International aid efforts dwarfed by scale of refugee crisis

The new rules are to be applied in case of "mass influx". [Janossy Gergely/Shutterstock]

European countries are diverting development and humanitarian aid to tackle the refugee crisis. But a severe lack of funding and restrictions on aid donations undermine the efficiency of their efforts. EURACTIV France reports

Civil wars and extreme poverty have accelerated the flow of refugees towards Europe, which had been stable since the beginning of the economic crisis.

In 2014, the OECD member countries counted 117 million people born abroad, “or 40% more than in the 2000s”, according to Théodora Xenogiani, the Senior Economist at the OECD’s Directorate for Employment, Social Protection and International Migration.

The latest figures published by the OECD show that the permanent migratory flows towards developed countries increased in 2015 for the first time since the economic crisis.

But the impact of the current refugee crisis on overall migration is fairly restrained. “In 2013, refugees made up 8% of the total number of people entering the OECD countries,” the economist said at a debate organised by the French Development Agency (AFD). “Family reunification, free movement within the European Union and professional mobility are the main causes of permanent migration flows.”

>>Read: EU wary of using development aid to contain migration

Another factor keeping this figure deceptively low is that 86% of forcibly displaced persons are taken in by developing countries. Xavier Devictor, an advisor to the World Bank, stressed that “Turkey alone hosts more refugees than the whole European Union.”

But the increasing number of refugees is very real. “One of the reasons for the increase in the number of refugees is the proliferation of conflicts around the world,” Devictor added.

The escalation of many conflicts from a regional, religious or ethnic scale to full-blown national civil wars has pushed more people to leave their country, when previously they may have found refuge by moving to another region.

Restricted action

This new reality is a challenge on a whole new scale for development and humanitarian aid agencies and development banks. And they are not always well prepared.

In Jordan, for example, where Syrian refugees represent around 10% of the population, the hand of international development agencies is stayed by the country’s “middle-income” status.

François Reybet-Degat, the deputy director of the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), said, “Aid to Jordan is insufficient because it is a middle-income country that receives its support in the form of loans.” And Jordan is not alone in this situation: the other countries bordering Syria, which host the majority of the refugees from the Syrian conflict, also have “middle-income” status.

The loans provided to these countries by development banks like the AFD are used for infrastructure projects like improving access to energy and water.

Such works are vital to the development of these countries, as well as to ensure that the thousands of refugees they host have sufficient access to water and sanitation.

But loans are not a well-adapted tool for a refugee crisis. “Jordan has spent about $15 billion of its own money handling this crisis, but it has received no support in return,” said Reybet-Degat.

A limited budget

And the mobilisation of humanitarian aid has been slow, largely due to its endemic weakness: global humanitarian aid spending in 2015 reached only $9.7 billion. This is “a completely inadequate amount”, according to the deputy director of the UNHCR.

The High Commission for Refugees, itself largely under-funded in recent years, hopes to draw its budget from states on a means-tested basis in future, leaving behind the voluntary contributions it had depended upon since its creation.

>>Read: UN official: More development doesn’t mean less immigration

After five years of crisis in Syria, “the humanitarian dam burst in 2015”, Reybet-Degat said. Hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees began the journey to the European Union, and “Syrians account for about 50% of the refugees that arrive in the EU,” Reybet-Degat added.

For a large proportion of the refugees, any possibility of returning home lies in the far distant future, if it exists at all. According to the UN High Commission for Refugees, a refugee crisis lasts for an average of 18 years. 

Over a million Middle Eastern and African refugees have arrived in Europe through the Balkans in the last year, while others have crossed the Mediterranean to arrive on the shores of Italy or Greece.

The European Union has struggled to present a united front in the face of Europe's biggest migration crisis since the Second World War.

In May 2015, a European Commission proposal to redirect asylum seekers from the most-affected areas of the EU to other countries, based on the solidarity principle, was rejected by member states. 


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