Complex Refugee Crisis Presents Need for Flexible Funds

Whether I am speaking with humanitarian assistance groups on the ground or answering questions from funders, putting the needs of refugees into words proves difficult for all of us. As the world faces one of the largest refugee crises since World War II, understanding how to help has proven to be an insanely difficult task. It’s difficult because the areas of need, the political complexities, and the conflicts that cause this flow of people change daily.
Last week, while speaking with a colleague about his recent assessment trip to Europe, I realized just how challenging things are, even to those who have responded to disasters and crises for years.
“It’s very hard to respond to the needs of a flow of people that changes every day,” he said. “They have a clear goal and they don’t want to stop. But there is no protection for the vulnerable, in part because they aren’t there long enough for us to even identify who is vulnerable. Trying to plan aid for a population of thousands when the makeup of that population changes every single day is incredibly difficult.”
In that conversation and others last week, I heard all about how some countries had specific areas that needed day drop-in sites with laundry facilities, food, and information, while other places needed teams that were mobile and could move quickly based on where the flow of people increased. Meanwhile, the long-term resettlement needs in the countries around Syria – Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan – aren’t going away.
Politically, the situation is complex because of the number of nations involved. In Lebanon civil tension has grown with the massive influx of Syrian refugees during the last five years (there are no formal camps in this country). In Europe, some nations are part of the European Union and others are not. Some have more lenient rules for incoming refugees than others. It is unlikely that countries in Europe will be able to continue to receive refugees politically, which would trap many people in transit; while the alternative of a continued refugee flow presents the challenge of building winter shelters in November or December and the need for a massive winter relief effort from nongovernmental organizations.
Against all of that, the conflicts that have caused this exodus of people aren’t going anywhere. You only have to glance at the headlines to see that there is no end in sight to conflict in Syria, Iraq, or Yemen, not to mention nations in Africa.
If you are a donor considering donating to this crisis, there are two important things to remember:
The first is that international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) need flexible funds. The needs they face on the ground change constantly. While it is attractive to pick a program area that targets just children or just women or those very poor, those may restrict the effectiveness of overall work in this crisis. Given the reports in the last year of a lack of tracking and accountability for relief funds in other disasters, it’s understandable that a funder would be hesitant to allocate unrestricted funds. But in this crisis, it is essential, especially if you are funding refugee operations in Europe. Vet the organization you are funding and their programs thoroughly, but then trust them to do their jobs. If you need help with this part, we at the Center for Disaster Philanthropy will gladly assist!
Second, the long-term needs in the countries around Syria are great and should not be dwarfed by the much smaller and more publicized situation in Europe. Many refugees live on a stipend of less than $100 a month. Food aid was recently cut due to a lack in It is here that funding specific vulnerable populations and programs is most effective. These needs are permanent resettlement needs: livelihoods and job assistance, primary education for children, and access to medical care (often not available to refugees living in the general population of a country). CDP has launched our own fund to meet long-term resettlement needs in this crisis. I hope that you are considering funding this crisis. It is one that private philanthropy can make an enormous impact on and one in which many need “rahma” (mercy) from us all.

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