May 9, 2014

GUARDADO | Developing Better Practices to Accommodate Refugees

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According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 2.5 million Syrians have been displaced to neighboring countries and 6.5 million have been internally displaced within Syria. These alarming figures only show a portion of the worldwide refugee crisis, with people being forced to leave their homes in response to other wars, persecution, environmental issues and general violence.

The number of refugees who are granted asylum in Europe is extremely small compared to the people who seek it; a recent interactive Guardian article shows how hard it is to break into “Fortress Europe” by allowing readers to make the choices “real refugees have to make and find.” For the fortunate people who do manage to make it into Europe, however, the problems do not end there: beginning a completely new life and integrating into a foreign culture can be a challenge.

This summer, I will be working with SINGA, an organization based in Paris that seeks to accompany refugees in their socio-cultural integration by promoting interactions with the host country. This means providing language classes, organizing workshops on socio-cultural codes and helping those with projects to develop them.

SINGA’s model where both refugees and the host society benefit could be a useful one for the United States to follow, and I hope to learn more about these practices and how they can be applied in different places around the world. The increasing geopolitical, ethnic, religious and environmental struggles around the world mean that the flow of refugees will not slow down anytime soon, challenging neighboring countries’ ability to accommodate the large numbers of incoming people.

SINGA is a particularly interesting organization because it represents the intersection between anthropology and politics. Civil society’s functions are vast, from bridging information gaps to promoting justice and engaging citizens around particular issues, but a critical function is its role as an intermediary between the state and citizens. It is at this point where politics and culture interact the most and where a fundamental understanding of people, the foundation of the anthropological perspective, is most useful.

By bringing an anthropological approach to the problem, I hope to mediate between the two sides, refugees and host society, and understand the problems that both face. With the second largest refugee intake in Europe, France is currently struggling to find enough housing and money to support the large influx of people. For refugees, learning the language and adapting to French culture is a significant step, but there are still major stigmas around asylum.

A refugee crisis might seem like a faraway problem, but Ithaca itself has a high Burmese refugee population. Most people fled in response to ethnic and religious persecution by an authoritarian regime and have spent more than ten years in refugee camps in Thailand. This group of people also faces similar challenges in integrating into American society. The chance to work with SINGA is thus an opportunity to engage in a problem that affects the very city where we study, connect with people from all over the world and understand the role that civil society can play in enhancing the experiences of both refugees and receiving countries.