Sustainable safe havens for refugees

Matt Mellen and Jeya Lorenz propose an idea that could give refugees a more secure future and address other pressing issues

Matt Mellen and Jeya Lorenz propose an idea that could give refugees a more secure future and address other pressing issues

Thousands of refugees remain stranded at Calais. Many more are embarking on treacherous sea voyages to Europe to escape the disasters unfolding in Syria and beyond. Yet despite media portrayals of refugees, which have often been negative, people have taken it upon themselves to help.

According to the Charities Aid Foundation, one in three Britons has contributed in some way to the refugee relief effort, and more than 1.8m households in the UK would offer a refugee a room. People have also driven from all over the country to deliver supplies to Calais, including shelter in the form of caravans and tents.

It is a similar story across the rest of Europe. In Germany, Flüchtlinge Willkommen (Refugees Welcome) has provided an online platform that works like Airbnb, linking people with spare rooms to refugees who need accommodation. It has since spread to eight other European countries, although not yet the UK.

With winter upon us, these temporary forms of shelter are vital for protecting refugees from the cold.

They show that another way of living is possible, practical and desirable

But is there a longer-term, sustainable response to the refugee crisis? One that also fosters meaningful work for UK citizens, rehabilitates degraded farmland, generates a return for ethical investors and demonstrates that we can create a more peaceful, prosperous world?

‘Sustainable safe havens’ is an idea that takes welcoming refugees to the next level by integrating them into a supportive community and offering fulfilling livelihoods. Such an approach could, for example, concurrently tackle the refugee crisis, sustainability issues and youth unemployment by creating a social enterprise that employs young people and refugees to grow food.

Undervalued farmland could be borrowed or rented and transformed into prototype ecological live-and-work communities that produce surplus food. Income could be generated by selling produce, running cafes, courses and events, producing arts and crafts, and showcasing cutting-edge, appropriatescale green technology alongside ecological restoration.

It sounds far-fetched, but this is a proven idea. Eco-villages with social purpose are springing up around the world. In Sólheimar eco-village in Iceland, people with or without special needs live and work together growing food and creating art. In the UK, The Severn Project is a social enterprise run by ex-offenders that generates income from growing salad ingredients. In the process, it helps its employees reintegrate into society. Such a model could be used to help refugees and restore ecological health and community to damaged UK countryside.

A perfect storm of climate change, ecological deterioration and ongoing militarism is driving a global crisis. This will continue until radical systemic change shifts us to a new course. Sustainable safe havens offer a positive alternative to detention, while also showing that another way of living is possible, practical and desirable.

If we can show that people of different nationalities, backgrounds and religions can sustainably live rewarding, creative lives on neglected land in the countryside, arguments claiming that our country is full up, fall flat. We are not in a doomed race to consume our dying world. We can make things better.

Photo: Reuters/Bernadett Szabo