I have a little confession to make.
I never meant to be a humanitarian.
I was glad someone else was doing the hard work in disasters. Of course I respected the goals, but honestly, the word never sat well with me. I can’t quite pinpoint it…. it seemed incongruous with the kinds of long term sustainability, building local capacity, and structural change I valued.
And then the refugee crisis hit a tipping point in Europe.
I became immersed in this world of humanitarian work, and quickly realized that it’s hard to talk about long-term change when kids in front of you have nothing to eat.
But here’s the thing.
What does it mean to talk about humanitarian aid in a crisis, when there’s no end in sight?
A crisis without an end in sight.
When an earthquake hits, there’s a disaster. And then it ends.
And then we look at rebuilding slowly, strategically, sustainably.
Asylum, in essence, means an end to the despair.
Europe has spent decades developing processes to create systematic endpoints for asylum seekers.
But now? War refugees on the streets throughout major European Capitals? Thousands of people stuck in camps in Greece, with no exit strategy? Families who have lost everything, risked their lives, and find themselves denied access to basic human rights? When suicide prevention specialists explain,
“One has to feel that there is another option for dealing with the incredible pain and despair. What exactly is that for these people?”
A failure of will
It’s all very well to say “I’m strictly a humanitarian….” when the assumption is that we are stepping in to fill a gap - a temporary gap while the Nation States and large NGO’s figure it out.
It’s August 19, 2016. World Humanitarian Day.
It’s a year after this crisis hit full steam.
And this gap is just widening and widening.
I think we need to be a lot more strategic about how we define “humanitarian” in this context.
I think we need to all increase our capacity to collectively act for justice.
I think we need a holistic, strategic approach that allows us to all of us, as citizens, as humans, to reflect our values in our actions.
Movement Building for Humanitarian Aid
How can we build a humanitarian movement that
- meets basic needs of displaced peoples.
- advocates for policies to protect refugee rights.
- demands that Europe and our allies enforce current policies.
So being a human"rights”itarian means that we need to offer direct aid through food, financial donations, clothing, and moral support.
It means that we need to document the violations of international law we are seeing and shout it out from the rooftops.
It means that we need better tools to collectively organize so that pregnant women are no longer sleeping on the streets but are settled in new, safe locations
Being a human”rights”atarian means that we need to stop hiding behind a cloak of crisis relief, when we’re in a crisis without an endpoint. The crisis, it’s our new reality.
P.s. Human"rights”itarian may not be the catchiest name, anyone have anything better?!
Thanks to Gaëlle Gormley and Laurie Davidson for help editing of this piece and Danika Jurisic for the photo.