Commentary: The Next Refugee Crisis Isn’t Inevitable

by Dave Ross, ScD
President and Chief Executive Officer, The Task Force for Global Health

There are more displaced people now than at any other time in recorded history. An unprecedented 65.3 million people around the world have been forced from their homes primarily due to conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia.

Conflict, poverty, and climate change will continue to put the world at risk for mass migrations over the coming decades. But they don’t have to be inevitable. We can take steps now to prevent them from occurring.

At the Sept. 30 Hilton Prize symposium in New York City, the world’s leading humanitarian organizations examined the current refugee crisis and charted a potential course of action for addressing future crises.

Failed states are the largest factor contributing to refugee populations. When governments break down and conflicts ensue, people are more likely to be displaced. Through predictive planning, we can identify countries that are at risk of becoming failed states and provide them with the necessary development support to maintain their stability.

There are a number of indicators that can signal a potential mass migration. Sentinel systems can be established in countries to collect this data, which would alert governments and other organizations of the need to defuse situations that could result in refugees.

When mass migrations occur, we will need to better prepare for addressing the health needs of these populations. In particular, we know that there will likely be infectious disease outbreaks accompanying these flows of people. Public health preparedness shows us that it is possible to preposition necessary vaccines and medicines in at-risk areas that could be readily accessible during a refugee crisis.

This approach could be practiced now in Iraq where military efforts are underway to clear Mosul of ISIS. We know that these actions will result in population displacement. Rather than wait for this to occur and result in a refugee crisis, the military could work with aid organizations to plan for the expected needs of Mosul residents prior to military action.

We know preventing and planning effective responses to refugee crises will require a multi-sector, collaborative approach among governments, humanitarian organizations, and development agencies. These problems are far too massive for any one government or agency to address on its own.

The private sector must play a greater role in any refugee response. Many refugees are highly skilled people who are willing and eager to work. Corporations can provide assistance with job creation and economic development activities in affected regions. They can also provide medicines and other resources that will be needed for the health needs of refugee populations.

Global health offers lessons for how multi-sector collaboration has been successfully applied. An infectious disease called blinding trachoma is expected to be eliminated by 2020 as a result of collaborative efforts among governments, nonprofits, and the private sector. In 2016 alone, the pharmaceutical company Pfizer will donate $3.2-billion worth of antibiotic medicine for the elimination of blinding trachoma. Similar private sector involvement will be needed to help address the health needs of refugee populations.

We have the resources and expertise to prevent and respond more effectively to the next refugee crisis. Greater multi-sector collaboration will be critical to this effort. We’re also going to need smarter approaches that draw on best practices from public health and other disciplines that have successfully tackled large-scale problems.

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