity”, Killian asserted.

Humanitarian standards

Kilian says we are still using the same old ‘survival kit’ developed following the Second World War. Aid workers look at masses of people and are forced to see numbers: a certain number of calories needed per person per day, a certain number of litres of water, a given supply of bathrooms, a number of tents per group, etc. These are humanitarian standards of aid. But is that really enough?

Kilian shared his experience as manager of the Za’atari refugee camp in Northern Jordan on behalf of UNHCR. The camp was notoriously problematic at the time. Protests broke out frequently. All of the basic humanitarian standards of aid were in place, yet people were rebelling because the aid workers “had not understood what they needed”. Only through talking to residents did they understand the need to stop treating the camp as “a people storage facility” and see it instead as a real living space that needed both investment and a degree of self-organisation in order to prosper. Kilian’s approach was to treat the camp like a city with its own commerce, economy and autonomous decision-making by local people. Humanitarian aid is important to make sure that people survive, dignity is important to help them thrive. Even the best of intentions, when poorly executed, can have dehumanising consequences.

Students first

The question that remains is how we can best translate Kilian’s experience into workable frameworks for accommodating the needs of refugee students. Here, it’s important to remember the key message from his speech: special as their circumstances may be, it’s important to remember that refugee students are students first – refugees second. What is needed is a paradigm shift that acknowledges refugee students as full people, with complex identities shaped by experience, culture, interests and personality, and individual wants and needs. They are no different from the rest of us. And yet higher education only has the potential to do right by this population once the bureaucratic barriers – language and admissions, to name a few – specific to refugees have been broken. And herein lays our challenge.

Meeting the challenge

After this provocative start by humanitarian expert Kilian Kleinschmidt, the ‘Refugees in focus’ track promises to give us plenty of food for thought – and a lot of action points. Anyone interested in this issue should be sure to check out the full list of sessions, available on the EAIE Events App, the EAIE website and your Conference Companion (p.13). Higher education institutions all over Europe now have a unique opportunity to make a difference in the lives of its newest residents, while also harnessing their potential for the benefit of society at large. Find out what you can do.

Stay tuned for much more coverage of the conference week here on the EAIE blog. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook for real-time updates and join the conversation on social media by using #EAIE2016.