Living on the Edge of Hell’: Responses to the Global Refugees and Migrants Crisis

Published by

Annette Gerritsen

Published on

27 June 2017
Previously printed as part of an ongoing Commonwealth Secretariat Education Hub discussion: Education for Migrants and Refugees at

The New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants

Further to the seventy-first session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, on 19 September 2016, the 193 UNGA Member States agreed a set of commitments – a 90-paragraph Declaration for Refugees and Migrants. Two basic tenets of this agreement are to

  • protect the safety, dignity and human rights and fundamental freedoms of all migrants, regardless of their migratory status, and at all times; and
  • integrate migrants – addressing their needs and capacities as well as those of receiving communities – in humanitarian and development assistance frameworks and planning.

The Declaration was an historical response to the plight of the growing number migrants and refugees ‘with desperately needed assistance.’ In  2015 alone there were ‘244 million migrants in addition to about 65 million forcibly displaced persons, including more than 21 million refugees, 3 million asylum seekers and over 40 million internally displaced persons.’

During the day’s summit, Heads of State and Government chaired round tables covering issues relating to root causes of large movements of refugees, drivers of migration, contributions of migrants, international action, and realising the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, especially recognising the human rights of migrants, and addressing vulnerabilities ‘from their countries of origin to their countries of arrival.’

Space does not permit identifying the names of individuals and elaborating on the many timely and constructive comments  made by the attendees at the meetings. However, in terms of global challenges there seemed to be consensus around three key recurring themes: the need to (1) protect the dignity and human rights of all refugees and migrants; (2) address the root causes of migration (e.g., poverty, war, extremism, climate change) primarily through the UN-2030 Sustainable Development Goals;  and  (3) increase support for the hardest-hit countries, especially enhancing the protection of children (c 50 million!) and women.

At political levels there was a call for the Security Council  to ‘act with more unison, more urgency and more concern for ordinary people.’ Interventions reinforced  by many countries included:

  • working toward sustainable peace (e.g. ending ‘imperial ambitions’ and ‘military hegemony’) and economic growth;
  • ‘learning to manage cultural, ethnic and religious diversity’;
  • ‘strengthening impetus on humanitarian efforts while tackling root causes’;
  • combatting xenophobia, racism, human trafficking , migrant smuggling, and targeting of minors and refugees by extremist groups and criminal networks;
  • valuing migration as ‘a positive choice vs a necessity’ and as a means ‘for the enrichment of culture and civilisation.’

Solutions based on peace – mutual trust and respect and preventive diplomacy –  and long term development programs to ensure sustainable incomes and livelihoods are clearly the way forward for most  nations  as are  ‘creating work and education opportunities for adults and youth in refugee camps to prevent ‘radicalisation through idleness.’

Preparing  Society to create the world we need through  one health education: an education project proposal

The more than 200 representatives contributing to the summit discussions are to be commended for their forthright observations and political will in ‘mapping a route towards a collective, rights-based response to record displacement numbers around the world.’ And, as many attendees affirmed, education remains the best (only?) option to secure a safer and more prosperous future for all. However, education in this decade and beyond must extend beyond producing individuals ‘who can read, write and count.’  Faced with unprecedented issues, as argued in my current book on global population health and well-being in the 21st century, education  must also address the greatest social problem in this century: to change the way we relate to the planet and to each other! It must, therefore, also deal with a driver of migration perhaps not made explicit enough in the discussions relating to the New York Declaration – the state of the planet’s biodiversity – recorded, as one example, in the Living Blue Planet Report 2015:

“In  less  than  two  human  generations,  population  sizes  of  vertebrate  species  have dropped by half. These are the living forms that constitute the fabric of the ecosystems which sustain  life on  earth and  the barometer  of  what  we  are doing  to our  planet,our only home.”

As the SDGs make clear and confirmed by spiritual and thought leaders in recent months –Pope Francis, Sir David Attenborough and Professor Stephen Hawking, to name several , our planet is at risk and there is a pressing need to transform the current view of conceptualising ‘the world as a place made especially for humans and a place without limits’ to one that ensures our planet is ‘compatible with our needs as human beings but also an outer world that is compatible with the needs of our ecosystem.’  Professor Hawking’s recent estimate to turn things around on our planet from 1000 to 100 years (or less!) should come as a wake-up call!  In addition, his compelling counsel that ‘more than at any time in our history’ our species needs to ‘work together’ and ‘to break down, not build up, barriers within and between nations’ could not be more timely and crucial and should make all of us –regardless of political persuasion – ‘stop and think’!

The overarching concept that provides a ‘unity around a common purpose’ is One Health  that recognises that the ‘ health and well-being’ of people and the planet is connected to the health and well-being of animals, plants and the environment. Most recently, the concept has been adopted by the World Veterinary Association and the World Medical Association, European Medical, Dental  and  Veterinarian organisations and student associations , and the global InterAction Council, which  brings together former heads of state or government to foster international cooperation and action in three priority areas: peace and security, world economic revitalisation and universal ethical standards.  There can be little doubt that education holds the key to unlocking young and older minds and to making a fundamental global paradigm shift.

To this end the One Health Commission in association with the One Health Initiative and  project partners – the Commonwealth Secretariat as lead alongside the International Schools Association – are proposing an education project focusing on Commonwealth nations and involving ministries of education/health/other and university-affiliated schools of education  and funding the development of SDG-One Health policy briefs,  teacher-led innovation curriculum projects, faculty seminars and workshops,  digital resource hubs, exchanges/fellowships/scholarships, etc.).

Underpinning the education project proposal is the belief that ‘the  best  opportunity  to  achieve  meaningful societal change and prepare future leaders to create a healthier world must be seized early on in children’s lives as they form fundamental views of their places on the planet and carry those  views  forward  into  adulthood.’  In terms of  project design and logistics, Phase 1 pilot projects would involve 4 Commonwealth nations over a 3 year period,  while Phase 2 (c. 12 months) extends the SDG/One Health integration process to 9 other nations and Phase 3 (c. 12 months) aims to help build SDG-One Health leadership capacity across the 52 Commonwealth nations.

Educational approaches that the SDG-One Health and ‘country-owned’ pilot projects intend to foster include the formation of basic values, principles and responsibilities with respect to “the community of life,” bolstered by interdisciplinary teamwork, creativity and group problem solving. Another anticipated outcome is  the development of a global network of One Health education providers who are committed to  supporting learners and teachers in their quest to realize a more sustainable world.

Informed by a ‘draft’ Commonwealth SDG Curriculum Framework, curriculum themes that might be integrated across early childhood to advanced education curricula’ recommended in SDG 4,  ‘Ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning,’  include ‘human rights, gender, equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship, and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development.’

Project developments would  present opportunities to enhance  the learning support  of refugee children and youths where presently only 50% have the opportunity to attend primary school –many in crowded village or camp conditions; only 22 per cent of refugee adolescents attend secondary school and fewer than one per cent of refugees attend university.

In closing , it may be important to remind ourselves that many of these refugee students  have come ‘from a life not dissimilar to ours- with jobs homes and families’ but  that the wars and conflicts have ‘robbed them of the life they once knew and loved.’ What seems most astounding, however, and as mentioned in my book, when Michelle Dockery –of TV’s Downton Abbey fame- visited a Syrian refugee camp a few years ago and children were asked by a teacher ‘what they wanted to be when they grew up,’ they responded ‘clearly and with pride’: A pharmacist, A doctor, A teacher, A farmer… The resilience of the human spirit is indeed humbling and indomitable and we can all learn from their optimism and courage.

The article is based on  reflections informing  a presentation at a Youth Leadership Encounter conference sponsored by the International Schools Association (ISA) and hosted by St John’s International School (Sidmouth, UK) on 22 June 2017 .

For further information on the proposed SDG-One Health education project, please contact: George Lueddeke PhD, Chair, One Health Education Task Force,  The One Health Commission in association with the One Health Initiative; Convenor/chair, One Health Global Think Tank for Sustainable Health & Well-Being – 2030; Consultant in Higher and Medical Education, Southampton, United Kingdom. Linked-In connection




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