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The refugee crisis in Europe: a role for philanthropy?

The following blog is based on an article written by Barrow Cadbury Trust’s Migration programme manager, Ayesha Saran for Alliance Magazine’s March issue on ‘Refugees and Migration:philanthropy responds’ which she guest edited with Atallah Kuttab and Timothy Ogden.  


The ‘refugee crisis’ of 2015 conjures tragic images and headline-grabbing figures. From the haunting pictures of Alan Kurdi, the three year old boy who drowned during the short but treacherous crossing from Turkey to Greece, to discomfiting scenes between baton-wielding border guards and desperate families seeking sanctuary. Philanthropy has been responding and will continue to do so in very constructive ways. However, its greatest opportunity may be in treating the refugee crisis not as a separate event, but as part of a wider effort to create more just and equal societies.


Over a million refugees, asylum seekers and migrants arrived on Europe’s shores during the past twelve months. Latest estimates suggest that at least three and a half thousand drowned attempting to do so. And, contrary to popular perception, just over 40 per cent were woman and children, including thousands of children separated from their families. Europe’s refugees are a mere fraction of the tens of millions displaced worldwide, but 2015 did mark the continent’s biggest population movement since the World War Two.


The challenges posed by ongoing events are undoubtedly daunting. While a large proportion of those arriving in Europe in 2015 were fleeing from the conflict in Syria, an over-emphasis on this group masks a more complex picture of displacement, simmering global inequality and changing demographics. In addition, many of the durable solutions ultimately lie in resolving seemingly intractable conflicts in the Middle East and further afield.


European foundations’ response


Given the scale of human suffering and the fact that the numbers arriving show no signs of abating, how could and should foundations respond? And what are they already doing? According to a survey of foundations conducted in the UK by Global Dialogue and the Ariadne funders network, a majority of respondents were planning to adjust their long-term strategies to adapt to new realities and some had already provided emergency grants.


In a European context, there is clearly considerable scope for foundations to fund humanitarian aid. This is particularly the case in border states such as Greece, which is bearing the brunt of the crisis while contending with its own domestic woes. As a survey on responses to the crisis by the European Foundation Centre (EFC) highlighted, many foundations recognise the immediate need to improve the living conditions for new arrivals and enable them to access legal advice and education.


However, there is also the perennial concern about philanthropy replacing the role and resources of governments and international organisations and some may not even have the mandate to countenance this type of emergency funding. On the other hand, doing nothing seems to be an increasingly untenable option for foundations concerned with peace, equality and social justice in Europe.


Tapping the upsurge of sympathy


One way to navigate some of these issues is to consider where philanthropy might be uniquely suited to intervene. In the short term, in addition to more service-orientated assistance, some foundations have been thinking about how to capitalise on the outpouring of sympathy and compassion for Europe’s newest arrivals that reached a crescendo upon the publication of the pictures of Alan Kurdi’s body.


In the UK, where the effects of the crisis are much less visible on the ground than elsewhere, refugee charities have been inundated with offers of support and requests to volunteer. Although it is as yet unclear whether these are ‘converts’ to the cause or those already sympathetic to refugees mobilising into action, a number of UK-based foundations and their civil society partners have discussed the strategic importance of the heightened focus on refugee protection.


For example, there are countless examples of civil society or citizen-led initiatives springing up in support of refugees and small scale and timely resources to embed schemes to host and welcome new arrivals could help maximise their impact. To this end, a number of UK-based foundations, including the Barrow Cadbury Trust, have established New Beginnings, a pooled fund to provide catalytic support to frontline organisations and community groups. Grants will be modest and short-term but is it hoped that they will enable groups to respond to the opportunities that the current context has presented.


The opportunity for increased advocacy


Another important consideration is that the renewed interest in refugee issues provides invaluable opportunities to ramp up advocacy. For example, linking calls for safe and legal routes to protection or for more humane family reunification policies to the current crisis could provide much-needed impetus and immediacy to existing campaigns at both national and European level.


This is particularly true in cases where non-refugee organisations and unusual allies are impelled to comment on ongoing events: here in the UK mainstream charities such as Oxfam, as well as a host of sports stars and celebrities have spoken up about the crisis. They may be better positioned to reach some sceptical audiences than refugee organisations. In this context, philanthropy is playing a critical role in providing additional capacity for campaigners to push through doors that might be starting to open.


Helping to change the larger debate


In the longer term, foundations are uniquely placed to connect immediate responses to the crisis to work to understand public attitudes and concerns about migration and refugee issues in Europe. The differential impacts of both the crisis and migration generally throughout the continent, as well as variations in the way the debate is conducted from country to country means that ‘one size fits all’ approaches are unhelpful. But in countries such as the UK, where migration and refugee issues are highly contested and politicised, a hostile and polarised debate can hinder wider efforts to promote the fair and dignified treatment of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants.


This is why many foundations, including the Barrow Cadbury Trust, have focused efforts on the complex and often overlooked arena of communications around migration. From our perspective, ignoring the need to change the dynamic of the wider migration debate over time could thwart shorter-term gains in terms of building support for refugees.


Finally, investing in integration is another way in which foundations can add significant value in managing the impact of the refugee crisis in Europe. Some governments are providing basic, short-term assistance to refugees to help them adjust to the countries where they have sought sanctuary. However, this still leaves considerable scope for philanthropy to continue to invest in initiatives that support creative approaches and share expertise on what works within communities affected by rapid change. For example, the Cities of Migration website highlights good ideas in immigrant integration from all over the world.


Questions remaining


There are many compelling reasons for foundations in Europe to respond to the refugee crisis, but there are also potentially harmful consequences to consider. Is there a risk of entrenching unhelpful dichotomies between ‘deserving’ refugees and supposedly less worthy migrants? What would an increased focus on refugees mean for other vulnerable groups, such as Europe’s several million undocumented migrants? What will happen to those arriving who are not given refugee status?


There are no easy answers of course, but a useful starting point could be to situate responses to the current crisis in the wider context of Europe’s complex and rapidly shifting demographic realities. If philanthropy is to play a constructive role, the ‘refugee issue’ should not be seen as a separate problem to be fixed but as part of wider efforts to reduce inequality and achieve inclusive, equal societies.


Ayesha Saran is Programme Manager – Migration at Barrow Cadbury Trust.  Email [email protected].