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01 July, 2016

‘The Middle East migration crisis – genesis and response’ was the theme of a four-day conference in London hosted by Initiatives of Change and the Next Century Foundation from 20 - 23 June. The conference brought together leaders from the Middle East and Afghanistan, together with refugees, academics, journalists, and religious leaders.

It was initiated by William Morris, Secretary General of the Next Century Foundation, who said that the ethos and values of Initiatives of Change can help answer the global challenges of polarization and extremism.

Immigration conference speakersThe first three days of the conference focused on Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. People from those countries spoke graphically of the daily situation they face. A Libyan mother described the fear her family had to cope with, living in a lawless country. An Iraqi politician described the challenge of meeting the needs of nearly five million internal refugees, many of them in the Kurdish region. Ajmal Khan Zazai, Paramount Chief of Paktia Province in Afghanistan, spoke of the poverty which forces young Afghans into joining armed groups. He had found funding to employ thousands of them in building infrastructure, and even though the wages were only $6 a day, this was sufficient to turn them away from joining the Taliban.

Listen to interviews of the speakers and participants including Sir Vincent Fean, Professor Dawn Chatty, Dr Bilal Hassam and others.

Interacting with these people were journalists and academics specialising in these regions, former British Ambassadors to these countries, and a range of others with relevant expertise including refugees. Together they explored ways to help each situation. Suleiman Fortia, a member of Libya’s National Council for Economic Development, urged Britain to help the official Libyan Government, whose authority extends little further than the naval base from which it operates. Could Britain, France and Italy establish embassies there? Could Britain take 30 badly wounded Libyan soldiers into the hospitals specialising in treated war wounds?

Immigration conference panel and speakerThe conference also dealt with the challenges facing refugees in Britain. There were painful stories of racist exclusion. And there was hope. Somali refugee Amina Khalid brings together older and younger generations in meetings which help to overcome the cultural conflicts within immigrant communities. Michael Ipgrave, Bishop of Lichfield, spoke with warm appreciation of the immigrant and refugee communities which are invigorating the churches in his parishes. Participants in the IofC programme Refugees as Rebuilders told of discovering how they can strengthen peace and good governance when they return to their war-torn countries. An Eritrean refugee who arranges dialogues between Muslim and Christian Eritreans in Britain said that this is enabling them to work creatively together in Britain, and plan for the time when they can return to their homeland.

Immigration conference Ajmal Khan Zazai and Lord StoneThe final day was devoted to investigating the root causes of extremism, and discussing how to counter anti-Muslim xenophobia, challenge ISIS ideology, and build trust between the Muslim world and the West. Again there were thoughtful contributions by academics from Oxford University, the Demos think-tank, the Economist Intelligence Unit. And from Sabiha Rumani Malik, founder of Sanghata Global, a UK charity which uses entrepreneurship to reduce poverty in many countries. Both Muslims and the West need to change, she emphasized, if violence is to be overcome.

Ayatollah Safavi, President of the International Peace Studies Centre in Tehran, Iran outlined the qualities of a true believer, a stark contrast to those who turn to violence in the name of religion. Peter Everington, who has organised student exchange programmes between Europe and the Middle East, told of individuals whose care for these students resulted in a transformation in attitudes. Imad Karam, Executive Director of Initiatives of Change International, described how his parents had kept him from the influence of extremist groups while growing up in Gaza, and said that Initiatives of Change had offered him a more effective way of bringing change.

Participants left the conference with new understanding and with steps they intend to take to help refugees in Britain and to help the countries from which they have come.

By John Bond and Jess Smyth

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