How poor countries foot the refugee bill
By Jorge Moreira da Silva
THE Syrian refugee crisis has focused attention on the need to improve management of refugee flows during times of crisis. One issue is particularly worrying: poor countries may be paying a large indirect price for rich countries’ efforts.
Data show that a substantial portion of the costs associated with the influx of refugees and asylum-seekers in some European countries is being reported as official development assistance (ODA) – the measure the OECD Development Assistance Committee (DAC) uses to track international aid spending. This leaves less ODA available to launch, sustain, or expand economic development projects in poor countries.
In 2015, the European Union’s DAC member states spent US$9.7 billion of their ODA budgets on approximately 1.2 million asylum-seekers in their own countries. By comparison, they spent US$3.2 billion of ODA in Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, South Sudan, and Sudan – the top five countries from which those asylum-seekers had fled.
The rule enabling donors to report so-called “in-donor” refugee costs as ODA was introduced in the OECD-DAC Statistical Reporting Directives back in 1988. At first, few DAC donors took advantage of it. From 2010 to 2015, however, the share of total ODA reported as in-donor spending more than tripled, from 2.7 percent to 9.1 percent.
The DAC is working to establish clearer rules for using ODA to cover in-donor refugee costs. It has established a Temporary Working Group on Refugees and Migration to help determine whether donors are targeting their assistance in the right way, in the right place, and at the right time. We expect to be able to communicate the results of this work around July.
The global attention that the Syrian crisis has focused on refugee flows and associated humanitarian needs is a positive development. Yet Syrians constitute only a small portion of the more than 21 million people worldwide listed as “refugees” by the United Nations Refugee Agency (the UNHCR categorizes more than 65 million people as “forcibly displaced”). And while the spotlight today is on asylum-seekers in Europe, most refugees – over 86 percent – remain in developing countries, close to the countries they have fled. Uganda, for example, took in more refugees from South Sudan in 2016 than the total number of migrants crossing the Mediterranean into Europe over the same period.
Every day, 40,000 people are forced to flee from conflict and persecution. Many more leave their homes in search of a safe and dignified future. An increasing number of these people are displaced for 20 years or more. And many are left behind, displaced within their own countries, living in extreme insecurity and poverty.
Standing by idly while others live in fear is not humane. Yet countries like Uganda, which for decades have generously hosted hundreds of thousands of refugees, increasingly see the principles of tolerance and protection they uphold undermined in the global north. Wealthy countries understandably seek to manage their own refugee populations and reassure their own citizens. Yet the right to asylum is universal and development cooperation must not, under any circumstances, be used for the purpose of containment.
Refugee situations are not new. Together, the top five countries of origin have generated approximately 10.2 million refugees over the past 25 years. The numbers are staggering, but the challenge they represent is by no means insurmountable. Development aid can help to address the longer-term, socioeconomic dimensions of displacement, lending support to ensure that refugees are included in national and local development plans. It can help address the root causes of forced displacement by focusing efforts on reducing poverty and inequality, strengthening peace building, and improving access to justice. The OECD’s temporary working group will seek to identify and deliver better solutions for refugees.
The conditions facing forced migrants today stand in stark contrast to international commitments such as the Sustainable Development Goals, which strive to “leave no one behind.” Failure to address these issues also threatens the international solidarity that underpins the global development agenda.
Developed and developing countries need to work together. They must leave no ambiguity about the right to seek asylum and the responsibility to protect those who exercise it.
We need to ensure that “new” funding means extra money, rather than the redirection of funds. And above all, programs for refugees – including responses within our own borders – must have human rights at their core. – Project Syndicate
l Jorge Moreira da Silva, formerly Portugal’s Minister of Environment and Energy, is Director of the OECD Development Cooperation Directorate.