The vast majority of refugees don’t live in camps. That’s the message Sonia Ben Ali, Executive Director and co-founder of Urban Refugees, hammered home during her talk Tuesday morning at The 19 Million Project in Rome.
“We founded this organization because most refugees are living in cities in developed countries,” said Ben Ali whose organization is promoting the social media hashtag #nomorecamps to raise awareness about the relocation of Syrian refugees in Europe. “Most of the media attention and the humanitarian assistance has been focusing on refugee camps so you have millions of urban refugees that are completely left behind,” she added. She said the message of her organization’s social media campaign is simple: “We should not leave refugees in camps for years, sometimes decades.”
Although refugee camps are supposed to be temporary housing solution, that’s often not the case says Ben Ali. “On average, refugees spend 17 years in exile which means many of them will stay in camps during that time.”
Camps are not a long term solution. Ben Ali believes government and donors need to support programs that offer alternatives such as promoting coexistence with host communities. “There are many good practices emerging at the moment: NGOs are shifting approaches such as implementing programs that don’t separate services for host communities and refugees.”
A social media campaign won’t necessarily trigger those changes but at the very least Ben Ali thinks it can attract younger audiences in developed countries to support the cause and empathize with other young people who are forced to leave their homes.
“It’s an easy way to engage people beyond their very limited scope of interest and hashtags are catchy and easy to understand,” she explained.
Ben Ali’s message is also one that appeals to basic human emotions. “I’d like you right now to think how old you are, and I would like you to add to your age 17 years, that would be the age you would be able to go back home if today you had to leave everything to escape violence and war. 17 years is the time refugees spend in exile, so just imagine what you could do in 17 years; go to school, university, have your first job and marry someone. This is very hard to do when you’re in a place where you are not supposed to be.”
You can check out Ben Ali’s work here.
— Rafael Fernandez