Sa’dah, Yemen: Food distribution to people with disabilities. (Photo: ICRC)

Donald J. Trump spent three years doing everything in his power as President to slash billions from foreign aid. He finally argued that the money spent on Congress’s pandemic relief bill was reason enough to reject Congress’ foreign aid package altogether.  The end result was Washington turning its back on humanitarian crises abroad. It also brought unprecedented pressure on migrants to seek refuge from impossible conditions by accelerating their efforts to cross the border into the United States.

The US is not the only country to turn its back on humanitarian predicaments. It is also not the only destination people flee to. Boats carrying migrants and refugees trying to reach European shores have repeatedly sunk or capsized in the Mediterranean, resulting in the estimated drowning since 2015 of several thousand victims and the disappearance of countless others.

Recently, too, armed groups have forced more than 565,000 people to flee their homes in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province. Famine and civil war grip Yemen, putting millions of lives at risk. (Earlier this week, the World Food Programme launched an appeal for five billion dollars worth of food aid for crisis victims across the globe). The Rohingya refugee crisis persists as Covid-19 spreads rapidly through overcrowded camps in Bangladesh. Meanwhile, efforts by the Dhaka government to relocate refugees with UN assistance were underfunded by some 44 per cent in 2020. The UN estimates that around 1.5 million people are in urgent need of resettlement, but the number of refugees entering the United States in 2020 fell to the lowest level in 40 years.

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Faced with these and even worse disasters, Biden is under intense pressure to increase funding to humanitarian institutions. But in doing so, it is important that the Biden administration avoid the pitfalls of the past: namely, wrapping a humanitarian gift in camouflaged, self-interested geo-political objectives.

Instead, the US should fund institutions dedicated to refugee and migrant aid — and allow them to operate under their own powers. In short, to restore American leadership and credibility, the administration should avoid using assistance as a foreign policy tool. Couching humanitarian aid in strategic self-interest tends to link the fortunes of populations in desperate need to the admittedly selfish diplomatic, military, and economic objectives of powerful countries.

Protection Politics

Though humanitarianism by definition concerns promoting human welfare, assistance for migrants and refugees has long been highly politicized. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), for instance, serves the express purpose of coordinating nonpolitical, humanitarian responses to refugee movements but is beholden to the whims of its highest donor states, especially those that serve as destinations for fleeing groups. 

The dependence of such assistance on the interests of destination states predates the UNHCR. The term “refugee” itself first emerged in seventeenth century France when Calvinists sought asylum from religious persecution in the Netherlands. This coexistence between Protestants and Catholics in France followed fierce religious wars in the country, suggesting that protection of foreign Calvinists aligned with France’s interest in maintaining peace among religious sects. 

A century later, the term came into use in England, then ruled by Protestants. This time, “refugee” referred to the Huguenots—Calvinists fleeing France, where Louis XIV sought to convert believers to Catholicism to achieve his vision of political unity.  England, like France, used the term to describe asylum seekers whose inclusion served national identity. Alignment with interests of the powerful not only determined who was persecuted, but which groups were considered worthy of protection. Frederick William, the Prussian ‘Great Elector’, for example, encouraged the migration of 60,000 Huguenots to Brandenburg, notably Berlin, primarily because of their trade and artisan skills.

Grants of asylum in the modern world are much more rigorously codified. In the 1950s, criteria for designating refugees was written into international law, and the UNHCR formed to coordinate assistance. Though this eliminated previous ad hoc methods, donor countries continue to impose their economic heft to prioritize projects of interest rather than respond to actual needs.

For one, the UNHCR mandate reflects donor rather than victim concerns.  When UNHCR was founded, post-WWII Western Europe was dealing with massive refugee influxes, while India and Pakistan faced substantial population exchanges following the 1947 Partition. As a result, the affected governments sought large operational funds. However, both the US and UK sought to limit the UNHCR’s scope and financial burden originally requiring that it could only respond to events that took place in Europe pre-1951. Even now, UNHCR depends on voluntary contributions, most earmarked toward specific projects, to stay afloat.

At the onset of the Cold War, however, the US  sought to expand the UNHCR’s mandate – and funding – into postcolonial spaces, notably Third World countries, to resist Soviet influence. The rise in western contributions saw UNHCR’s budget inflated from US$76 million in 1975 to US$500 million by 1980. The Soviet Union and United States also clashed over repatriations, with Washington claiming people had the right to choose where to live as a means of delegitimizing the USSR, a major source of fleeing migrants. For the United States and Western Europe, refugee policy had become a tool of power competition. 

Today, the United States continues to sit in the driver’s seat with its contributions representing 36 per cent of UNHCR’s budget in 2018. How the Biden administration approaches humanitarian aid and foreign policy has the potential to shape refugee assistance for years to come—whether to align with fleeting, self-interested geopolitical projects, or to address human suffering. 

The New Ecology of Global Migration

Part of the problem is that the legal definition of “refugee” reflects the displacements of a bygone world — not the realities of the migration crisis that the Biden administration has promised to confront. The 1951 Refugee Convention, as altered under the 1967 Protocol, defines a refugee as a person who is “unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.”  This also means that people obliged to flee their homes and who do not physically cross an international border, are technically not considered ‘refugees’ but rather ‘displaced persons’.  Most migrants currently do not fit this legal description. Of the 79.5 million people around the world who have been forced to flee their homes, only 26 million are designated refugees and granted the protections afforded by asylum.

Today, migrants also cross international borders because of climate change, crippling poverty, and social unrest. More than five million Venezuelans, for example, have crossed international borders to escape economic collapse. With the growing impact of climate change, an estimated 200 million people a year could need international humanitarian aid, but are not covered by protections offered either by UNHCR or the UN’s International Organization for Migration (IOM). Both need to be provided with broader support capabilities, or even merged to take into account new humanitarian contexts.  The UNHCR’s already insufficient budget dwarfs that of the IOM: In 2018, its budget was only US$1.8 billion, compared to the UNHCR’s nearly US$8 billion. Yet, the IOM maintains an enormous mandate, encompassing a slew of migratory patterns. 

The purpose of distinguishing between “refugees” and “migrants” has to do with the particular needs of persecuted people. However, international law and organizations fail to address other migrants’ needs because coming to their aid is even less popular than offering aid to refugees, as indicated by the UNHCR’s website:

“Conflating refugees and migrants can have serious consequences for the lives and safety of refugees … It can undermine public support for refugees and the institution of asylum at a time when more refugees need such protection than ever before [emphasis added].” 

The reality today is that migrants fleeing poverty often face circumstances on a par with those of refugees. Earlier this month, a caravan of some 7,000 migrants from Honduras fled gang violence, poverty, and climate disasters, travelling thousands of miles on foot only to be greeted at the Guatemalan border by tear gas and batons. The ships capsizing in the Mediterranean tend to be a mix of both refugees and economic migrants in search of a better life. That people continue to flee poverty despite the risk of violence  en route should be proof enough that the consequences of remaining at home are dire.

Most people crossing international borders do so for reasons other than persecution, yet their humanitarian needs are obscured by narrowly defined refugee law coupled with the lack of donor investment.

Untangling Assistance

Both UNHCR and IOM seek to provide urgent humanitarian aid in spite of their institutional limitations. They remain dependent on the whims of foreign policy goals by select donors, such as the United States or the European Union.  For the Biden administration, no single policy offers a panacea. Increasing the autonomy of institutions assisting refugees and migrants, or shifting laws to recognize the involuntary nature of some economic migration, requires international cooperation at a time when the US still lacks the political capital following the Trump era to take the helm on such long standing, controversial issues.

However, Biden can shape refugee and migrant assistance in material ways with reliable, unearmarked funding and a willingness to maintain global partnerships. He has already begun restoring the latter by returning to the Paris Climate Agreement and putting a stop to withdrawal from the World Health Organization. He can further direct more funding to IOM, or encourage UNHCR to mobilize more resources to address migratory patterns that don’t involve clear-cut persecution. 

By doing so, the administration can steer clear of shaping aid to align with U.S. foreign policy ends, setting a new tone in the international system and among high-donation countries. The administration can decentralize the cocktail of money, alliances, and clout that obscure the lives at stake. By prioritizing lives over grand strategic goals, the United States can begin to fulfill President Biden’s doctrine: to lead by example.


Jessica Moss, a graduate of political science and Russian studies at Vassar, is assistant editor at Who, What, Why. and is currently developing their international coverage.

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