Terrorism and migration seen as world’s top challenges

The findings of a major new humanitarian research project showing a global "compassion gap" in public perceptions of contemporary refugee crises were published last Sunday. The research – the first of a new annual Humanitarian Index – reveals a "global disconnect between perception and reality of the refugee crisis".

Based on the results of 4,600 online interviews carried out between March and April in the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Lebanon and Iran, terrorism is cited as the biggest humanitarian challenge facing the world today, closely followed by migration.

But the research identifies a “compassion gap” – a large imbalance between what people say and feel versus what they would be willing to do. One in two respondents said refugees had been abandoned by the international community and the vast majority agree that refugees deserve help. However, only one in two would actually help Syrian refugees if they could, and most doubt their ability to make a real difference.

The research was announced at the giving of a new US$1.1 million international humanitarian award.

A Burundi woman, whose courageous stand against ethnic violence has saved the lives of over 30,000 children in central Africa, became the first recipient of the Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity.

Marguerite Barankitse, who stood up against the perpetrators of horrific violence in her home country before being forced to flee to Rwanda last year, was presented with the award in the Armenian capital Yerevan last Sunday by Hollywood actor and humanitarian activist George Clooney.

Other findings of the research include:
  • • The public disproportionately associates the global refugee crisis with the situation in Syria, demonstrating ignorance of other refugee crises including Myanmar, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

  • • The majority of respondents believe that international institutions are best placed to solve the refugee crisis, yet half feel refugees have been abandoned by the international community.

  • • When it comes to identifying international leaders most capable of managing the Syrian crisis Barack Obama (46%) and Angela Merkel (46%) score the highest, followed by Vladimir Putin (33%) and David Cameron (28%), with Hillary Clinton (17%) and Donald Trump (9%) trailing far behind.

  • • The public feels compassion for refugees, but only half would help Syrian refugees if they could, and most question their ability to make a real difference.
The research underlines the important part that higher education can play in raising awareness of the roots of genocidal conflict and addressing it, Dr Steven Luckert, senior programme curator at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, told University World News.

"We can learn from history – not only about the minds of perpetrators, but also how to prevent such incidents in the future."

The museum actively worked with members of US law enforcement agencies, including the police and FBI and military officer cadets, to prepare them for working in situations at risk of "mass atrocities", said Luckert, who was among the speakers last Saturday at the Aurora Dialogues, the first of a series of panel discussions with academics, journalists and humanitarian groups.

Panelists that also included Dr Edward Luck, a specialist in conflict resolution from the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University in the US, Aryeh Neier, president emeritus of the Open Society Foundations, and Nancy Soderberg, former US deputy national security advisor, addressed the global state of humanitarian issues, ways to save the lives of refugees, the role of women in the international humanitarian community and other issues during the dialogues.

The dialogues were held at Yerevan's Mesrop Mashtots Institute of Ancient Manuscripts, also known as the Matenadaran.

Higher education institutions could play a significant role in continuing research into how genocidal events occur and in keeping the risk of such events in the public eye, said Vartan Gregorian, head of the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

He added that the development of conflict studies in universities around the world underscored the importance of recording the stories of those caught up in atrocities and maintaining vigilance to prevent them in the future.

New humanitarian award

The new humanitarian award, for people who intervene to preserve lives and advance humanitarian causes in the midst of crises, was established by a group of Armenian businessmen and philanthropists, and is named after Aurora Mardiganian, who survived the Armenian genocide of 1915.

After accepting the prize from Clooney, Barankitse said she would use an additional personal award of US$100,000 to care for children displaced in violence in eastern Congo and to set up micro-credits for mothers of refugee children to set up their own businesses to help support their families.

The US$1 million will be donated to a number of charities that supports her work.

"Love knows no frontiers," said Barankitse – a Tutsi who during violence in Burundi hid 72 of her Hutu neighbours only to be forced to watch them executed when they were discovered.

Three other finalists were awarded US$25,000 each to continue their work. They included a priest in the Central African Republic who has sheltered both Christians and Muslims; a Pakistani woman working to free bonded labourers who are effectively enslaved; and an American surgeon, Dr Tom Catena, who is the only doctor for 750,000 in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan, where a bitter civil war is raging.

Clooney, known for his Not on Our Watch project to eliminate genocide – and a highly publicised visit to Sudan in 2014 – has teamed up with 100 Lives, an initiative set up by Armenian businessmen and philanthropists Vartan Gregorian, Ruben Vardanyan and Noubar Afeyan to commemorate those who helped people during the Armenian Genocide that began in 1915 and to "continue in their spirit by supporting people and organisations that keep the legacy of gratitude alive".

Speaking at the award ceremony last Sunday, Clooney repeated calls for the tragic events of 1915 to be recognised for what they were.

"Years before anyone uttered the word genocide, there was Armenia. And although the actual word was yet to be introduced we were well aware of its characteristics," Clooney said.

"Cruelty has always been at the core. Not self-defence. Not simply war. But the deliberate destruction of an entire people. It happened to Armenians starting 101 years ago and we've seen it repeated all over the world since."