Once a true asylum-seeking refugee makes the decision and takes the step to leave their country for good, their first priority is to survive the journey to their destination and ensure they can stay there. After they find a place to go, then comes the equally difficult (if not more difficult) task of beginning a new life. With the Syrian refugee crisis showing no signs of abating, the situation begs the following two questions: What does it cost to fund a refugee, and how is it best accomplished?
The Financial Tracking Service attempts to track global humanitarian aid flows throughout the world (no small task). Among their data sets, you can find information on the “Total Funding to the Syrian Crisis 2015” that many sources agree affects some 4 million displaced Syrians with very-little-to-no wealth, food, shelter, or other assets. Keep in mind the crisis in Syria is already several years old. According to their figures, close to $4 billion USD has either been committed or contributed to the crisis in some form or fashion this year, either to humanitarian aid organizations working with or on behalf of the refugees or to foreign governments who have taken them in. However, only some $3 billion USD has actually been received and the requirements as measured by appeals from said organizations and governments for money actually tops $7.4 billion USD. Again, that’s just for 2015, so far.
According to a Quartz article, politicians from Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan (the three countries hosting the most refugees from Syria currently) have reported that they have thus far spent $20 billion USD, $7.6 billion USD, and $4.2 billion USD respectively over the course of the Syrian crisis, and these numbers are likely understating the reality. In Germany, it has been estimated that a Syrian refugee costs the government some $13,000 USD per year, and Germany is leading the way in its acceptance of asylum seekers in the developed world. These are staggering figures and, as an aside, the high per-person care costs in developed nations have sparked other conversations about why the developed world doesn’t donate more to the undeveloped world where immigrants can have better lives with a lower cost-of-living a fraction of what the German figure is (the answer is simply that many refugees themselves prefer Germany as a destination over other nations). Continuing, the money to fund all this comes from the governments themselves, their taxpayers, and the existing programs they have in place, or from other governments, or from folks like us. And by all accounts, nobody is doing enough. Already, food programs have been cut, for instance, making the situation that much more desperate.
With costs in mind, how is funding or otherwise supporting a Syrian refugee best accomplished? There’s no easy answer to that, of course. There are the traditional methods of aid-in-kind, for instance, where an organization appeals for donations, receives money, and provides the actual food, clothing, tents, medical supplies, or what have you, to the refugees in camps or mass accomodations or at centralized distribution points. However, an article on the Free exchange at the Economist questions this model. It points out that there are many established arguments for not giving refugees cash instead of stuff but refutes them with solid reasoning and by citing instances in which such aid backfires, including Toms’ free shoes program that we now understand has displaced local business owners in those countries where the program exists. There are other issues as well, such as an organization choosing food that runs contrary to the recipients’ diets and cultures, or that the bulk of providing aid-in-kind is often spent on transporting those physical goods to their destination, not on the actual goods themselves. Cash, on the other hand, can be transferred with a keystroke and may help boost the local economy, go further for the recipient, and is more discreet, among other things.
If you find yourself agreeing that aid-in-kind is not the best option, what are the alternatives? In Germany, a website offering to pair hosts with refugees seeks to address the question of housing by attempting to keep refugees out of camps and mass accomodations (or at least shorten their time in such places). With an Airbnb-like format, refugees can be paired with those who have a room available and the service can help the room owner cover the costs of rent and such. This service is likely to spread to other countries in Europe. In the UK, if you’re a wannabe landlord and meet certain criteria, you can use a website to do something similar. Should the US ever get around to letting in a more sizable number of immigrants, we can imagine that this may become an option for Americans as well.
Then there are always the crowdfunding and micro-loan routes. Contribute to a crowdfunding project or organize your own creative one and become more involved in the process of providing real monetary aid to Syrians. Or, donate to an organization that provides microloans to refugees building businesses. Whatever path you have already taken or are yet to take in being involved in the crisis, keep in mind that now is not the time to suffer from refugee-fatigue. The number of “total persons of concern” (to borrow a term from the UN Refugee Agency) and the costs for seeing them through sadly continue to mount.