Posted in Guest posts · Master's blog

This guest post is by Anna Mareschal (Arabic and Spanish 2016), who attended the ‘In Conversation with the Master’ event on working with urban refugees on 9 November 2017.

On Thursday 9 November, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to attend one of the many talks in the ‘In Conversation with the Master’ series organised by Nicky a few times each term. Each discussion is framed around the speciality of one or more guest speakers, and in these informal conversations input from the audience is encouraged, which makes the discussions all the more exciting. This time we were joined by Özgecan Atasoy, a Fitz alumna (MPhil Modern Society & Global Transformations 2014), who now works for the UNHCR in Turkey. The current refugee crisis is a massively important issue in politics and in our social conscience, and key to Cambridge life both as a city and as a university. Thanks to a variety of different perspectives and modes of intervention in the audience, we had a chance to think critically about different scales of intervention.

As one of the approximately 300 people directly employed by the UNHCR in Turkey, Özgecan Atasoy is the Senior Field Assistant for cash-based interventions; her job includes working with refugees to determine how they can get access to money in order to begin to rebuild their lives, and, at the very least, restore their dignity by gaining economic independence. This was a fantastic way for people with an interest in refugee rights to find out more about the systems within the UNHCR, how it works with different NGOs to allocate funds, and how it creates detailed files on all registered persons of concern. We got to find out how small-scale, local UNHCR interventions interact with each other and with different projects across the world.

We do not usually hear about cash-based interventions in discussions about refugee aid in Greece and Turkey. Atasoy’s role is to determine what funding refugees receive when they either get referred or come asking for help themselves. As you would expect, questions were raised about how funds are allocated, and the risk of corruption. For Özgecan, cash-based interventions are more humane and dignified than material assistance as they are flexible, encourage integration, help develop the local economy, the associated risks can be better mitigated and are well worth the benefit.

Like so many of the different factors of the refugee crisis, one of the main questions left unanswered is the end game, the goal of these projects working with refugees. Each organisation deals with a specific part of the problem whereas the end goal would be for such organisations to no longer be needed. Atasoy insisted that cash assistance, much like living in Turkey is, for many refugees, a transitional, temporary, solution that needs to be supported by more durable projects. This is, as Özgecan said, is where the UNHCR comes in: it can only act on a limited scale, with specific issues; our job is to reflect and act on the place of refugees in our countries and our societies.

The variety of questions both from Nicky and from the audience led us to think about our role as citizens in regards to this situation. There is not a comprehensive or quick solution to the refugee crisis; our job is to do what we can with the capacities that we have in the position we are in. For me, this discussion was enlightening in terms of thinking about the structures of monetary aid all over the world, and our limited yet not negligible power to act on social issues.