World leaders have failed refugees. Can ordinary citizens teach them a lesson?

By Charmain Mohamed

Two years ago an image of a little boy in a red T-shirt, face down on a Mediterranean beach, brought home the full horror of the humanitarian crisis unfolding on Europe’s shores. Alan Kurdi, from the Syrian town of Kobani, was just three years old when he, together with his mother and his older brother, drowned on the dangerous crossing from Turkey to Greece. While the crisis was not news, it briefly seemed that the international outcry might shock world leaders into action.

However, official expressions of shock and sympathy were miserably short-lived. Within months of Alan Kurdi’s death, many governments went ahead with policies explicitly designed to keep Syrian and other refugees out. The European Union devised a shameful deal under which those who had already risked their lives would be sent straight back to Turkey; Australia continued to lock refugees up in offshore detention centres in conditions described by the UN as “inhuman” Equitable responsibility sharing of refugees by the world’s wealthiest governments – much talked about and theoretically re-affirmed at a summit in New York last September – remains, in practice, non-existent. Meanwhile the deaths continue, with more than 2,000 dying in the first half of this year alone.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. The latest Global Shapers Survey of the World Economic Forum shows that the vast majority (73%) of 18-35-year olds say they would welcome refugees into their countries, and more than a quarter (27%) say they would take refugees into their own homes. These figures echo a similar study by Amnesty International last year, which showed that four in five people worldwide say they would welcome refugees to their countries.

It would be a tragedy to let this powerful public empathy go to waste. The challenge is to find ways to harness it, and to translate positive attitudes into life-saving actions.

One country where Alan Kurdi’s death had a lastng impact was in Canada, where millions saw his death as a reflection of political failure. The tragedy hit particularly close to home as it turned out Alan Kurdi’s aunt already lived in Canada, and a family resettlement application from the Kurdi family had previously failed. After news of Alan Kurdi’s death hit the media, the top Google search term in Canada was “How to sponsor a Syrian”. Ordinary Canadians were demanding a response to the crisis – and thousands of them proved that they were willing to play a part. Justin Trudeau’s election victory in October 2015 was achieved partly on the back of an election pledge to massively increase the number of Syrian and Iraqi refugees arriving in Canada. Between November 2015 and late January 2017 more than 14,000 Syrians were resettled under private sponsorship schemes in Canada.

Canada is unique in having had, for 40 years, a system which allows concerned citizens to organize and raise money to bring refugees to their country and help them become Canadian “newcomers”, with a pathway to citizenship. The system was introduced in the 1970s to allow tens of thousands of Vietnamese refugees to come to Canada, and hundreds of thousands of refugees have arrived in the country through community sponsorship since. This runs in parallel with a continued programme of government-organized resettlement, which helps the most vulnerable refugees find new homes. In the words of Joe Mihevc, a Toronto councillor: “This is where leadership comes in. It’s both-and, not either-or.”

Sponsorship requires commitment. Sponsors are responsible for fundraising the initial sum needed to bring refugees to the country and support them for the first year; for sourcing accommodation; sorting out school places; accessing healthcare; and helping with job applications and training. It’s worth it, not just for the new arrivals, but also for those welcoming them. Refugees gain a chance to carry on with their lives in peace and safety. Those who host them are enriched, and lasting friendships are built.

”You gain much more than you give,” says one sponsor of a Syrian family in Toronto. Another describes the scheme as “one of the joys of my life.”

Canada has gained a reputation for being “immigrant-friendly”. But it does not need to be unique. Now other governments, from Ireland to New Zealand, are exploring the possibilities of putting community sponsorship schemes for refugees in place, allowing citizens to take action for the first time. The UK introduced legislation to make community sponsorship possible last year, and the Archbishop of Canterbury was one of the first sponsors to sign up.

The Vatican recently published a 20-point plan on refugees, approved by Pope Francis, which encourages other countries to introduce community sponsorship legislation, and some are beginning to go down that road. There is no reason not to. Through these people-powered initiatives, ordinary citizens are able to take the initiative, showing the humanity that has been all-too lacking in the responses of world leaders.

Rather than acting as obstacles to the humane responses that many of their populations are showing, governments should support people in their efforts to open their communities to refugees. There are tragedies like Alan Kurdi’s death in the making every day, and parents are still being forced to put their children in danger to get them out of war zones. It is long past time for a new approach, and other countries can and should follow where Canada has shown the way.

Charmain Mohamed is Amnesty’s Head of Refugee and Migrant Rights