The global plan for dealing with refugees isn’t broken—it’s nearly broke

Migrants walk in the wet and cold along a street in the Austrian-German border region.
Migrants walk in the wet and cold along a street in the Austrian-German border region.
Image: Reuters/Michaela Rehle
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Earlier this month, 98 countries and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees met in Geneva, Switzerland, to discuss how the world will respond to record levels of displacement. In speech after speech, the delegates, who represent countries as varied as the United States, Germany, Pakistan, Kenya, Congo, Burma, Yemen, and Japan, had the same message: the system is not broken, it’s nearly broke.

We already know how to deliver life-saving aid to the world’s record 60 million displaced people. The barrier is not technical skills or know-how, but resources. The difference between the amount of funding the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) needs to assist displaced people around the world and the amount of funding pledged by UN member countries and other donors—the “funding gap”—is $3.9 billion. UNHCR needs to raise this money in order to meet the basic needs of the world’s refugees and displaced people this year: food, water, shelter, and medical care. We need to close the gap.

The funding gap is greatest in sub-Saharan Africa, where conflict is widespread but not always headline-grabbing. Governments often earmark their contributions to UNHCR for victims of specific conflicts. Usually, these are the conflicts that are on the front page of the world’s newspapers and therefore cause their constituents the most concern.

While increased financial support to refugees is always good, the world needs to support refugees from unseen crises as well. Nearly 1 million people from the Central African Republic are now displaced, as are 2.5 million from South Sudan. Responses to these crises are funded at levels much lower than Syria’s, yet the humanitarian needs for these refugees are no less dire.

How much would it cost to close the funding gap and ensure the basic needs of refugees around the world are met? The funding gap for this year is large, but shared by all Americans, it becomes surprisingly manageable. In fact, the whole funding gap for this year could be closed with a contribution of around $12 per person. And if the citizens of other nations participated, the cost per person would be even lower. Surely, that is within our power.

Fully funding humanitarian assistance will not solve all the world’s problems. Violent conflicts around the world are complex, and ultimately require political solutions. And providing assistance to those who are internally displaced by conflict is extremely challenging—by definition, those who are internally displaced are in countries where conflict is ongoing, and where humanitarian aid can be difficult or impossible to access.

In contrast, providing humanitarian aid to refugees is relatively easy. The United States and other countries that can afford to help must support UNHCR and their partners so they can do their job of saving lives and making life bearable for refugees until political solutions are found in their countries and they can go home. When politicalsolutions are out of reach, as they seem to be now in Syria, the international community must invest in helping countries that are hosting the majority of refugees. These countries—like Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, with regards to Syria—provide critical assistance, including shelter, food, medicine, employment, and education for children. And they, like UNHCR, are strapped for cash and resources. Where that is not possible, we need to fund programs that identify and help them resettle in other safe places.

In the US, we are flush with resources, but seriously lacking in humanitarian leadership. The US needs leaders who will not politicize humanitarian aid and will take concrete steps toward funding refugee assistance and resettlement. Senators Lindsay Graham and Patrick Leahy are two such leaders who have worked together to develop a plan to start to close the funding gap. Congress should follow their lead, and take up this issue in an expeditious and bipartisan manner. Even in an environment where nearly everything is political, aid to the world’s most desperate people shouldn’t be.