Listening to and involving refugees when providing aid

Patrick Lim
Graduate student in Social Work at Columbia University

Standards for aid provision in humanitarian relief contexts have long overlooked directly engaging with aid recipients. A complex web of organizations has emerged to address the needs of refugees, especially those displaced in the Syrian Civil War. Humanitarian organizations address a wide range of issues – from mental health services to women’s empowerment. The interaction between so many organizations has yielded a dizzying structure that struggles to target the precise needs of displaced people, and aid organizations can benefit from working more closely with the people they serve. Particularly in the cases of children, certain programs or policies are required to justify themselves according to the “best interests” of the child. Those standards, however, are rarely set in collaboration with refugees themselves. More often, aid organizations and governments make assumptions about the needs of aid recipients, taking unilateral action without their input. Organizations which buck the trend and consider refugees’ input have found it greatly beneficial in identifying aid gaps. Working directly with aid recipients to address their needs also renders aid more respectful and culturally sensitive, restoring a sense of agency to people who depend on humanitarian aid. Prioritizing refugee input not only elevates the person receiving aid, it also makes the provision of services more efficient and more responsive.

Social workers are trained to acknowledge that they might not know what is best for a certain population, and to understand the problems they are faced with from their clients’ perspectives. In the context of refugees in Jordan, this is particularly important. The country is host to refugees from many different countries, including Palestine, Iraq, Sudan, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen. International Non-governmental Organizations (INGOs), some of the largest providers of humanitarian aid in the world, form the backbone of global responses to humanitarian crises, and they take an outsize role in the administration of services to refugees in Jordan. These organizations face a range of challenges because they often rely on international staff who spend their careers across multiple regions, and do not always know or understand local languages and customs. Foreign aid workers must remain aware that they, as a community of outsiders paid to be in the field, benefit from the  pain, misery, and suffering of those they serve. Likewise, aid workers must be aware of the dangers of imposing their ideals, culture, and values on refugees. Forcing those with trauma or depression to see a therapist or a psychologist without considering the local norms for approaching mental health and trauma, for example, can prove counterproductive if the requirement is applied uncritically. In Jordan, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and the Collateral Repair Project have recognized the importance of implementing an anti-oppressive lens when working with the populations they serve. They have started to involve locals and refugees through refugee-led organizations like Jusoor, which helps Syrian youth through education and career development programs.

The trauma of displacement makes it difficult for refugees to establish  a sense of routine, normalcy, and self-sufficiency, and the highly bureaucratic nature of humanitarian aid exacerbates the challenge of helping them rebuild their lives. By seeking refugee input directly, aid organizations are able to give the people they serve a sense of agency and control over their lives. Aid organizations should do more than listen to refugees – they ought to compensate them for their regular time and advice. Many refugees in Jordan cannot work, but aid  organizations can employ them as volunteers for their counsel through the cash for work system, a form of cash assistance that is subject to strict regulation. Continuous, consistent feedback, collaboration, and input will also ensure that aid can adapt to the changing needs of refugee communities .

Directly consulting refugees can also identify gaps in service. The Collateral Repair Project and The Jordan Hashemite Fund for Human Development (Johud) are two NGOs that began providing child care facilities after women participating in their programs stressed their inability to attend job training classes because of a lack of access to child care. By seeking direct feedback on the services they provided, these organizations were able to improve the quality of service they offered and remove an obstacle that prevented their services from reaching their intended beneficiary. While there are some forms of aid that take first priority as universal needs in emergency situations – namely, shelter, health, and food – their provision is only the beginning of an aid organization’s task. The feedback of aid recipients is an invaluable asset in the continuing process of providing aid to support a population and work towards its stability. Aside from the challenges different communities face in their everyday lives, the Jordanian government further complicates the process of delivering aid through its inconsistent treatment of different refugee populations, categorizing refugees by their national origin and subjecting each population to different regulations. Each population receives different packages of rights by the government, especially when it comes to the right to work. Iraqi and Syrian refugees, for example, are allowed to work in limited capacities while they are in Jordan, whereas Sudanese and Yemeni refugees are not. Despite promises to be more open to allowing refugees to work, the Jordanian government has remained hesitant to move ahead with new legislation.

Input from refugees should extend beyond the provision of immediate humanitarian relief. Long-term solutions for refugees, known as durable solutions, demand their involvement. This is particularly important in the case of voluntary repatriation. Refugees have vested interests in the their countries’ futures, but it is not always clear when they should return to their homes. Humanitarian organizations and host governments such as Jordan must ask refugees what circumstances would best facilitate their return, and involve them in the process of defining peace. The United Nations cannot expect refugees of different backgrounds – ethnic, religious, economic, social – to have a uniform understanding of voluntary repatriation, as different groups have different concerns and objectives. For example, more than 5.7 million refugees have returned to Afghanistan since the war in 2002, but many have struggled to rebuild their homes and livelihoods. Access to scarce resources has also been a consistent point of conflict. The international community and host governments ought not stipulate conditions for return unilaterally. Humanitarian organizations must endorse repatriation that is truly voluntary by facilitating negotiations between refugee communities, the governments of the countries hosting them, and the authorities of their communities of origin. It must not allow host governments to compel refugees to return to their home countries.

The traumas inherent in the experience of displacement are clear, and aid workers on the ground demonstrate a strong desire to provide comprehensive services for the people with whom they work. The complex interaction of large INGOs with smaller, local providers of aid, and with the national governments administering refugee populations, generates such friction in the process of aid provision that refugee voices are frequently lost in the scramble to legislate their lives. Rather than giving in to the impulse to apply blanket solutions to diverse populations of refugees, aid organizations large and small have a responsibility to guarantee the dignity and efficacy of the services they provide. In practice, they can do so by working to be more responsive to the feedback of those they serve. Doing so not only secures the agency of aid recipients, it also improves the quality of the services humanitarian organizations provide.

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