If the 65 million displaced people in the world today were a country, they would be the 21st largest country in the world. Fueling this mass displacement are numerous conflicts around the world, including four “Level 3” emergencies – the most severe classification – in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and South Sudan. The crisis in Syria alone has forced over 11 million people from their homes.
While most agree that the solution to these conflicts is ultimately a political one, there remains a pressing need for the United States to respond to the humanitarian disaster and provide life-saving assistance to those in need. Since only 1 percent of refugees worldwide are permanently resettled outside their home countries, humanitarian assistance is critical to reaching the other 99 percent of refugees in need of shelter, water, and food.
An American Legacy of Humanitarian Assistance
The U.S. is the largest bilateral donor of humanitarian assistance in the world and has a long history of helping those in need, whether it’s been helping to rebuild Europe out of the ruins of the Second World War, combating the terrible tragedy of the global HIV/AIDS pandemic, or responding to the suffering of those displaced by conflict.
For the Syria crisis alone, the U.S. has provided over $5 billion in humanitarian support. This aid not only helps the 13.5 million people in need of assistance inside Syria, it also supports neighboring countries affected by the crisis.
Supporting these neighboring countries is not only the right thing to do; it is also in America’s strategic interest. Several of the countries currently hosting the greatest number of refugees, like Turkey and Jordan, are strategic American allies whose overcapacity risks generating greater regional instability.
In recognition of World Refugee Day last month, the United Nations released a new report showing that there are now over 65 million people around the world who have been forcibly displaced by conflict – the highest since the aftermath of World War II.
Further, the UN report found that 86 percent of the world’s refugees currently live in developing countries, highlighting the importance of economic development assistance, in addition to emergency humanitarian aid.
Unfortunately, humanitarian needs are outpacing the donor community’s funding. Last year, less than 50 percent of the UN’s appeal for humanitarian assistance for Syria was met. Other challenges unrelated to funding remain as well, like the protection of humanitarian workers and ensuring the access of humanitarian aid to besieged communities.
The recent news that food aid and medical supplies were allowed access to the besieged Damascus suburb of Daraya is positive and highlights the importance of sustained diplomatic pressure from the international community. And yet, there are still nearly 600,000 people living under siege in Syria.
A Changing World Requires U.S. Leadership
A decade ago, natural disasters accounted for 80 percent of global humanitarian assistance. Today, 80 percent goes to conflict affected crises. Dealing with these crises will require sustained U.S. leadership with all the tools at our disposal, including foreign assistance and diplomacy.
In September, President Obama will host a Summit on Refugees during the 71st session of the UN General Assembly to galvanize international support for this important issue. Unfortunately, the International Affairs Budget – which funds our assistance efforts – has sustained significant cuts in recent years, even as global crises worsen.
This is counterintuitive and fails to showcase the values that America stands for as a nation and as a people. Regardless of who wins the White House in November, this will be one of the most pressing priorities awaiting the next president.
Photo: Kabul refugee children, NATO – taken by by U.S. Air Force Capt. John Callahan