Most of us have been watching the images of Ukrainian refugees fleeing their country, crossing borders to find a new home in Western Europe. I have been asking refugees from other countries to share their views and advice about what’s happening. Here’s my latest conversation with Anila Noor, a refugee and founder of New Women Connectors (NWC), a Netherlands-based organisation that advocates systemic change in migration policies and helps connect refugee and migrant women in Europe and beyond (disclaimer: I am a board member). Anila is no stranger to this blog, as you can read here. Once again, her views give us pause.
Hi Anila, thanks for agreeing to discuss the flow of Ukrainian refugees to Western Europe. You lead a refugee and migrant organisation. What do your members think of the current situation?
Refugees from other places than Ukraine are very disappointed. We see double standards and discrimination at play. Ukrainian refugees are allowed to enter countries like the Netherlands; they just need to show their IDs, they don’t need a visa to enter the EU. They don’t need to go to reception centres. They get housing and their asylum application is processed right away. Other refugees have to go to these reception centres. People who are stuck in places like Greece even have to go to detention centres.
On a positive note, we are glad that the EU understands the importance of finding quick solutions in refugee crises. We need to encourage this approach and use it as an example to create a welcome Europe towards any crisis situation happening in the world because European countries have a big global responsibility on their shoulders.
This situation shows that the [asylum] system gets flexible in cases like Ukrainian refugees. Being a refugee myself and a member of the Global Refugee-led Network, I have noticed how proactive UNHCR [the UN refugee agency] is in the case of Ukraine and yet it was so hesitant about the Afghanistan situation just a few months ago. Also, UNHCR is holding information sessions on Ukraine but is not directly consulting with us. We should use this situation to show that if we are open-minded, things can change quickly.
We don’t want to create competition between refugees but this situation is showing discrimination in the system – why isn’t the UN doing the same for Pakistani, Iranian or Afghan refugees? In the case of Syria, refugees were screened a lot more. Syrian refugees are angry as both the EU and the UN were not so proactive at the start of the Syria crisis.
Some politicians even say Ukrainian refugees are ‘civilised’. That implies that other refugees aren’t. Does it boil down to the way you look? Whether you have blue eyes and light skin? Where’s the accountability for this kind of framing? Are we competing for vulnerability?
What I’m saying is that if you’re flexible for Ukrainian refugees, you should be flexible for other refugees too. Sure, we’re happy UNHCR is acting fast on the Ukraine situation. We refugees can and should be involved in response and resettlement plans. We should be at the heart of refugee policy and expertise.
Instead, we are still not taken seriously. We are not seen as the experts. If you watch the news, they always reach out to white male professors. This shows we are using a distance lens; participation is still tokenistic. As part of the Global Refugee-led Network, we sent a few points for reflection to Members of the European Parliament last month. The letter was not even acknowledged – is it because we’re not European?
What you are saying raises questions about meaningful refugee participation. Has the international community made progress on that? And when does refugee participation really become meaningful?
My organisation New Women Connectors is working with Oxfam International on a participation model – the infinity model. It is a five-step process, of which participation is only one step; you also need to respond to refugee participation. We have just launched our model and are using it to clarify our position on several issues, such as grassroots refugee-led organisations.
About 25% of refugee organisations working in Europe are not refugee-led; they’re led by white women. And yet, these organisations are applying for funding or awards, like the amazing opportunity of the Innovation Award for Refugee-Led Organisations, that were meant to help grassroots refugee-led entities. As NWC, we have questions. I am not saying it’s wrong, but these organisations [led by white women] are not grassroots at all.
Also, we are dependent on Northern universities for funding. Foundations prefer to fund refugee-led organisations in Africa and Asia but not in Europe. Our partnership with funding entities is on hold due to the Ukraine crisis – many vulnerable [refugee] communities are neglected because of this. Unfortunately, the humanitarian domain tends to replace one crisis with another – it has created a trend.
Also, these days everyone is using different approaches and definitions. Talking about meaningful refugee participation is becoming a trend. The extreme version we have seen is manipulation instead of proper refugee consultation.
The media, other international organisations and the UN have totally forgotten about our work on meaningful refugee participation. They are approaching us to facilitate contacts with Ukrainian partners, but they only want to extract information from us and then partner directly with them without involving us. We could help because so many refugees were already there [in Ukraine] from Afghanistan before the war. We could use our networks and minimise the chances of [illegal] transactions. We could help with resettlement referrals, we could share our learnings, how border security treats refugees, how we were treated… what happens when you go through this kind of experience.
We shouldn’t create competition [among refugees] but we should be aware of ongoing privileges. We shouldn’t replace crisis with crisis. The Ukraine refugee situation shows how refugee policies can change based on an arbitrary understanding of who has a right to asylum – not based on human rights. This is not equality.
Cover photo: Refugee Advisory Group (UNHCR)