Large movements of refugees and migrants: global challenge, regional responses, comprehensive strategy

Date 17.10.2016
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Giampaolo Silvestri, secretary general of AVSI Foundation, speaking at the side event on refugees and migrants held on September 21st, 2016 at the United Nations Headquarters, conference room CR3.

Watch the speech at 1:37:10

Experiences and faces

In my speech, I will propose three steps:

1. A story of experiences and faces met;
2. A description of the good practice and policies that emerge from experience;
3. Beyond strategies, what this challenge of migration asks of us.

I am beginning with a dip into AVSI's experience [to show] that, from our perspective, we choose “humble realism” as the primary principle of our actions; by this, I mean adhesion to the truth (“we stick to the facts”).

To do this, I would like to start with the experiences of three people I met on my travels: Cyprian, Sultan, and Rita.

1. Cyprian Kaliunga, from a Kenyan village affected by famine, cholera epidemics, severe malnutrition… Thanks to AVSI's Distance Support Program, Cyprian founded a school for the poorest children. There, they learn and can also eat.

Thanks to a network of friends and to microcredit, Cyprian has formed a group of 700 families and has started the largest dairy in the district. A father of 12 children, he has changed the face of his village with adult literacy courses, the construction of latrines, the restoration of huts, and by planting vegetable gardens using organic farming methods in the remote countryside of Meru County. And he has not had to come to the West to continue to live.

2. Sultan Fawaz Jalloul, a Syrian, originally from Idlib. For 5 years, he has lived in a tent in a Lebanese informal settlement with his wife and five sons. Thanks to a cash-for-work project, also promoted by Italian Cooperation, Sultan has been able to contribute to the management of a forest in the south of Lebanon.

An asset for the community, for his family, and a simple job, shared with others, which has allowed him to get back on his feet. To date, he has not (yet) been forced to try to cross the Mediterranean, risking his own life and those of his children.

3. Rita comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, she is thirty years, she arrived in Italy in 2014 and lives in one of the reception centres. In Congo, she was a hairdresser, then from Libya, she embarked for Italy.

Rita is one of the people who joined the "Cook to start again" project promoted by AVSI Foundation in collaboration with Panino Giusto, a restaurant company, and a Caritas cooperative to promote the employment of young refugees. For two months, 15 migrants from Africa, the Middle East, and Asia for two months took lessons in Italian and lessons in cooking theory and practice. At the end of the training course, four of them were chosen for internships in Panino Giusto restaurants, and, for one, there will be the opportunity of employment. Training and work: this is the recipe with which AVSI Foundation wants to contribute to the response to the ongoing "emergency" in Italy regarding the reception of refugees.

We learn from experience

Starting with the faces of these people, with different origins and ambitions, it allows us to approach the complexity of the "migration issue" from three fundamental aspects:

1.  the first aspect is that there are people of flesh and blood at stake, not just statistical numbers. We should always return to the real faces;
2. The second aspect is that we should never forget that migration that crosses continents and that brings continents closer together has a long and complex path, and therefore must be addressed according to this vision, throughout the different stages:
3. in countries of origin, we are called to help as much as possible to promote business initiatives and local leadership, which ignites development in areas where poverty would otherwise force everyone to leave; and, above all, to always support education in any way, which is a fundamental condition not only to generate employment opportunities, but also to ensure a healthy coexistence among people who can be of different social groups and religions;

a) in transit countries: here, again, the decisive point is to face the challenge of education in its entirety (that is, to educate isn't just teaching to read and write) for generations of children at risk; and on the other hand, to create job opportunities and, therefore, redemption of dignity for adults who still hope that conditions for a return home will be created;

b) in host countries, as in Europe, we are called to support reception projects for those arriving to stay, and projects of accompaniment toward autonomy and integration: schools, work scholarships, job training...

But these different interventions, summarized here all too briefly, should be thought of together, because they support each other, and, like a domino effect, if one falls, they all fall.

4. Finally, the third aspect: you can not even think of being able to face this great subject of migrants/refugees alone, but we must work in partnerships between NGOs, local communities and various organizations of civil society, for-profit businesses, institutions. The stories I've told show this well. It takes the involvement of all those affected by the migration phenomenon, no one can be passed over or left out. That wouldn't get anyone anywhere.

Inside the strategies and practices

But, transecting this horizontal axis, this "geographical" route, of interventions "on the ground", another axis is introduced, a vertical one, of further deepening. That is what guides our action at a deeper level.

The migration issue, in fact, asks us to find tangible solutions (places of integral education, work, care, food, development projects in compliance with fundamental rights and so on). But inside these essential actions there is another dimension, which I try to call the "cultural work."

One example: last July, our Syrian colleague based in Lebanon was interviewed right here in NY at the preparatory hearing for the Summit of 19th September. She had been called to answer, among other things, a key question here at the UN: how you can change the narrative about migrants?

A question that suggests how many policies are informed by our view, the prevalent way of looking at the issue of "migration." The extreme and diametrically opposed ways of considering migrants: "Out with all migrants - they are a problem", or, at the other extreme, "let's welcome them all, they are a resource", they are unproductive.

In Ivory Coast, our staff consistently noted the importance of acting to "deconstruct" the myth that Europe is some kind of paradise. Too many are deceived and, after living on a sidewalk or as illegal ghosts in a foreign land, they go home, crushed.

So those who work in Lebanon or in Jordan with Iraqi and Syrian refugees understand that we are on the crest of a critical situation, on the border between East and West where the various "narratives" collide.

In the same way, in the well-off West, we need to work towards a deeper reciprocal knowledge, finding out more about the people arriving, where they came from, why they came.

Even the themes of "fear" and "security", priority topics on some agendas, require a more courageous step of mutual understanding.

But this "cultural work", which does not mean "intellectual", and gives substance to every humanitarian intervention, needs to rely on and be based on relationships between people. It can not be the result of theories and analysis.

In conclusion

This our experience from the depths of South Sudan, through Erbil and Damascus, all the way to Milan: the care of personal relationships is crucial. In this regard I would like to recall a reflection of Zygmunt Bauman , start quote: “The roots of insecurity are very deep. They lie in our way of life, they are marked by the weakening of interpersonal bonds, by communities crumbling away, by the substitution of human solidarity with unlimited competition. " -end quote.

Through the reconstruction and care of those interpersonal ties, it seems, we could - we should - start again.