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Opinion Refugee crisis: Canada can take the lead on long-term solutions

Nazanin Ash is vice-president for public policy and advocacy at the International Rescue Committee. Cindy Huang is a senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development.

In the face of unprecedented need, Canada is already recognized as a champion for the world's most vulnerable people, welcoming around 40,000 Syrian refugees since November of 2015 while offering assistance to more than 12 million other forcibly displaced people around the world between 2015 and 2016. Canadians have opened up their homes and their pockets thanks to Canada's pioneering private sponsorship program, which is now being copied by other nations.

Canadians' reputation for generosity toward refugees is well-deserved and well-documented, but the truth is that Canada cannot solve this problem alone.

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Just look at the numbers. Around the world, 65 million people – twice the population of Canada – have been forced to flee their homes. Since 2011, five million have fled to other countries from Syria alone. Every day, nearly 3,000 refugees pour into Uganda from South Sudan, an exodus from famine and violence. And these are not short-term displacements. Refugees spend, on average, a decade away from home. The world's humanitarian system, used to responding to short-term, manageable flows of people with refugee camps and food supplies, cannot address the scale and nature of today's tide of misery.

Much more collaborative thinking is needed between humanitarian and development agencies and governments, and Canada now has a chance to lead greater international co-operation. We hope this week's first meeting in Geneva of the World Refugee Council, a new international body of experts supported by Canada and chaired by former minister of foreign affairs Lloyd Axworthy, can deliver the kind of bold, transformative solutions the world needs to effectively address the global refugee crisis.

It must start by acknowledging the reality that developing countries play host to almost 90 per cent of the world's refugees, and that, even if the emergency that uprooted them was to end tomorrow, those people are unlikely to go home soon. Instead, they get stuck on the very bottom of society in the countries where they seek refuge, often unable to work, access health care or send their children to school. A recent joint report from our two organizations studied examples of agreements between humanitarian, development and government agencies aimed at creating economic opportunities for refugees. Early results in Jordan and Lebanon are promising, though progress has been slower than hoped. More refugees in Jordan have been issued work permits and more kids are in schools, but whether refugees are making enough money to support themselves and whether children are learning in schools is yet to be seen. The World Refugee Council understands it must find more ways to bridge the gap between short-term humanitarian response and long-term development outcomes for refugees.

To aid in the council's work, we offer three recommendations. First, it should formalize a practice of including refugee voices and experiences, of asking refugees themselves what they need. Its membership, of serious and well-meaning experts from host governments, donor governments (including Canadian Senator Ratna Omidvar), NGOs and academia is set up to take careful stock of the varying mandates and perspectives, but these experts must also find ways to listen closely to the people at the centre of this crisis. What do refugees need to send their children to school? What stands in the way of finding decent work? What unique circumstances do they face, given the trauma at the root of their flight? The council should develop mechanisms and partnerships that engage refugees and local refugee organizations to find answers to these basic questions. It could utilize mobile-phone technology to drive participation from more people on the ground.

Second, the council should support a data revolution to better understand the problems countries face. For example, only seven of the 20 countries playing host to the most refugees even count these vast populations in their national poverty surveys. There is also scant evidence regarding what form of help for refugees actually works. Take the education sector, for instance, where there have been more than 200 rigorous studies to measure learning in developing countries, but only 13 studies have looked at education programs in places affected by crisis. While organizations such as the International Rescue Committee are leading the way on generating new and better evidence, conducting rigorous evaluations in crisis contexts is not yet the norm. Currently, decisions are made many miles away on the basis of intuition, rather than fact.

Third, the council should seek to establish a set of clear outcomes and related targets for refugees. For example, increasing employment among displaced populations and ensuring that they are making a decent living, and improving math, reading, writing and social skills among children in crisis settings. Existing targets, such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals offer a model, but they are largely aimed at improving the lives of countries' citizens, not the millions of refugees who may be living within their borders.

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We must remember that a refugee situation is no longer a short-term issue. Instead of condemning human beings with potential to lifelong poverty, we can invest in them as people and help them become productive contributors to their host countries. Canada's actions at home have shown that it understands this. Its leadership on the World Refugee Council means it is well-placed to forge an international coalition for refugees to rise to this historic challenge.

Nazanin Ash and Cindy Huang are co-authors of the report Refugee Compacts: Addressing the Crisis of Protracted Development.

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