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The worldwide refugee crisis has dominated headlines in Europe and many other Western countries since summer 2015. Providing aid to refugees and displaced people has been a core component of Malteser International’s mission since our first relief operations in Vietnam in 1966. In the following report, Secretary General Ingo Radtke explains Malteser International’s approach to the refugee crisis, and the pressing questions it raises for humanitarian actors.

"The familiar presence of the refugee crisis in the news headlines can perhaps cause us to lose sight of the real scale of the humanitarian disaster that is unfolding. By the end of 2015, the number of refugees and displaced people in the world was a record 65.3 million – a greater number than the population of the United Kingdom. This vast scale makes it difficult to think of the refugee crisis in anything but abstract terms, and in the midst of discussions about integration, security and resources, it is easy to forget that each one of these 65 million people is an individual who has suffered a terrible fate. Our mission is to help people in extreme need – with a particular emphasis on those who are most vulnerable and those who receive little or no help from other sources. Despite the great generosity that the refugee crisis has generated in many parts of the world, the sheer size of the problem has left countless millions of refugees numbered amongst these forgotten people. This means that, at present, assisting them is amongst our top priorities.

When discussing the issue of refugees, migrants and displaced people, it is important to be clear about terminology. These terms reflect important distinctions in international law regarding the status of refugees and displaced people. In many countries, we provide aid to both refugees and internally displaced persons, regardless of their nationality or religion. We want to help these people as best we can in their current situation. In the short term, this often means seeking to ensure their mere survival and, in the longer term, supporting them on their return to an independent way of life.

Targeted relief

Malteser International distributes winter clothing for displaced people in Iraq.

Given the enormous scale of global population displacement, and the vast need for humanitarian aid, it is clear that our own individual contribution can only be a small one. For this reason, we plan our engagement very carefully to make sure that we can use the limited means that we have available to the best possible effect. We are often asked why we provide aid to refugees and displaced people in countries like Syria, Turkey, and Lebanon but not to those arriving in Greece, or Italy, or to those that travelled Europe’s ‘Balkan route’. This decision is the result of intensive thought and discussion, and reflects our strategy for making the aid that we provide as effective as possible.

First, we coordinate our efforts within the framework of the international network of the Order of Malta. As a rule, we do not intervene in countries where there is a local Order of Malta aid service available to help refugees. This is the case, for example, in Hungary, Austria, Germany, and in Italy. Whether we become active in countries where the Order of Malta does not have an active relief organization is determined by the level of need, the local circumstances, and the resources that we have available. At present, the level of need is so high in the countries in which we are already active that we are concentrating our efforts there in order to provide the best help that we can. A major advantage of keeping our focus on these areas is that we are able to fall back on existing structures and networks, such as partnerships with local organizations and authorities. Not least of all, our aid is closely coordinated with the United Nations cluster system, and other aid organizations, to help make sure that aid efforts are distributed as efficiently as possible, avoiding any overlap.

We are often asked why we do not give priority to providing aid in places where our fellow Christians are in need. The only answer I can give is that while we help Christians in need where we can, as a Catholic aid organization our role model is the Good Samaritan, who helped the robbed and injured traveler on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho without stopping to ask who he was, or where he came from. Our job is to help people in need whoever they might be, without asking them about their religion, nationality, or politics.

Dialogue and support

Refugee camp in Syria, near to the Turkish border.

The way in which we set projects up generally follows an established process. As a rule, aid for refugees and displaced people begins with an emergency relief phase where providing water, food, medication, and shelter, as well as household and hygiene articles, is a priority. In almost all cases, refugees and displaced people then continue to need various other types of assistance for a longer period; often for years. We can see from the present situation that modern conflicts have a tendency to last longer and are more difficult to solve politically than those in the past, meaning that the people they affect remain in need of outside aid for an extended period.

We tailor the way in which aid is planned to match the demands of each situation by performing a comprehensive needs analysis. It may be the case, like in Lebanon or Iraq, that we need to operate mobile clinics in order to reach displaced people dispersed over a wide area. In other circumstances, like in Myanmar for example, we work to prepare the villages to which refugees will return – cooperating with local inhabitants to construct and repair drinking water systems such as rainwater collection tanks, wells, and reservoirs, and to establish Water Safety Plans to make sure that sufficient drinking water is available all year round. Our cross-border project in Myanmar and Thailand is a good example of a long-term and comprehensive approach to helping refugees – on the one hand, helping refugees by preparing them to return to their old homes, and making sure that those homes have the appropriate facilities to be able to welcome them back.

No let-up

Looking to the future, it seems unreasonable to expect any abatement in the global refugee crisis. Although it is probable that the number of refugees being created in the Middle East will lessen somewhat, the number of people forced to flee their homes in other parts of the world is set to rise further. We can already see this happening in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, and it seems likely that people from certain Asian countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan, where many live in fear for their safety, will leave their homes in the hope of finding security elsewhere.

It is our job as a society to do more to tackle the problems at the root of population displacement. Most people flee their homes because of violent conflict or appalling economic prospects. The only way to produce a lasting solution to the refugee crisis is by promoting peace and overcoming economic injustice. All of us can play a part in these processes. At times like the present, this is something that we should remind ourselves of continuously. In the right place, at the right time, even the smallest contribution has the potential to shape the future for the better.

- Taken from the Malteser International Annual Report, June 2016

Ingo Radtke, Malteser International Secretary General. Photo: Frank Lütke

"It is our job as a society to do more to tackle the problems at the root of population displacement..."

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