Note: This interview was conducted on May 22 2016, before the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul.
I first interviewed you in 2014 for a college term paper focusing on the Syrian refugee crisis. At that time, 9.3 million people were in need of assistance. Back then, you said that the US needed to step up and allow more people to resettle in the country, otherwise no other nation would do the same. What are your thoughts regarding US immigration policy now, in regards to Syrian refugees?
I still think that the US should take a lot more refugees. It's shameful that our quota is just 10,000 people. We’ve still only resettled up to 3,000 people in the States. In spite of all the efforts that we’ve been making in the humanitarian space, when the US doesn’t step up, other countries do not feel the need to do so either. With the Paris attacks and other terrorist incidents, there’s a tendency to say, 'Refugees are responsible'. But refugees are trying to get away from violence. The voyages are difficult and dangerous, and people are dying in droves.
The World Humanitarian Summit is taking place in Istanbul, Turkey, from May 23-24. It aims to deal with the refugee crisis and the nearly 60 million displaced people around the world. One of the main issues that the summit presents is how out-dated the humanitarian process is. What are your thoughts on that?
I agree completely. I think the model of sending in expatriates when there is an emergency is a mistake, is shortsighted, and is so last century. The people on the ground, and the ones who respond first, are going to be there long after the humanitarians leave, and they deliver most of the assistance now anyway, it is just channelled through various organisations before it gets to them. I think these programmes on the ground need to be recognised as full-fledged partners and participate in the same way as the big international ones. Some of the international NGOs are very threatened by this. They don’t want to transfer power to these local NGOs.
Also, you cannot generalise: some local NGOs are great, some are terrible or really political, but that is true of the international ones as well! I think the whole situation needs to be re-shaped, but I do not think this will happen in Istanbul next week.
What do you think will happen in Istanbul?
It’s been a really flawed process, and everyone has complained about the way it’s organised. There’s been a lot of negative talk about it. However, maybe because the expectations are so low, some good things will come out of it. I’m very impressed with local NGOs. I worked for the World Council of Churches (a collection of local churches and interfaith groups) and was amazed by the amount of work they did! My first humanitarian emergency was the Ethiopian famine of 1985. When I arrived the Canadian Churches were so proud of hundreds of metric tonnes of grain being delivered by the Government of Canada. But then, I found out that there were 10,000 Ethiopian Orthodox Churches that were actually cooking the food, and distributing it, and identifying who was most in need. That work never gets counted. We count all the grain that is shipped, but we don’t count all those volunteers who serve the people. I think they need more credit.
You just released your book, The Consequences of Chaos (co-written with Kemal Kirişci), which looks beyond the current Syrian crisis, and tried to tackle the future issues that the mass displacement of people will incur. What do governments of countries such as Turkey, Lebanon, Chad and Sudan, who have large refugee populations, need to do right now to develop a system to help refugees?
We need to be thinking of solutions right now. If you see some of the photographs and the drone footage of these places, it’s going to be a long time before people can go home. It isn’t fair to leave people in limbo for five or 10 or 15 years. We ought to do more to support them in their host countries, and re-settle hundreds of thousands. There are a lot of things we need to do to ensure that they have a chance.
We also need to think about what is going to happen in Syria afterwards. At some point, this horrible war is going to come to an end. What kind of government, and what kind of reconciliation process will there be at the end? Will people get their property back? Usually we wait until a conflict is over before we start figuring these things out, but we should be figuring it all out right now.
How many books have you published? Will you be going on a book tour?
I’ve published eight books so far. I work at the UN now, and there’s a conflict of interest. I wrote the book before I started my new post in January, but I don’t want people to think, "This Georgetown academic is putting her ideas into UN declarations!" I’d rather be low-key about it, and let my co-author Kemal do all the press for the book.
Elizabeth Ferris | Co-Director | Brookings - LSE Project on Internal Displacement
Active for over 40 years
CV in brief
Affiliations Adjunct Associate Professor at Georgetown University School of Foreign Service | Editorial Board, Journal of Migration and Human Security | Commissioner, Women’s Refugee Commission | Nansen Initiative Consultative Committee
Exclusive interview with Aisha Babalakin, May 19 2016
The Consequences of Chaos: Syria’s humanitarian crisis and the failure to protect (The Marshall Papers)
Inspiring girls and young women to choose a career in foreign policy
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