United Nations House Scotland, in collaboration with Médecins sans Frontières, hosted “The Long Road to Resettlement Conference” on the 20th of September at Paterson’s Land Edinburgh university, with an audience of over one hundred and fifty attendees.
The event discussed the situation 'on the ground' in Syria, while also exploring the efforts currently underway to resettle Syrian refugees in Scotland. At a time when, according to The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, (UNHCR), the Syrian conflict has produced the largest refugee and displacement crisis of our time, it becomes crucial to bring diverse voices to the table to discuss how refugees’ immediate needs can be addressed but also importantly, what role our communities can play in building sustainable change and bringing about a peaceful resolution to the crisis.
Amer Masri – Syrian Refugee
Amer Masri, the first Syrian refugee to arrive in U.K, shared his deeply personal and moving account of his experience as a prisoner of the Assad regime in 2011.
Amer Masri had been living in the UK since 2007, working as a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, when he returned to Syria for a visit with his family in 2011. His visit happened shortly after the peaceful protests against the regime had started, following widespread protests in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. However, because Amer had spoken against the repression by the Assad regime on social media, he was immediately detained upon his arrival in Syria.
Amer told us the incredibly gripping story of his capture and escape. He was accused of coming to Syria from the UK to spy on the regime and was even accused of working for MI5 or MI6. According to Amer, he was relentlessly tortured, both physically and psychologically. Threats were made against his family if he refused to cooperate and speak. After 57 days of detention, Amer managed to escape and was able to flee back to Scotland. Amer now helps in the settlement of Syrian refugees in Scotland.
Amer’s story exemplifies the brutal repression of the Assad regime and the widespread torture against its civilians. His incarceration at the hands of the Assad regime, underlie the reality of the suffering and insecurity that hundreds of thousands of ordinary people face every day in Syria. Amer’s account reminds us of the human dimension of the Syrian conflict and how people are forced to flee their homes in search of safety.
During the Q&A session, Amer reiterated his belief that the Assad regime is largely to blame for the growing radicalization and humanitarian crisis resulting from the Syrian conflict.
Daria Vorobyeva: PhD Candidate at the School of International Relations, University of St. Andrews
The second speaker, Daria Vorobvyeva, is a Ph.D candidate from the Department of International Relations, University of St. Andrews. Her presentation focused primarily on the key motivational factors behind Russian involvement in the Syrian conflict and its resolution. For Daria, to understand Russia’s active participation in Syria one has to address strategic and security concerns in terms of domestic and foreign policy.
Daria Vorobyeva: PhD Candidate at the School of International Relations, University of St. Andrews. Photo: Heather Emond
Daria first outlined the external interests of Russia in relation to its involvement in the Syrian conflict. First, she noted that Syria is the last Russian ally in the Middle East. Such affiliation guarantees Russia at least representative involvement in the international relations of the Middle East. Additionally, there is the symbolic importance of the Russian naval base located in the port of the city of Tartus, Syria, thus affording the nation power within that sphere of international politics.
Furthermore, Daria suggested that the Syrian conflict maintains Russia in a position of power, avoiding large-scale isolation from the West. Indeed, Russia is an important player in terms of Security Council decisions and its role as negotiator from the Syrian regime side. Furthermore, the weakness of the Russian economy makes it hard for the state to increase its international importance economically, relying instead on political and to some extent military leverage. Thus, Syria aids Russia in its will to return to the arena of international politics as a powerful and important player.
Additionally, it is vital for Russian domestic and regional security that there is no occurrence of widespread Islamic extremism across the globe, in the Middle East in particular, as this would directly impact Russia and its neighbours. Daria suggested that this is due to the fact that Russia has a complicated history of Islamic separatism and extremism inside the country. Radicalization would decrease the security situation in the country. Additionally, Islamic radicalization of the neighbouring states would result in changes in state security and military expenditure, as well as complex relations with such states.
After outlining Russia’s external interests, Daria elaborated on the internal interests of the state in regards to Syria. Since Russia is currently undergoing economic difficulties, satisfaction of the citizens with the state is very important for the maintenance of stability and security within the country.
Shortly after the presidential elections in Russia in 2012, 67% of civilians expected a strengthening of Russia’s position in the international arena. Furthermore, in 2012, Russia experienced a period of national unrest, whereby civilians took to the streets of Moscow protesting against the state. Due to such public dissatisfaction, the newly elected Putin had to be increasingly careful when it came to decision-making procedure. Older generations who still have a Soviet mentality therefore see any concession made to Western terms as a weakness.
Considering that the Russian population reacted very negatively towards the Russian position in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) towards the uprising in Libya (the Russian population’s satisfaction with the government fell lower than at any time during the previous 10 years), giving up Syria could have a negative effect on the reputation of the Russian President.
Daria concluded that Russian actions undoubtedly impact the dynamics of the Syrian conflict, so it is very likely that the state will play an active role in its resolution, regardless of how positive or constructive this role may seem to be. In light of this, she suggested, if there is a will to reach a solution, certain Russian interests must be taken into account – namely internal and external. President Assad may step down during the transitional period, nevertheless, a new leader should appear from inside the system, meaning that a new president should not be appointed by any external player.
Lara Alshawawreh: PhD Researcher, School of Engineering and the Built Environment, Edinburgh Napier University
The last speaker of the first session was Lara Alshawawreh, a PhD researcher in the School of Engineering and Built Environment at Edinburgh Napier University. Lara’s PhD is based on architecture of emergency in the Middle East. Indeed, she is aiming to develop future transitional shelters for refugees after disasters.
Lara reminded us how important sheltering aid is during crisis - that 63.91 million people in the world are forcibly displaced and 1 in every 123 humans is now either a refugee, internally displaced or seeking asylum. There are 4.8 million Syrian refugees who were displaced out of Syria.
Jordan indeed has a long history of refugee camps which have often evolved into slum-like cities. Till September 2016, only around 656 thousand person of concern is officially registered within the UNHCR records from a total of around 1.3 million Syrians who have arrived to Jordan during the war. Around 20% of those Syrians live in official camps while the other 80% live in Jordan’s cities, rural areas and informal tented settlements.
Her research takes the two major Syrian refugee camps in Jordan as case studies. The first camp is the Zaa’tari Camp, the largest in the Middle East and second largest in the world. In 2015, most tents were replaced with prefabricated shelters. However, having witnessed the camp in person, Lara outlined the main issues with these shelters which include leakage, lack of weather protection and flammability. The wood has also become a breeding ground for rat infestations and there is a lack of ventilation as there are not enough windows or windows covered by the residents themselves due to their inappropriate position directly opened to the public. Furthermore, the prefabricated shelters do not take into account cultural norms, as is evident by the significant lack of privacy. Additionally, there are health and security risks associated with the previous communal toilets and the current private self-built toilets as there is no sewage system.
The second Syrian camp in Jordan is the Azraq camp, which Lara also visited. The camp has purpose built T-shelters. Policies regarding doing amendments to the shelters are different than Zaa’tari camp, refugees are not allowed to make any changes to the shelters. The T-shelter design provides an internal canvas to help protecting the shelter from the harsh weather conditions. However, the canvas is not really useful and most refugees removed it from the inside and put it instead as an outdoor partition to have private outdoor area. Similar to the Zaa’tari Camp, there are issues with surface run-off wastewater in the streets coming from the communal toilets and the shelters. Moreover, there is no electricity; only solar lamps, no direct water comes to the shelters, only communal taps that refugees fill their bottles from. Issues of ventilation and privacy are also prevalent. The camp becomes really hot during the summer season; which some call “hell”, and also it is exposed to a lot of dust storms.
Ultimately, no single shelter has met on the ground the minimum standards set by different NGOs and commonly used to evaluate the shelters’ performance.
Going forward in the issue of the Syrian conflict, there are two possible political scenarios:
The war continues, and the question then becomes: Are these shelters able to protect and fulfil the needs of the refugees for more years?
The second scenario is peace. Many want to go back to Syria if peace ensues, but the issue then becomes: What homes do they go back to if they are all destroyed?
Thus, there is an increasing need for a shelter designed to help protect and provide privacy and dignity to the Syrian refugee people, respect their cultural and religious values, expandable if needed and most importantly, can be disassembled and reassembled again. This flexibility in transporting the shelters can be part of a return package and will help the refugees go back to their home country, re-erect those shelters and live temporarily in them until they rebuild their own homes. This last point was one of main issues Lara discussed with the refugees in the camps about and they agreed it would make resettlement back home easier.
John Wilkes: Chief Executive of the Scottish Refugee Council
John Wilkes has since 2008 been the Chief Executive of the Scottish Refugee Council. He has a background in equalities and human rights, and was previously Director of Equal Opportunities Commissions in Scotland and Scottish Director of Carers UK. In addition, Mr. Wilkes has held other chief executive roles in the Scottish voluntary sector on issues of HIV and AIDS.
Mr. Wilkes started out by placing his topic into both a historical and a current framework, such as the emergence of the Refugee Convention. He addressed Scotland’s recent experience with refugees since the establishment of the Scottish Refugee Council in 1985. By the end of the 1980s there were relatively few refugees who came directly to Scotland. In the 1980s, however, the country experienced resettlement procedures after the breakup of Yugoslavia.
The momentous change for Scotland in terms of its relationship with refugees was in the late 1990s. This was when the UK introduced a programme of dispersal for people seeking asylum in the UK, in which Scotland took part. Consequently, Scotland experienced a much bigger exposure to people fleeing difficult situations.
Mr. Wilkes then switched the focus to the current case of the Syrian refugees. As he mentioned, the UK government has announced that it is going to receive 20,000 Syrian refugees over the next five years. He was critical of this number, as he reminded the audience that Lebanon has around 1 million Syrian refugees, even though the country has roughly the same population as Scotland.
Mr. Wilkes noted that the Scottish political response to refugees over the past 10-15 years has generally been more positive than the response of the UK government. Even though the Scottish government does not deal with all aspects of refugees and asylum seekers, it is responsible for the integration of refugees. Mr Wilkes added that he also felt that Scottish politicians generally talk about these issues in a more positive and intelligent way than many politicians at a UK government level.
The difference between this general response and the response to the Syrian refugees was noted. After the dramatic pictures of refugees successfully and unsuccessfully crossing the Mediterranean escalated last year, the Syrian refugee crisis received an increased amount of attention. Both the Scottish government and the public immediately called on the UK government to do something about this. Consequently, the Prime Minister at the time, David Cameron, agreed to a resettlement agreement in which it was decided that UK was to receive 20,000 Syrian refugees over five years.
The Scottish government has said that it is ready to take at least its full share in the resettlement programme. According to Mr. Wilkes, Scotland was much more ready to take in refugees than the rest of the UK, partly due to the approaches that were already in place, in addition to the political will and support. Since a large number of refugees started arriving in Scotland in the early 2000s, Scotland has according to Mr. Wilkes dealt with this responsibility by implementing a strategic and coordinated way of integrating refugees. This helped local authorities to be confident that they would be backed up.
So far, Scotland has taken around 40% of the Syrian refugees in the UK, and Mr. Wilkes said that there are several elements to feel positive about in terms of Scotland’s response. He claimed that the UK wide response also has been positive, but not so comprehensive. According to its population proportion compared to other EU countries, the UK should have agreed to receive around 100,000 refugees instead of the 20,000. Mr. Wilkes regards this number as perfectly manageable.
Mr. Wilkes concluded his talk by mentioning the positives: the case of the Syrian refugees has demonstrated how the public voice can change things. He also celebrated the impact of awareness created through events such as the Long Road to Resettlement seminar. Furthermore, Mr. Wilkes underlined that the integration of Syrian refugees in Scotland is facilitated by a prepared framework for integration in Scotland. His final encouragement was to “celebrate the positives and try and challenge the negatives a bit more”.
Dr. Alison Strang: Chair of ‘New Scots’ Strategy
The final speaker was Dr. Alison Strang, chair of ‘New Scots’ Strategy. Her research has also focused on refugee issues, specifically their psychological state and well-being. She has also played an integral policy role concerning refugees in Scotland.
She first commented on the title of the event, Long Road to Resettlement, which is perfectly representative of refugees’ arrival in a safe country: arrival is not the end of the road; there are many more steps to take afterwards.
She then went on to speak about the Scottish Refugee Council’s work. Through the Holistic Integration Service, led by the Scottish Refugee Council, 1,885 refugees were settled in Scotland between 2013-2016. The strategy of Scotland since 2012/13 for refugees, led by Scottish Refugee Council, Local Authorities and Scottish Government, has been to bring organisations and the government together to understand what refugees really need in order to integrate. It is a two-way process that doesn’t put the responsibility on the new comers to fit in, but acknowledges that social structures in Scotland could change and adapt to help with the integration process.
Dr. Strang then presented the challenges and successes of the resettlement programme. Indeed, although there was much public interest in the arrival of the Syrian refugees into the country, there was concern that they would be exploited and bombarded by the media and the arrival of the refugees was relatively quiet. This has translated into issues of communication between authorities and local organisations who want to be involved but do not know how to help. There is also an unfortunate rhetoric of “good” and “bad” refugees. “Good” refugees go through the resettlement program where they are granted humanitarian protection for 5 years. “Bad” refugees are asylum seekers. Another challenge for refugees in Scotland is that the humanitarian protection mandate is only for 5 years, therefore, only short-term issues are addressed and refugees will have to reapply for this protection if the conflict continues for longer than 5 years. Learning the language is also key to combat refugees’ isolation and more hours need to be dedicated towards this.
The achievements of the resettlement programme, however, are undeniable. Indeed, high levels of commitment have translated into a high level of investment from everyone involved in the program. Dialogue between stakeholders is essential in order to understand what refugees really need. There has been swift action to find housing for refugees. Integration is seen as occurring from day one. Often there is a significant period of time between a refugee’s arrival in a country and their being granted asylum. During this period, refugees are often dependent on aid as they do not have the right to work. This is true even for asylum seekers in Scotland. The Scottish Refugee Council’s Holistic Integration Service has addressed this “limbo period”. The Scottish Refugee Council has a holistic approach to integration. They go beyond simply providing housing, education, healthcare, and employment. They try to address what makes people feel truly at home which includes building social bridges, meaning building relationships with people across cultural boundaries and building social links, meaning building relationships that gives refugees access to social services. They base everything they do for refugees on a foundation of human rights.
Dr. Strang concluded by telling us the six most common things refugees say:
“I am relieved to be safe”
“I am desperate to learn English”
“How can I meet Scottish people?”
“I am worried about my family”
“I want to work and use my skills”
“I feel lonely, isolated, and worthless”
While the speakers had different points of view on the situation in Syria, ultimately, they underlined the urgency and the need for attention on a global and local scale. While Daria’s presentation demonstrated that Russia may well have an important part to play in the resolution of the conflict given its presence and interests, Amer’s moving story is a testimony to the feelings of insecurity and the brutal repression that Syrians face each day. Lara’s presentation on shelter issues in refugee camps brought to our attention the desperation of the humanitarian situation on the ground, where basic needs are not being met.
The Long Road to Resettlement event underlined the important efforts undertaken by civil society in Scotland in helping with the refugee crisis. John Wilkes emphasized the power of the public voice to bring about positive change. He believes that more should and could be done to assist with the settlement of Syrian refugees in the UK. Dr. Strang reminded us that “feeling safe” is something not to be taken for granted and that this was indeed a widespread sentiment felt by refugees on arrival in Scotland. Dr. Strang emphasized the importance of a holistic approach to the settlement of refugees in order to achieve effective and successful integration into Scottish communities. Dr. Gari Donn, Executive Director of UNHS, concluded the conference, reminding us of the importance of the public voice and the role of civil society in bringing about fundamental change. She noted the need for a human voice in spreading knowledge and understanding. Dr. Donn believes that by continually striving to make this public voice heard and by putting pressure on decision makers at both a local and national level to bring an end to the conflict in Syria, a peaceful resolution to the crisis will be achieved.
Photo Credits: Heather Emond