Challenging Injustice, Advancing Human Rights

The Impact of UUSC’s Response to the Syrian Refugee Crisis

Learn how UUSC and grassroots groups in the Balkans worked together to support refugees across nine countries.

UUSC’s Approach to Crisis Response

Following a crisis, large humanitarian aid agencies typically arrive on the ground, initiate their own short-term responses without consulting those most impacted by the crisis, and deprive locally-led groups from critical resources. And then they leave. UUSC’s response is different. We focus on long-term recovery by listening to grassroots groups and surfacing their own solutions, filling gaps in capacity where we can, and supporting them on a path to sustainable recovery they can carry forward themselves. In UUSC’s response to the Syrian refugee crisis, we can clearly see the value of this approach.

Timeline of the Syrian Refugee Crisis & UUSC’s Response

Key Impacts

In the face of this protracted humanitarian crisis and a hostile political environment across Europe, UUSC’s grassroots partners have worked tirelessly to make some deep and concrete impacts, which have the potential to reverberate for years to come.

The close collaborations these organizations have formed with each other has helped build and strengthen a movement in support of refugees across Europe, raised awareness of often hidden issues facing refugees in the Balkans, and successfully advocated for long-term changes to refugee and asylum policies. You can read our full narrative report here which describes these important outcomes in greater detail.

Download Report

Perhaps most critically, this work has had immediate impacts on people’s lives. Here are a few highlights we have compiled to illustrate the difference UUSC and our partners made.

Key Impact 1: Assessing and Meeting Needs

UUSC’s support filled gaps for our partners so that they could fill critical gaps in the local response to the crisis.

  • In Turkey, because there is typically no support for trainings or capacity-building activities, UUSC’s grant to Syria Bright Future (SBF) was vital. Supported by UUSC, SBF’s trainings of community case workers, physicians, and mental health professionals working with refugees became the only trainings of their kind available in Turkey.
  • When the refugee crisis hit Greece in 2015 and thousands were crossing the sea to get to the islands, there was critical shortage of winterization kits, especially for babies. Around this time, UUSC reached out to Praksis, offered our support, and responded to their requests in “an open-minded way.” Our willingness to support Praksis’ work “without strings” – without the constraints of wanting to help “this population in this particular way” – was especially important, Praksis told us. Praksis’ project became one of the first distributions of winterization kits distributed to babies in Greece.
  • In Hungary, even though Hungarian Helsinki Committee (HHC) had been working with refugee families since 2016, it was not until they received UUSC’s grant that they could afford to reunify families by paying for their flights, accommodation, legal costs, and more.
  • Also in Hungary, Cordelia Foundation told us how UUSC’s funding saved our lives,” in part because it was offered as general operating support and allowed Cordelia to fill unmet needs and be creative in a time of crisis. Cordelia expressed that this kind of trusting, flexible support was “one of the noblest acts” a funder can do, and urged us to “please preserve the freedom and trust in your grantmaking.”
  • In Serbia, Asylum Protection Center (APC) described to UUSC how crucial our early and ongoing investment was to their work:

UUSC’s support was really important … when our organization was making crucial steps in order to … engage more in the field, and cover the territory of Serbia. UUSC was a donor that recognized our needs for technical assistance, for mobility, for flexibility, and that helps us even today to manage all these difficulties we are [faced] with…. Besides that, UUSC had understanding and supported our management and fundraising team, looking for sustainable results in the future. For our work to be independent, to be professional, to be devoted to the cause, we need to have financial and operational independence.

Radoš Djurović, Executive Director, Asylum Protection Center

Even as UUSC winds down this work, we can see the lasting nature of our impact. For example, as a result of a convening we organized in 2017, Legis, CMS, and APC formed an official network to coordinate advocacy for all forced exiles along the Balkan route. The group has had several meetings, has attracted outside funding, and is planning to expand to other peer organizations with whom they are already cooperating, such as our partner in Greece, Greek Forum of Refugees.

Key Impact 2: Compassion, Integration, and Narrative Change

With our support, our partners have challenged xenophobic narratives, offered compassion to refugees, provided them with safe spaces, and supported them to build new lives.

During the convening of our Syrian Refugee Response partners in Belgrade in 2019, two of the most persistent themes were the sheer inhumanity of the treatment of refugees and the lack of resources to support their integration into European society. Our partners have fought these trends by dismantling xenophobic narratives, meeting refugees with compassion, providing them with safe spaces, and supporting them to build new lives.

  • Are You Syrious’ Free Shop and integration center in Zagreb, Croatia, established and run with UUSC’s support since 2016, has served as a safe haven for refugees to connect, obtain good quality items of clothing or household goods for free, and begin the process of integration. Each day, between 30 and 50 refugees make use of the Free Shop’s resources and community-building space.
  • Through its family reunification program, the Hungarian Helsinki Committee has sought to “preserve the right to family life” for refugee families in Hungary. Since UUSC began supporting this work in 2015, HHC has helped reunite 40 families consisting of 145 individuals. HHC describes seeing families reunite as the “most meaningful part of their work” and the first step on the way to integration in Hungarian society.
  • Our partners’ efforts to dismantle false narratives and counter the anti-integration policies of European governments, which appear designed to undermine refugee integration in an effort to convince them to leave, are therefore critical. In Greece, the Greek Forum of Refugees (GFR) has done this by helping refugee communities self-organize, supporting them with job and language training, and advocating for them on the national level. For a powerful example of this, check out our blog, The Syrian Refugee Crisis: Helping Refugees Acclimate to Their New Lives.

Key Impact 3: Bearing Witness, Taking Action

UUSC supported documentation of human rights abuses against refugees that has played a key role in (1) informing advocacy at the state and European levels, (2) strengthening alternative narratives, and (3) sharing reliable information with civil society and other movement actors.

As our partners conveyed to us during our 2019 convening, it is critical to “document everything” during and in the wake of a crisis. One of the most impactful results of UUSC’s work in the Balkans has been to support this type of critical human rights documentation, which can then be used for advocacy and movement-building.

  • Our partners in Croatia, Are You Syrious? (AYS) and Centre for Peace Studies (CMS), are standout examples of this. The best evidence of their impact has been the response by the Croatian authorities to criminalize their work. Both AYS and CMS have come under direct attack from Croatia’s Ministry of the Interior, which claims that the organizations are encouraging illegal migration and undermining attempts by Croatia to join the European Union’s Shengen Area, which it hopes to do in 2020. The Ministry of Interior also pressed charges against one of AYS’ volunteers, Dragan Umičević, whom it accused of “smuggling” refugees (here, the family of 6 year-old Madina Hussiny, who was killed in an illegal pushback by Croatian Border Police) – a case with striking parallels to the U.S. government’s case against staff and volunteers from UUSC’s partner in Arizona, No More Deaths.
  • AYS and CMS have also used their documentation to support advocacy efforts that have put the issue of refugee rights and the violence of border police on the political agenda. For instance, the President of Croatia is now being asked in international media about pushbacks. And, in large part as a result of their efforts, the issue is now on the agenda of the European Parliament.
  • AYS and CMS have continued their tireless support of the family of Madina, the six-year old Afghan girl who died on the train tracks on the Serbia-Croatia border as the result of an illegal pushback conducted by the Croatian border police. During 2018, they were in continuous contact with Madina’s family, supporting them and their lawyer in filing a criminal complaint against unknown perpetrators in the police. Together with the family’s lawyer, they have accompanied Madina’s family to court hearings and supported the preparation and submission of their application to the European Court for Human Rights.

Lessons Learned

Deepening Our Understanding of Effective Crisis Response and Equitable Recovery

Assessing the impact of our Syrian Refugee Response work also offered UUSC the opportunity to hear, directly from local organizations with four-plus years of experience working on the frontlines of the crisis facing European refugees, what kinds of support are most impactful during and after a humanitarian emergency.

What stood out most was how many parallels there are between what our Syrian Refugee Response partners shared and what we learned from responding to the 2015 Nepal earthquake and the 2013 typhoon in the Philippines.

Here were a few of the most important lessons from our Syrian Refugee Response partners:

  1. From the outset, invest in framing the narrative or countering problematic narratives.
  2. Citizens and civil society are often the first to respond – people know how to organize themselves during a short-term crisis!
  3. Tremendous competition of international NGOs (INGOs) is devastating to local responses. Therefore, it is crucial to support local civil society organizations (CSOs). These groups already have experience and expertise that is critical to an effective response. Work to ensure local groups’ efforts are sustainable.
  4. Long-term commitments from funders are critical. Most donors and aid agencies commit to short-term, band-aid fixes. This means that underlying causes are not addressed and there is little support for when the crisis inevitably shifts or takes a new form, which can be many years down the line.
  5. Flexibility of support is vital, especially at the beginning. Let it be spent on whatever is most necessary.
  6. Cross-border cooperation, even just on purely logistical matters, is necessary to create a humane migration process.
  7. “Document everything” (see above).
  8. Responding organizations must “mainstream” refugees and migrants – do not allow for the creation of separate classes and processes for refugees. The system must adapt, not the other way around.