This article is the second in a series of articles focused on organisations helping migrants and refugees in Australia. For this article, I spoke to David Keegan, CEO of HOST International, an organisation that works with migrants and refugees in a number of different ways.

CEO of HOST International David Keegan

Q. How does HOST International help migrants and refugees?

We empower communities by creating programs that help them to organise and mobilise around a need, not just migrant communities, but also the mainstream or the ‘host community’ as we call them.

One of our programs looks for communities that are hosting refugees and that need support to integrate them, drive innovation and do things differently. We work with the community to create the conditions for newcomers to feel welcome and to fully participate. 

Another program provides direct assistance by focusing on employment or self-employment outcomes and psychological coping. We believe that refugees need assistance to remain hopeful and to focus on preparing for a better future – whether that’s in a resettlement context or a displacement context. For example, we provide support from the point of crisis through to finding a new home across Asia Pacific in countries like Thailand, with a special focus on avoiding families landing in detention and promoting self reliance.

In Australia and New Zealand, we promote best practice in migrant integration and community inclusion by empowering communities create solutions to meet certain needs within.

Q. Do you work at grassroots level or work with governments across these countries?

A bit of both as we’re a not for profit organisation. We prefer to work at grassroots levels where we partner with other organisations like Regional Opportunities Australia and community groups to create action.

We’re often looking for situations where there’s a lack of capacity to implement plans and we then try and engage with donors and governments to help support those activities. So we create a bridge between the grassroots work and the financial resources to ultimately make sure that people affected by displacement get the support they need.

Q. What are some of the things that you are looking at doing in 2019 and beyond for refugees because it’s now a monumental issue for many countries?

Helping refugees was the biggest driver to create an organisation like HOST International. 

I think we’re up to just over 70 million people displaced and nearly 26 million registered refugees and 80% of them are living in developing countries. And yet the number of resettlement places available has been reducing and the time in displacement extending significantly.

Traditionally the pattern was that people will flee, move to a refugee camp, wait for resettlement and eventually people get resettled. But what I’ve seen in the time I’ve been in countries is that system is increasingly dysfunctional and is increasingly unsustainable, not because there’s anything wrong with resettlement, but it was only designed for a smaller cohort and for people who are most vulnerable.

We need to look at the situation from a fresh perspective and engage new stakeholders and find new solutions. 

There’s lots of talk about complementary pathways and alternative ways of seeking protection, but few practical solutions. What we do is deliver autonomy and decision-making back to the people affected by the movement; the refugees and the communities that host them. This includes helping communities to be good hosts and enabling people on the move to access information and choices.

One of the things we’re particularly interested in is how to transition the public perception about refugees from one of victim and burden to one of skill, opportunity and resilience.

Our goal for 2019 and beyond is to continue to build awareness of our brand and our work, continuing to find practical and incremental innovations that will provide more choices, and building our networks.

The other part is to continue to build a body of evidence about resilience building and inclusion to demonstrate how practical interventions can work for relatively low cost. 

Q. Are there any challenges that you come across on the ground which makes it difficult to do your work?

The main challenge is the politics of refugees and the fear of terrorism. That narrative has made it difficult to help as the myth is that ‘humanitarian rescue creates more refugees and more risk to our Australian way of life’. 

The traditional charity approach to refugees is not sustainable and does not promote long term coping. Governments are also under pressure to best allocate limited resources within complex political circumstances. The humanitarian sector is working hard to ensure that human rights are maintained through adherence to international conventions but sometimes this is not possible. At the same time, the NGO sector doesn’t often have the opportunity to talk with governments about other ways of doing things. And so there’s often a disconnect between the ideal and the practical reality. We respond to this by seeking to ask, how do we work with a government who may not be prepared to do everything but yet is willing to act more humanely?

We are interested in how we work with them to find the balance between what people need and what governments are prepared to do? We see ourselves as wanting to sit in between the bureaucrats, the public, and the refugees in trying to find that win-win for everyone. So, our motto as an organisation is ‘fostering humanity, hope and dignity for all’ as this what unifies us. 

We believe that the narrative around refugees needs to come back to understanding the common humanity that everybody can relate to: what are our common needs? We all want to create a better life for ourselves. We all want to live in safety. How can we bring the conversation back to this and create communities that are thriving and welcoming rather than protecting us from ‘illegal immigrants’ or ‘people smugglers’?

ABOUT

HOST International is a non-profit organisation working to create better lives for people on the move and the communities that host them. Read more about the work they do on their website or find out how you can get involved or donate to their cause. They focus on strategies that promote individual wellbeing, community capacity and structural change in refugee protection.

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