October 22, 2015; National Catholic Register

Why isn’t more funding coming from U.S. charitable donors and philanthropic grantmakers to address the refugee crisis in the Middle East, Africa, Europe, and coming to the U.S.? Sean Callahan, the chief operating officer for Catholic Relief Services, made the obvious connection between giving and refugees in his Congressional testimony earlier this month. He pointed out that Giving USA reported that giving for international affairs saw the largest drop in charitable giving last year, a decrease of 3.6 percent from the year before, in a year when overall charitable giving increased. Facing declining charitable revenues for refugees, Callahan asked Congress to pass the bipartisan Middle East Refugee Supplemental Appropriations Act, which would put $1 billion in U.S. government funds toward refugee issues, including help for refugee resettlement in the U.S. as well as overseas.

In a Thursday convening sponsored by MoveOn.org to address refugee funding and resettlement issues, MoveOn’s Ben Wikler noted that lots of nonprofits have different ideas about what should have been done and what might yet be done to bring to an end the civil war in Syria, which is generating a huge portion of the refugee population movement, but nonprofits should be able to come to an agreement—and mobilize—about the need for more federal government funding for refugees and funding to support the resettlement of some in the U.S.

Toward that end, MoveOn’s gathering sparked a vigorous and strikingly cohesive discussion about what might be done to get Congress and the White House to do more for refugee aid and resettlement. Despite its offer to open the opportunity of resettlement to 10,000 Syrian refugees (increasing the total refugee admissions to 85,000 in Fiscal Year 2016 and potentially 100,000 in FY 2017, up from 70,000 in FY2015 and 75,000 as the original White House request for FY2016), the White House has to ask Congress for more money to make it happen and Congress has to respond—both for assistance to refugees here and in the Middle East.

The administration’s willing to admit 10,000 more Syrian refugees, which is a big step up from current numbers. Syrian refugees didn’t even crack the list of top 10 countries of refugee origin in the U.S. for the past three fiscal years until FY2015, and that number was 1,682 refugees, 2.4 percent of the total for that year. For FY2013–2015, the top two countries as sources of refugees were Burma (Myanmar) and Iraq, accounting jointly for between 44.4 percent (2015) and 51.2 percent (2013) of all refugees admitted to the U.S. For asylees, Syria accounted for 811 (3.2 percent) in FY2013, but the largest generators of asylees to the U.S. that year were China with 8,604 (34.1 percent) followed by Egypt with 3,407 (13.5 percent). Announcing its willingness to accept more refugees is one thing; providing the necessary resources to pay for these new residents of the U.S. requires attention and serious upgrading.

In the MoveOn convening, Jen Smyers of Church World Service presented information about the current budget numbers for refugees and asylees and where they should be. From our understanding of her information on the conference call and supplemental information she supplied from the Refugee Council USA, the shortfalls in funding look serious and could undermine the administration’s ability to support 10,000 additional Syrian refugees, not to mention what the U.S. could and should be doing to help refugees in the Middle East and elsewhere:

Budget account FY 2015 appropriation FY2016 request from OMB FY2016 estimated need
Migration and Refugee Assistance (Dept. of State) $3,059m $2,455m $3,603m
Emergency Refugee and Migration Assistance $50m $50m $250m
International Disaster Account (USAID) $1,895m $1,741m $2,270m
Refugee and Entrant Assistance (Office of Refugee Resettlement, HHS) $1,560m $1,629m $2,440m

Smyers also called for a $49.6 million increase in the budget of the Refugee, Asylum and International Operations Directorate in the Department of Homeland Security for the purposes of screening refugees for resettlement.

Making this MoveOn discussion particularly worthwhile was the ability of the MoveOn coordinators to talk about the specifics of political and budgetary targets and strategy—and getting groups to sign on to take actions quickly. Moreover, it was impressive noting the MoveOn strategy of finding comfortable, bipartisan—or actually in this case, nonpartisan—avenues for groups to coalesce around to promote refugee appropriations. That is important because in the current political environment, it will take bipartisan support to significantly boost funding for aiding refugees overseas and resettling numbers of refugees here.

In early October, the U.S. Senate passed a bill calling for a $1 billion supplemental appropriations increase in the funding for State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs (SFOPS) for the Middle East refugee crisis. The Middle East Refugee Emergency Supplemental Appropriations Act, S.2145, was introduced by Senator Lindsay Graham (R-SC), but all eight cosponsors are Democrats except for Angus King (I-ME). Although the text of the bill doesn’t clearly outline how that $1 billion might be allocated among the various accounts listed above, the bill is an obvious target for policy advocacy, a point clearly not lost on MoveOn or the other organizations in the meeting.

It should be obvious from Nonprofit Quarterly’s recent coverage of the Middle East refugee crisis and the horrible impacts on refugees that have been occurring in Syria, in the camps in neighboring countries, in dangerous boats crossing the Mediterranean Sea, and in sometimes reluctant if not actively antagonistic host nations that the U.S. cannot turn its eyes from this human tragedy. The nonprofits joining with MoveOn in this effort will face numerous challenges, notably the Islamophobic rhetoric that has attracted a part of the American electorate and several Republican presidential candidates, notably Donald Trump and Ben Carson. On the Democratic side, the three remaining candidates have expressed their opposition to the anti-Muslim wave capturing their Republican rivals, though Bernie Sanders made headlines this week by invoking the deaths of his father’s family German concentration camps in a pledge to fight Islamophobia as part of the “ugly stain of racism” that is still so evident in American society.

To move Congress on this issue, it is going to require more than smart budget lobbying prowess. The American public needs to be educated about the refugee crisis, the U.S.’s role in having helped—inadvertently or not—in exacerbating the crises in the Middle East and North Africa, and the fact that many of us in this country are from families that were refugees themselves.—Rick Cohen