Now is the time to reform US humanitarian assistance, refugee response

There are more refugees, internally displaced people, and asylum seekers now than at any other time in history. Refugees — a specific protected group with prescribed rights within the larger body of global forced migration — alone are at historically high levels, peaking at 25.4 million globally, though there are about twice that number in internally displaced people (IDPs).

Refugees and IDPs, often follow the same pathways, and the problems they experience are very similar.  Refugees and IDPs are now often forcibly displaced from their homes for decades and often will never return to what was once their “home.” Resettlement rates of refugees to third countries have dropped below 1 percent annually. When the initial international agreements, frameworks, and policies for refugee rights and protections were stood up in 1951 and subsequently extended in 1967, no one imagined that in 2019 the average length of displacement for a refugee would be 26 years.

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Fewer people qualify for refugee status and protection as traditional wars have become a thing of the past. The reasons for displacement now extend to fleeing crime and gangs, increased environmental disasters, and other issues. While the reasons for fleeing are as diverse as the near 70 million people displaced, the classifications for accessing aid have become more stringent.

An empowered U.S. humanitarian aid delivery system is pertinent for filling in the gaps of the modern refugee response system. For example, while IDPs have similar needs to refugees, their access to assistance is vastly more constrained.

U.S. policy for refugee response has historically been a benchmark globally; however, our policies, divisions of responsibility, and strategies do not reflect the evolving forced displacement landscape. Now is the time to reform the system to connect humanitarian response with development and security, delineate lines of responsibility and to recognize the modern realities.

Congress has a chance to both improve humanitarian aid delivery and to maintain focus on the linkages between refugee issues and larger foreign policy. A new Bureau of International Humanitarian Assistance (IHA) within USAID could better coordinate overall refugee response and assistance, making it more effectual and efficient, while empowering the State Department to better focus on higher level foreign policy and diplomatic strategy related to refugees. 

The U.S. refugee, development, and humanitarian system

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U.S. humanitarian response is given to different agencies depending on whether someone who is forced from their home crosses an international border.  In this day and age, that is an absurd division of labor — reflecting a time when there were few IDPs and an assumption that refugees would return home in a few years. The Department of State, USAID, Department of Homeland Security, and Department of Health and Human Services are the primary agencies that coordinate overall policy and strategy, respond to refugee-generating disasters, execute humanitarian assistance, and lead refugee and IDP resettlement. Each was legislated in response to a different crisis or period of history; for example, the State Department functions were created to provide for refugees fleeing the Soviet Union.

While the current division of labor is a recognition of the extent to which forced displacement concerns permeate foreign and domestic policy, it also stymies U.S. capability to rapidly respond to new issues and to think strategically about long term root causes. The challenge is that these issues are inextricably interconnected to almost every foreign policy concern, acting as a barometer for overall global stability.

At the same time, U.S. humanitarian response maintains similar divisions of labor. USAID’s Food for Peace is responsible for food and food aid only, and Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance focuses on the non-food part of a response and coordinates overall response. Within the State Department, the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) is a higher level, strategic body more focused on the macro level, but with a limited field presence in the form of refugee coordinators.

There are no signs of the global forced migration and refugee crises subsiding any time soon. If anything, these crises act as domino effect destabilizers, fomenting issues in other countries. The interconnected nature of forced migration makes ignoring these crises an unsustainable policy. Restricting formal pathways to safety just makes future crises worse by empowering criminal and illicit organizations and forcing people through dangerous pathways. People have demonstrated that restrictive policies won’t stop them from fleeing; instead, an improved humanitarian delivery system could better reduce the need to flee in the first place.

How the U.S. can and should lead 

Humanitarian needs are at an all-time high.

In creating the USAID IHA, the U.S. needs to maintain its focus on refugees and forced migrants as indicators for larger global stability. Therefore, PRM should remain at State, focused on policy, diplomacy functions. The humanitarian response programming for refugees should move to USAID.

USAID has a long history of effective field operation, and State should focus on what it does the best: managing the often-tricky diplomacy and policy issues associated with refugee policy and diplomacy. Therefore, each should be empowered to perform those functions through proper budgeting and divisions of labor. PRM is key to policy issue considerations, maintaining diplomatic ties with countries originating or sheltering the displaced, and preserving displacement as an issue paramount to U.S. security. For these reasons, PRM as a bureau should be protected. But consolidating humanitarian assistance delivery within USAID and scaling its budget to reflect modern elevated need will better serve the millions of people in need globally.

Daniel Runde is a Senior Vice President and William A. Schreyer Chair in Global Analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He previously worked for the U.S. Agency for International Development, the World Bank Group, and in investment banking, with experience in Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East.