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International aid worker Federico Motka details challenges in assisting refugees worldwide

Motka has experience working with refugees in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, and was joined by Elon Professor Joel Shelton for the discussion. 

By Kyle Lubinsky ‘17

Around the world, 65 million people had been driven from their homes by conflict, violence and natural disasters as of 2015, the most recent date for which data is available. Of those, 40.8 million were forced from their homes, but remain in their home countries. In a visit to Elon Feb. 9, Federico Motka, an aid worker with experience in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, discussed the politics that can influence how assistance is offered to these millions of refugees displaced from their homes.

Aid-worker Federico Motka, left, and Joel Shelton, assistant professor of political science and policy studies, present "Rethinking Humanitarianism in a Fragmenting World: Lessons from Syria and Beyond.

“My goal tonight is to contextualize some of these challenges,” said Motka. “The aid system is a complex machine.”

Motka discussed three important lessons from his time in the field. One of these is to never underestimate trauma of displacement. While we may think of moving as a routine activity, these people view it as a serious matter that is vital to their safety. Understanding this helps aid workers more effectively help those who have been displaced.

“It does affect how we understand the process,” said Motka. “Displacement is something that has very strong drivers behind it.”

According to Motka, political and economic factors contribute to displacement. Low-income people living on the coast are often at risk because they do not have the resources to rebuild, and are instead forced to evacuate.

“Crises are more interconnected than they’ve ever been before,” he said. “Natural disasters are rarely ever natural.”

Joel Shelton, assistant professor of political science and policy studies at Elon, explained that the refugee crisis is one that is global in nature. While refugees fleeing Syria are receiving the most media attention now, Shelton explained, that country's crisis is part of a much broader trend of people being displaced from their homes, with many in America unaware of the scope of the crisis. The impact on Europe from the resettlement of refugees there is well-documented, but most of the world's refugees have sought asylum in developing countries, Shelton noted. “We often talk about Syrian refugees, but there are many other countries that are far less remarked upon,” he said.

The scope and duration of the global refugee crisis is making it much more challenging to deliver humanitarian assistance, particularly as aid workers themselves are more endangered, Shelton said.  

There is also a skew toward the donor when delivering aid, Motka said. While it is good that there are people helping, there is a trickle-down system from government entities that allows a donor to make decisions with little knowledge of a refugee’s situation and can sometimes put the people who need help in an even more vulnerable position. “We operate in aid on the basis of power dynamics that are heavily biased toward us, the donor,” said Motka.

Despite these problems, Motka believes aid has come a long way and still efficiently offers help to those in need around the world. While there are ways to make it more accessible, it is important to help the growing number of internally displaced people in any way possible, he said. The number of internally displaced people skyrocketed from 4.3 million in 1995 to 40.8 million in 2015, so any help is a step in the right direction. “I feel that the aid community has evolved rapidly,” said Motka. “It is incredibly agile in dealing with problem after problem around the world.”

It’s important to think about how to solve problems rather than simply “trying your best,” he said. While Motka believes that good intentions are nice, they don’t do much in the way of actually making things better.

“It’s not about intent,” he said. “It’s about working toward delivering certain things and working toward those outputs.”

The most important thing aid workers can do to help the people affected is to listen to them. Motka’s organization, Fieldworks, is centered on refugee-driven initiatives. By putting them in control, Motka said, it is easier to figure out their biggest areas of need.

“As much as we are mortal, we all have an instinct to survive,” he said. “This will to live is something that drives every single moment of instinctual decision making. We live in an age of unprecedented prosperity.”

At the end of his talk, Motka urged his audience to reach out to those in need. One of the best things any aid worker can do for a refugee is to give them a chance to talk. “Give them the ability to tell their story, and then use the laws of the land and international law to deal with the situation,” said Motka. “It’s important to listen to them. There is something fundamentally human about having someone listen to you.”

Owen Covington,
2/10/2017 2:45 PM