BLOG | The Syrian Refugee crisis and co-operatives

The International Co-operative Alliance’s Committee on Co-operative Research (ICA CCR) and the International Labour Organization (ILO) is hosting a research conference from 8 to 10 November 2015 in Antalya, Turkey, as part of the Alliance’s...

The International Co-operative Alliance’s Committee on Co-operative Research (ICA CCR) and the International Labour Organization (ILO) is hosting a research conference from 8 to 10 November 2015 in Antalya, Turkey, as part of the Alliance’s 2015 global conference. In the second of a series of conference blogs, Betsy Dribben, attorney, lobbyist and former director of policy at the ICA, discusses conflict, peace and co-operative solutions.

The misery in this refugee crisis is everywhere. But so is the potential for the co-operative movement to lead the way in innovative or expanded programs to assist refugees fleeing Syria.

Whatever country you are from, you cannot ignore the fact that the world’s greatest humanitarian crisis since World War II is not just upon us – it is overwhelming us. But for the luck of the draw you or I, educated, trained, settled with family and friends could find ourselves in an overwhelming crisis desperately trying to escape from war. Children and adults are drowning as overloaded boats try to make it to the next stop in what is a seemingly endless odyssey. Others endure not just the toss of the waves, but, if they survive, then endless walks to buses and trains and an uncertain future.

At this juncture there is no likelihood for new co-operatives within Syria as the war rages. However, beyond its borders regardless of the type of co-operative, its location, or size of membership, there should be encouragement on how they can help those Syrians who have or will show up on their country’s doorstep.

In Germany, housing co-operatives in a number of cities, including Gelsenkirchen in the north west, have started reserving larger homes for refugee families and consciously renting them to Syrian refugees. Italian co-ops stretched thin by so many coming into their country are still doing a remarkable job assisting with welcome centres and resettlement efforts. They have already helped 18,000 refugees so far. No doubt there are many other unsung co-operative heroes at work in their own countries, even as I write.

These are not just people from small rural areas without anything. The range is as staggering as the numbers; highly educated young and old have simply given up and have left. It is estimated that 12.5 million Syrians have fled or are IDPs (internally displaced persons). This is half the population of that country.

The Turks have from the start tried their very best to do right by their Syrian neighbours. About 200,000 refugees are in camps within Turkey. Schools have been built, roads paved, medical services provided within those camps. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, “the average length of displacement in major refugee situations is now 20 years”. Consider what that would mean if that was your fate? Regardless of how good the facilities, is this a life you would want? Beyond the camps there are at least 2.5 million in Turkish towns and cities, people who have lost their homes and livelihoods. People would work if they could work – so many cannot.

The International Co-operative Alliance Global Conference brings together great energy – people who are passionate about what co-operatives can do to give people dignity in work: educate them, provide gender equality and a means of earning a living. It is international and yet local.

Co-operatives have often fostered peace (i.e. An Afghanistan co-op of varying tribes and even women in real jobs). There are other co-operative peace initiatives in Palestine, Israel, Nepal and Sri Lanka (as noted by the National Co-operative Business Association), where people who would otherwise be in conflict are working together in a co-operative model. Taking another approach, the ILO, in conjunction with the United Nations Development Programme, has supported the establishment and growth of a Green House Nursery co-operative, which treats, grows and sells seeds at an affordable price in the region. The co-operative benefits 200 Lebanese farmers and Syrian refugees. In a country where the refugees outnumber the Lebanese two to one, this helps alleviate poverty and builds a badly needed bridge between both groups.

The plight of the refugees has many aspects to it. Loss of work is just one of them. There is loss of culture and identity as communities cease to exist and people are scattered not just in other towns but also in other countries or camps. There are also gender issues within the camps and beyond them as expectations about women vary from country to country. There are massive education and medical needs as doctors and nurses were among the first casualties of the war and many children have had no schooling since the war began. And with all of this goes mental health issues as well.

The ILO will be renewing its efforts through research and work with its regional offices to decide other ways it can help refugees. This week at its Co-operative: World of Work Conference (Nov 9-10) researchers will discuss some of those issues including how co-operatives can assist in mental health and gender safety in refugee camps.

The wash of humanity and hardships those fleeing must endure will grow even more unsettling as winter sets in. There is no better place to talk about the role of co-operatives in helping in this global crisis then here as colleagues talk formally and informally about their work and their aspirations.

Participants can also hear about what researchers have found in their studies as well as co-operators already working within their own co-operatives to help refugees.

We are at historical crossroads as Europe’s populations are changing and countries seeking to absorb those desperate for new lives. I believe co-operatives have what it takes to make a difference in how that history is written and how those refugees in need of help view the benefits of the co-operative model.

These are solely the views of the author.

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