USCRI: U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants

The Role of Donor Countries and Refugee Aid

Because most host countries are poor and highly dependent on international aid, refugees’ full enjoyment of their rights will likely require a restructuring of refugee assistance. Traditional relief-based approaches, while necessary to save lives in the short run, have not honored refugees’ rights nor have they generally been successful in preparing them for durable solutions. UNHCR has recently developed targeted development assistance to increase international responsibility sharing, facilitate refugee self-reliance, and include refugees in development programs. While these efforts can sometimes improve refugees’ situations, USCRI and other organizations recommend a more right-focused approach.

Targeted Development Assistance

In 2002, UNHCR developed an “Agenda for Protection.”  One of its goals is for states to share responsibility for economic, environmental, socio-political, and security expenses related to mass influxes of refugees.

Many countries of first asylum are among the least developed.  The Agenda encourages states to “consider allocating development funds to programmes simultaneously benefiting refugees and the local population in host countries, and the latter to consider including refugee-hosting areas in their national development plans to achieve the broad goal of sharing burdens and responsibilities more equitably and building capacities to receive and protect refugees” (UNHCR, High Commissioner’s Forum, May 2005).

To implement the Agenda, UNHCR advocates that donors fill the gap between short-term humanitarian and long-term development aid and target development aid to increase refugee self-reliance.  The goal is “bringing together the capacities and resources of communities (refugees and hosts), governments, development and humanitarian partners to comprehensively tackle displacement, poverty and underdevelopment in refugee hosting areas” (UNHCR, Development Assistance for Refugees handbook, 2005).

USCRI’s Approach: Development & Rights 

Unfortunately, the new policy tools and programs developed by UNHCR often avoid dealing with host governments on refugee rights and over-emphasize durable solutions.  As important as these are, nearly 8 million of the world’s 11 million refugees have been warehoused for 5 years or more waiting for such solutions.  Working for durable solutions is no excuse for failing to grant refugees their rights.

Alternatively, UNHCR should monitor refugees’ enjoyment of their Convention rights and quantify any resulting fiscal burden to the host country.  It should present the bill to donors.  Donors would improve protection of rights if they compensated host countries for their costs.

Targeted development assistance can play a role in this but aid alone will not end warehousing. Granting refugees their rights is essentially a matter of political will. Donors must, at minimum, shift incentives from policies that treat refugees like cattle to ones that honor them as human beings.  Civil society actors in both host and donor countries must mobilize to advocate for these rights.

See Merrill Smith, "Development Aid for Refugees: Leveraging Rights or Missing the Point?" World Refugee Survey 2005--Warehousing, Inventory of Refugee Rights, pp. 20-31, and USCRI, “Moving Forward: Identifying Specific Measures To End Refugee Warehousing,” UNHCR Annual NGO Consultations, September 29, 2004.

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