Resolving the world’s most intractable refugee crisis is up to all of us | Mariel Atorese

Ahead of the UN’s first full-scale review of its sustainable development goals, it is great to see the international community taking the issue of the African continent, and Ethiopia in particular, seriously. I am…

Resolving the world's most intractable refugee crisis is up to all of us | Mariel Atorese

Ahead of the UN’s first full-scale review of its sustainable development goals, it is great to see the international community taking the issue of the African continent, and Ethiopia in particular, seriously.

I am one of many Ethiopians in Toronto who works with refugees, and UN support is making a real difference in the lives of the people I work with, as well as in the country as a whole. From seeing the health facilities packed to capacity in Ethiopia, or the constant stream of young men travelling to Egypt to seek asylum, I know how dire the situation is in Ethiopia. We are one of the world’s poorest countries, facing famine, unemployment and insecurity; we have been hit especially hard by climate change, with scorching summers and regular droughts. The good news is that some of the world’s wealthiest countries, particularly Canada, have been collecting donations to help Ethiopia through the UN’s refugee agency, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). But when I travel back to Ethiopia to visit some of the fantastic aid organizations doing great work with the refugees, I hear more people complaining about the Canadian donations than anything else.

In talking to many Ethiopian political and NGO leaders, they are critical of the slow-footed response of the Canadian government, and say it’s symptomatic of a global feeling of exhaustion that is taking its toll. The donation amount has not kept pace with the increase in food aid that the UN World Food Programme has been providing – a crucial improvement for refugees and for the regions affected by natural disasters. OCHA distributed more than US$500m to Ethiopia during 2016, helping some of the most vulnerable people in the most overcrowded refugee camps. Yet the richest countries in the world send donations to a country that they feel is doing a good job hosting refugees. Meanwhile, there are many other countries, including Canada, that continue to be deeply concerned about the plight of refugees and displaced people but continue to allocate significant financial support only to those hosted by their own country. If you work at the UN or NGO level, you know the frustration is real. You cannot underestimate the toll that takes on employees and organisations when support is not constant. You also cannot dismiss the political system in many of the world’s poorest countries – the “turn and turn and turn” cycle of protection, relocation and reinvention.

If Canadians want to see meaningful results from the new sustainable development goals, they should take a closer look at the situation in Ethiopia.

More money is needed from all countries, including Canada, to reach the goals of the 2030 sustainable development goals, and refugees are a critical part of the equation. To be sure, Ethiopia has the weakest humanitarian laws for refugees and internally displaced people in the world, and the result has been, in large part, dysfunctional and fragmented refugee and humanitarian protection systems. All this could change with more accurate, evidence-based data – skills that Canadian aid agencies and volunteers have the skills to develop. Ultimately, we need a systematic and internationally consistent system of protection for people who flee their homes.

In talking to many Ethiopian political and NGO leaders, they are critical of the slow-footed response of the Canadian government, and say it’s symptomatic of a global feeling of exhaustion that is taking its toll.

The donation amount has not kept pace with the increase in food aid that the UN World Food Programme has been providing. It is about time that Canada and others step up to the plate and adopt plans that are realistic and effective. And if Canada and others do not want to keep saying they are very concerned, they should find more meaningful ways to show it.

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