Dying fast or dying slowly: food aid and migration

 

Before taking his family on the passage from Jordan to Europe, Mounib Zakiya told the BBC “Its better to die fast on the journey, than die slowly, watching your kids starve.” He lived in Jordan for three years after fleeing the Syrian civil war.  His family was among many Syrian refugees affected by significantly reduced food rations in 2015.  The World Food Program (WFP) was underfunded  that year by 63 percent and calls to governments around the world for assistance were not met with the needed support.  2015 was the second year in a row in which the WFP did not receive its needed funding, in spite of a  worldwide increase in humanitarian assistance .

The cuts to Syrian refugees were significant.  In Lebanon, food vouchers were cut in half  to US$13.50 per person per month.  In Jordan, 230,000 Syrian refugees living outside of camps lost their food aid entirely.  As a result, families were forced to make impossible decisions in order to survive -taking children out of school, skipping meals, going into debt, or fleeing to Europe.

The WFP’s reduced aid drastically influenced a wave of Syrian refugees from Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey to Europe in 2015.  By foot and by boat, they flooded into Greece and the Balkans countries in search of refuge, risking dangerous travel and an uncertain future rather than remain and starve.

 

Lessons not learned

The take-away from the experience of mass Syrian migration – that maintaining food rations is important in keeping refugees and migrants in the place of refuge closest to their country – appears to have been forgotten.  The World Food Program recently announced another shortfall in funding that would require it to reduce rations across a number of African countries hosting refugees.  In Uganda, which hosts 600,000 refugees and asylum seekers from Burundi, South Sudan, Somalia, Rwanda and Congo, those who arrived before 2015 had their rations cut by 50%.

Assisting refugees to remain within their region makes sense for a number of reasons:

  • Those who are physically proximate to their place of origin can more easily return when peace is restored
  • It prevents refugees from making dangerous journeys across oceans or deserts without adequate preparation or protection.
  • There will be less need for human traffickers who financially benefit from their movement.
  • It reduces the number of people trying to migrate to Europe or other northern countries to try their luck with the international asylum system.

Massive forced migration is not good for anyone. The further away from home people need to go for safety the farther they are from their houses, farms, businesses and the local information that they need to make an informed decision to return.  In 2015 alone, 65 million people were displaced as a result of violence, enough to form a country the size of France.  Enabling people to remain in areas closer to home is a pragmatic international response that is in the best interests of all.  However, it comes at a price, which is the assistance that people need to live in places of refuge.

 

Dr. Sandra Joireman is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Richmond and Chair of the Board of Directors of Bread for the World.  You can follow her on twitter @joireman or www.sandrajoireman.com.

White House Summit on Global Development

It was a privilege to be able to attend the White House Summit on Global Development on July 20.  The Summit was a celebratory event, highlighting the development achievements in the Obama administration with an eye to influencing the agenda of the next administration.  President Obama spoke at the end of the day, which was a highlight.  There were a number of other interesting issues that came up at the Summit.

Global Food Security Act

Part of the reason for the Summit was to announce the signing of the Global Food Security Act, which was a major achievement for the development community.  The Global Food Security Act received substantial bipartisan support to turn the Feed the Future initiative of USAID, which increased investments in smallholder agriculture around the world, into law.  I worked with Bread for the World to get this passed.  Bread was only one of a number of anti-hunger groups pushing to get this through.

Health as Bipartisan Achievement

One of the panels at the Summit was on global health and there was a nice bipartisan nod to the achievements of the Bush Administration on HIV/AIDS, as well as the more expected congratulation to the Obama administration on its response to Ebola.  Global health issues made it into Obama’s speech as well as a call out to the Congress to pass funding to combat the Zika Virus.

Civil Society and Open Government

Samantha Power led a great panel on transparency and open government.  While some of the conversation a focused on the importance of government accountability, the issue of the use of law to restrict civil society was also addressed.  Douglas Rutzen from the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law talked about the ‘rule by law’ rather than the ‘rule of law’.  He was indicating the trend of authoritarian governments using laws to restrict the activities of civil society rather than using law to protect those activities.  I have heard this same thing in field research in Ethiopia in the past and then more recently in Uganda, so it was good to hear it emphasized by those in the government.  Morgan Lee in Christianity Today recently wrote a piece about how laws that are intended to restrict pro-democracy organizations effect Christian groups and presumably other religious groups as well.

Strong institutions as the basis of sustainable development 

“Turns out functioning governments are really important”   This is my favorite quote from Obama’s speech.  As a political scientist it makes me happy to hear this said. Functioning governments are critical to development but, as the Samantha Power panel noted, law can also be used to restrict the voice of civil society.  The best governments use law to promote the flourishing of their population, the worst use it to restrict them.