by Akina Nanayakkara
Image: Akina Nanayakkara
Around the world, refugee crises are happening now, and more severe cases are yet to occur. Each situation faces its set challenges; however, they also share some common issues. Refugees are forced to flee their homes and are faced with countless challenges within their own borders and upon arrival in western countries. Those internally displaced, meaning they have fled their homes but are still within their country’s borders, are vulnerable to physical attacks, sexual attacks and abduction by traffickers. Meanwhile, those arriving in western countries have faced xenophobia and marginalization. To gain insight into the ongoing issue, I was granted the opportunity to interview Steven Smith who is the CEO of International International Refugee Trust, a UK-based charity that has worked tirelessly for several years with issues concerning those internally displaced, returnees and refugees.
Q: So, I know that IRT has done some great projects in Uganda including the children’s home and other rebuilding efforts. I was wondering if you could talk about IRT’s work and some of the challenges you face- that being emotionally or practically.
Steven Smith (Chief Executive of International Refugee Trust): IRT supports refugees, those displaced and returnees. We currently divide our projects into three areas, Step Up, Step Out and Step In. With Step In, we identify with implementing project partners where there is a need and we raise funds to help those dealing with that need. A critical area we have supported is a hospital in Jordan. Jordan has roughly 1.4 million refugees; this is about 13% of the entire population. Therefore, you can imagine the strain this puts on the country across education and jobs, etc. Most importantly, this puts strain on medical support. To help in this we support two hospitals called the Italian Hospital in Amman and Karak Hospital in Karak; these provide free treatment for refugees. With their help, incidents of severe illness and death are much lower. Our Step-In project allows us to step in with funding. An example of this is in South Sudan with a hospital called St Therese hospital in Nzara. Within the hospital, we focus on the paediatric ward, which can see roughly 5,000 children passing through.
Additionally, we also support teachers in primary schools; many of the children attending these classes have been displaced from other areas of South Sudan due to huge population migration. Regarding the two children’s homes, we support the Redeemer Children’s Home and the Moyo Babies home. The two homes provide a loving and caring environment as the children come from appalling circumstances. One example is a situation we had where four children were living in South Sudan, and the father of the family got into a rage one night and shot dead his wife in front of the children. The local villagers were outraged and the father was eventually executed. The children fled to the Ugandan border with the eldest children carrying the youngest who was still an infant, on their back. Once they got to the border, they were picked up by social services and taken to the hospital in Moyo. Only once they arrived at the hospital and examinations of the children were done did they realise there was still a bullet lodged in the baby’s foot. This is just one example of the horrendous circumstances the children come from.
Carrying on, Step Up would be our flagship project which takes those living in dire poverty earning around a dollar a day and rarely eat more than one meal a day. They are the result of large resistant armies advancing through northern Uganda as recently as the early 2000s and displacing enormous amounts of people. When these people are displaced, they lose a lot of the skills they once had back home. The Step-Up program aims to take them from this appalling level of poverty and, over 3-4 years, reach self-sustainability. It does this by introducing improved agricultural techniques, introducing clean water sources closer to the villages, introducing livestock and improving education access. By the end of the programme, those communities will have an improved standard of living.
Lastly, there is the Step Out program, which is kind of a personal baby for me. We are in partnership with an inventor who invented an artificial leg that bends at the ankle. Without this, walking up staircases or walking across rough terrain is nearly impossible. This means that in terms of disabilities and inclusion those without mobility go to the back of the queue when it comes to jobs and everyday life. This leg allows much more mobility and is cheap, costing around $100, which by western prices would round to about $3500, which goes to show the quality.
Q: Switching to more policy-related questions, I was wondering how you feel about the current UK policy towards refugees and IDPs.
Steven Smith: Many will hear that the UK resettles more refugees in this country than any other EU country. In terms of those resettled from other camps elsewhere within the UK coming through the UNHCR, that is correct. However, what this doesn’t consider are asylum seekers who have not come through the UNHCR vetting process. Therefore, the UK is not at the top of the list; other EU countries have a higher intake. Currently, there are around 132,000 refugees within the UK. Compared to the statistic I quoted earlier regarding Jordan’s 1.4 million Syrian refugees, the UK intake is just a drop in the ocean. Could we do more with the UK being the 6th largest economy in the world, certainly!
Additionally, we now have a commitment to roughly 20,000 Afghans coming over an incredibly rationed period of time. Considering our presence within Afghanistan for the past 20 years, we definitely owe a greater response.
Q: A large problem we have seen play out is the xenophobia towards refugees. I was wondering if you could speak to that and also touch upon what sort of things we could work on to combat xenophobia whether it be in education, rhetoric or leadership.
Steven Smith: Regarding xenophobia, you can see how sensitive politicians are about maintaining their power and voter base, which we saw during the Brexit vote. International Refugee Trust has also encountered this in online comments with people claiming things such as “charity belongs at home” or “these countries are in this position due to their own mistakes”, so we are very aware that these attitudes exist out there. Therefore, politicians are always going to be nervous about those attitudes. In terms of combatting this, whatever rhetoric is used, it has to combat the rhetoric of other very loud people; we saw this with people like Nigel Farage. You take the example of how rhetoric towards members of the LGBTQ community had changed over the years. Years before, it was quite normal for people to be scathing and abusive towards them; this can be as little as ten years ago. However, you can see how things have changed since then if the government and society decide it will change. So when considering refugees, it’s essential to use language that does not paint them as ‘the other’. The language used previously tends to demonise refugees, taking away the demonisation and taking away the sense of ‘the other’ and that they are human beings will help. Additionally, we can highlight that they are not just economic migrants. Many have also previously been professors, doctors, accountants, shop assistants etc, up until the point their lives were turned upside down. Another point is that they shouldn’t be ghettoised in the sense that they shouldn’t be limited to an area with poor housing and poor facilities. Instead, they should be integrated into society, which shows people that they are like everybody else.
Q: What do you hope for in the future? This can include your hope for IRT but also the general nature of the crises, including the implications of climate change.
Steven Smith: Well, just to give a bit of context, IRT was formed in 1989; it was formed because it was 30 years after the UN had the year of the refugee in 1959. The person who began IRT looked 30 years later and realised the situation had gotten worse. We looked back now and saw that the problem now is even worse than before. That doesn’t seem to be getting any better, and as you say, with climate change and the situation in Afghanistan, there are huge amounts of pressure for people to cross borders. So, one of my hopes for IRT is that we can continue to arouse interest in a terrible worldwide situation and one that doesn’t always have a huge amount of sympathy. I hope that we can get sufficient support and not only do our work from where we stand at the moment but also expanding it to those that are desperately in need of our help
Q: Thank you very much for sitting down with me, discussing this, and sharing your expertise on this subject. Before I end the interview I was wondering if there is anything, in particular, you would like to add on or highlight?
Steven Smith: Coming back to what I said previously, we must move away from the idea that refugees are ‘the other’ that they are people just like us and that they are human. Refugees are in these circumstances that are dire and extreme. From the IRT point of view, we do the best we possibly can to restore dignity and hope to those whose lives have been torn apart by war and conflict. We do that at the point of need in places like South Sudan, Jordan and Uganda, and we try to help as best as we can. Sometimes, the task can feel like standing in front of a tsunami engulfing you, but we do our best to help. In Uganda, we’re seeing whole communities regain their hope and dignity, so we do have progress, but there is so much more to do.