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UN refugee agency appeals to Canada for funding amid ‘record level of difficulty’

By Kristen Shane      

With support from its two biggest donors in limbo early this year, the UNHCR’s donor relations chief met with Canadian officials to tell them just how bad the need is to help an increasing number of people displaced worldwide.

The UNHCR's Paul Stromberg, left, is seen touring Britain's Prince Charles through a refugee camp for Syrians in Jordan in March 2013. Mr. Stromberg visited Canada in February as head of the UN refugee agency's donor relations to speak to officials about how Canada can support its budget needs. Photograph courtesy of UNHCR
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The UN refugee agency is appealing to Canada for funding help in a year it says has been especially tough because of the record number of displaced people worldwide and obstacles in receiving money from other donors.

“It’s both challenging because the needs are enormous on the ground and the number of refugees [and] people of concern keeps rising, and because amongst many of our large donors there’s a good deal of uncertainty or delay at issue,” said Paul Stromberg, head of donor relations and resource mobilization service with the Geneva-based office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

While the refugee agency started out expecting to need US$7.5-billion for the year, the number of crises that have erupted since then has forced it to boost the budget request to more than US$8-billion, said Mr. Stromberg in an interview in late February during a visit to Ottawa. The current revised budget for the 2018 calendar year is US$8.3-billion, according to the refugee agency’s website.

To get that money, the UNHCR has to ask donors—mainly governments, but also private individuals. It’s almost completely voluntarily funded. Last year, it only received about half of its budget ask, said Mr. Stromberg. That leaves the agency short on money to pay for things like health and community services and shelter for people displaced by war, persecution, or violence.

One of its challenges is the uncertainty around when it actually receives promised money, he said, as donors have different fiscal years and budget cycles. This year, its top two donors have both had troubles that threatened to slow the flow of money.

The United States—the refugee agency’s biggest donor by far; it gave more than US$1.4-billion last year—started 2018 with two short government shutdowns when legislators didn’t agree to authorize the money needed to fund regular services. It wasn’t until last month that they finally agreed to fund government operations for the rest of the fiscal year.

Germany, which gave the refugee agency nearly US$477-million last year, also started the year in limbo, after an election in September was inconclusive and resulted in months of political deal-making before a new coalition government could be formed in February.

“So to approve the budget, they’ve already warned us that the money will be coming on later,” said Mr. Stromberg.

 

Numbers of forcibly displaced ‘just keep marching upwards’

Against that backdrop of funding uncertainty, the agency has had to contend with “a record level of difficulty” this year already, he said.

“The situation is bound to get worse before it gets better. The numbers just keep marching upwards. We haven’t seen any resolution to any of these major crises that are generating millions of refugees a year,” he said.

While protracted conflicts continue to cause people to flee countries such as Afghanistan and Syria, problems in other countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, and Myanmar have gone from bad to worse, and others have flared up in places such as Venezuela. Myanmar alone has seen more than 687,000 people flee to neighbouring Bangladesh since violence ramped up in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state in late August, making this the fastest-growing refugee crisis in the world.

Officials from Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen’s ministry were set to meet with the UNHCR’s head of donor relations earlier this year in Ottawa. Canada last year was the UN refugee agency’s eighth largest donor. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

Overall, the refugee agency estimated more than 65 million people were forcibly displaced globally at the end of 2016 (the latest tally available), more than at any other time in the agency’s seven-decade history.

So Mr. Stromberg spent the start of the year visiting some top-10 refugee donors, including Sweden, the United Kingdom, and Canada, to impress upon them “just how difficult we think this year is going to be.”

In Ottawa, he planned visits with departmental officials with Global Affairs; Finance; and Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship, though he said he didn’t come with a specific dollar-figure ask in mind.

In 2017, Canada was the eighth-largest donor to the UNHCR, giving nearly US$82-million, according to the refugee agency (CDN$108.1-million, the Canadian government says). That’s in line with Canada’s historical average, said Mr. Stromberg, though down from the “high point” of CDN$155.8-million donated in 2016, amid the Canadian government’s push to help Syrian refugees. The country took in 40,081 Syrian refugees between when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s (Papineau, Que.) government took power on Nov. 4, 2015 and Jan. 29 2017.

More recently, thousands of migrants have been streaming in from the U.S. in the last year through unauthorized border crossings, mainly in Quebec, possibly contributing to a hardening in attitudes towards immigration suggested in some recent public opinion surveys (though other polls indicate that attitudes toward new arrivals are still positive).

But Canada’s support for the UN refugee agency continues. “Responding to the needs of refugees is a priority” for the government, wrote Canadian foreign ministry spokesperson Amy Mills in an emailed response to questions.

Beyond any money it commits in response to humanitarian emergencies that crop up, it’s committed $12.6-million in unearmarked institutional funding for the 2018-19 fiscal year, as well as $40-million in ongoing multi-year contributions for refugees from Syria and Iraq, Ms. Mills wrote.

Besides money, Canada is a top resettlement country, permanently relocating refugees from the country in which they sought asylum if it doesn’t make sense for them to stay there, and it’s played an important political role in supporting refugees, said Mr. Stromberg.

Canada “justifiably” has an image of itself as a “disinterested, but fairly expert player on the international stage,” he said.

“[It’s] a country that is able to speak and is perceived as an honest broker in many of these situations, a country with…a long tradition of really putting money where there’s very little exposure,” such as in sub-Saharan Africa.

Indeed, Ms. Mills wrote: “With just 10 countries hosting half of the world’s total refugee population, most of them developing countries, and just 10 donors providing the majority (78 per cent) of UNHCR’s funding support, Canada supports greater international solidarity in responding to the needs of refugees.”

kshane@hilltimes.com

@kristenshane1

The Hill Times

Top government donors to the UN refugee agency in 2017

  Donor Funding (US$)
1 United States 1,450,360,238
2 Germany 476,918,668
3 European Union 436,036,986
4 Japan 152,359,773
5 United Kingdom 136,219,370
6 Sweden 111,958,945
7 Norway 98,941,956
8 Canada 81,879,293
9 Netherlands 75,711,468
10 Denmark 58,370,565

Note: These figures are current as of Feb. 14, 2018

Source: UNHCR 2017 Contributions to UNHCR Programs

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