President-Elect Biden’s Transition Team: Action-Items on Global Humanitarian and Refugee Issues

The Refugees International team met virtually with members of President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team to discuss action-items on global humanitarian and refugee issues. Included below are Refugees International President Eric Schwartz’s opening remarks, Senior Fellow Sarah Miller’s talking points on labor market access, internally displaced people, and protracted crises, and Climate Displace Program Manager Kayly Ober’s comments on climate change and migration issues.


It’s a pleasure to be here, to see you all, and to welcome an administration that is so clearly committed to U.S. leadership in global humanitarian issues. 

Having served on one U.S State Department transition team and having led one USUN transition team, I’ve thought a bit about what we could say to you that might be useful. Of course, we’re talking about global refugee and humanitarian issues, which—even if we exclude the southern border of the United States—is a vast subject. 

During this conversation, we’ll try to offer thoughts that, first, give you a sense of our perspectives on a few important issues; second, might offer an idea or two about how you might advance an objective the president-elect or his team have already identified; and third, might alert you to an idea or issue, which may not be front and center in your thinking. 

With awareness that there will be a degree of arbitrariness in the choice of issues, I’ll start with nine broad suggestions or ideas, and then invite my colleagues to elaborate on some key points.  

First, on the importance of signaling to the world.

The president, or the Secretary of State, should present a major address on U.S. re-engagement on humanitarian and refugee protection issues, specifically—and affirm a range of new approaches—U.S. endorsement of the Global Compacts, renewal of support of the UN Population Fund and its humanitarian efforts, renewed support for UNRWA and WHO, reversal of the Global Gag rule, and on and on and on.  

Second, on the importance of walking the talk on support for humanitarian funding—commensurate with the president-elect’s commitments.

We’ve seen the proposed 2021 numbers as of December 22, and they look pretty good. But on a global COVID-19 response, for reasons we can discuss, we have strongly supported the $20 billion assistance request from the NGO community, even with $4 billion in Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, funding that seems to be in the package. 


Third, and especially in light of the president-elect’s commitment to get the United States out of endless wars, on the importance of not cutting and not running. 

This may be the among the most urgent issues you all confront in the next few months and humanitarians in government have a critical role here. This means promoting different actions in different places—sometimes sustaining financial and diplomatic support, sometimes sustaining limited security engagement, even for long periods, and sometimes—when things do go bad—being ready and prepared to save people quickly.


Fourth, on the importance of re-establishing international protection as a priority. 

There are a couple of key aspects to this challenge. 

One aspect is access for asylum-seekers at borders: and if migration management practices include safe third country arrangements, they have to be safe, whether that means no return to Libya or no transfer to Guatemala, El Salvador, or Honduras. 

Another aspect to this challenge means a willingness to support the expansion of ways in which governments, including our own, can provide safety to people fleeing out of necessity—people who need to escape persecution, violence, and disasters often exacerbated by climate change. 

For example, any effort to use the Refugee Admissions program to provide opportunities for Central Americans not to flee toward our southern border is not likely to succeed without an effort to reduce evidentiary standards for refugee applicants, which may involve legislation. 

Fifth, on the importance of seizing a real opportunity to address protracted displacement.

Humanitarians have talked about this profound concern for decades, and the efforts of the World Bank and others to promote labor market access and other opportunities for refugees and host communities could be real game changers—we should double down on them and figure out ways to include internally displaced people more specifically in World Bank and related programs. 

Sixth, on the importance of focusing on climate displacement. 

This is a moment of historic opportunity. Whether that means transforming U.S. and international efforts in disaster risk reduction; building capacity within the State Department to deal with climate migration issues; supporting legislation—like that offered by Senator Markey—on resettlement opportunities for those displaced by disasters borne by natural hazards; or including the displacement issue in the climate summit that the president-elect envisions, it is time for real measures. 

Seventh, on the importance of “growing the diverse constituency for U.S. leadership on refugee protection,” both at home and abroad (to quote from the Refugee Advocacy Lab’s website).

We strongly support efforts to revitalize a White House Task Force on New Americans, but it has to have strong White House leadership and resources, and a willingness to engage the public debate assertively, dispelling myths that arise about immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. 

Eighth, on organizational issues, the importance of not using valuable time to relitigate the host of State/USAID humanitarian merger questions. 

Both State and USAID have critical humanitarian roles to play. You can and should integrate efforts without a merger—and, if there are big organizational issues to be decided, decide them promptly at the very top, without an extended and tortured interagency review. 

Ninth, on organizational issues, the importance of integration within the National Security Council (NSC) staff on refugee, humanitarian protection, and humanitarian assistance issues.

In a shop as small as the NSC, such integration does make sense. Having been through NSC organizational modifications for eight years during the Clinton administration, I know a lot of these decisions are based on personalities as much as issues of organization efficiency, but all things being equal, this is what I’d recommend. 

There is, of course, so much more, but that’s eight minutes worth of recommendations.

Sarah Miller:


We know the traditional durable solutions generally aren’t working very well, and that the majority of refugee situations are protracted.  The 2016 Obama Leader’s Summit underscored a lot of the challenges around this, and we know there is now an opportunity to return to some of these efforts. 

Labor Market Access (LMA)

Acknowledging the protracted nature of displacement and the elusive nature of durable solutions, Refugees International and the Center for Global Development’s labor market access (LMA) project focuses on the economic inclusion of refugees in Kenya, Ethiopia, Peru and Colombia. We have been pleasantly surprised to see that governments have taken an interest in this, in part because it side-steps difficult conversations about legal integration.

Among our key findings is that refugees benefit their host countries’ economies. Indeed,

  • LMA is an integral part of finding solutions, whether we are talking about return, local integration or resettlement.
  • LMA is not something to be discussed later, siloed from the emergency response; it needs to happen as early as possible. It is a key part of bridging the relief-development gap, which practitioners, advocates and academics all echo as an ongoing challenge.

More specifically, then, we can provide specific recommendations, including:

  • International funding should be increased to host states with incentives that encourage refugee economic inclusion/access to the labor market. This would also signal solidarity to these host states, and show that LMA is a priority—not just to make refugees less reliant on humanitarian assistance, but to the benefit of the host state’s economy.

    • The World Bank has invested $2.2B in its Window for Host Communities and Refugee Loans, including a dedicated $1B for the COVID response. Bank financing in the refugee space is still quite new, as you know, and the USG should also scale up its investments in supporting countries that host large numbers of refugees.
  • The United States should make refugee access to work permits a policy priority in host countries.
  • The United States should press for improved labor rights (e.g. ratification and implementation of ILO Conventions) in host countries—for refugees and hosts. This also includes recognizing that large portions of refugees work informally, and are more likely to be exploited or abused.
  • Refugees should be included in national development plans, as well as COVID-19 response plans.
  • The private sector needs to be more fully engaged—consider ways to further include companies in refugee access to the labor market.
  • The United States should push for refugee credentialing in host countries (e.g. refugees can help treat those with COVID-19—refugees who are, for example, nurses or doctors, can help treat patients where there are shortages of medical professionals (e.g. Venezuelans in Peru, Colombia).

Amidst greater investment of development actors and financing institutions like the Bank, the United States should also consider urging the Bank to extend more funding to IDPs

Internally Displaced People (IDPs)

As you know, there are far greater numbers of IDPs than refugees, and many are in far more challenging circumstances, receiving less protection and assistance, and in some cases completely inaccessible. In light of this, we urge the USG to:

  • Remain supportive and attentive to the IDP High Level Panel established by the UN Secretary General. We appreciate how supportive the administration has been. We think it’s an important step to bringing IDPs back on the agenda.
  • Greater accountability might also come out of the HLP—in this vein, the USG should further encourage the use of and expansion of the Kampala Convention and other regional tools that seek to improve the enforcement of norms, principles and frameworks already in place.

Kayly Ober:


Climate-related displacement is not a future challenge—it’s already here. In 2019, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre calculated that weather-related disasters displaced almost 24 million, almost three times more than those displaced by conflict in the same year.

In recent years, while the Trump Administration has backed away from the issue, others, including the European Union (EU) and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), have stepped up to the challenge. In fact, we’re at a moment in which we may be able to make headway for the first time on climate change and migration issues—and the U.S. needs to be an essential part of that. 

Re-engagement and demonstration of leadership on international processes and issues 

  • Formally adopting the Global Compact for Migration (GCM). The GCM is the first international agreement of its kind to explicitly acknowledge climate change as a driver of migration and encourage progress on enhanced protection and migration pathways for people moving in such contexts. And this year, during the very first Regional Review process of the GCM for North America and EU, EU governments expressed a willingness to engage on issues of climate change and migration. Glaringly, the U.S. was absent from this conversation.
  • Planting a flag in the ground at the next climate negotiations process, COP26, on displacement. The U.S. will be welcomed back into the Paris Agreement, but a Biden Administration has an equal opportunity to demonstrate leadership around climate change adaptation and loss and damage. We would welcome engagement on displacement issues in this forum as the President-elect and Secretary of State see fit, but I think there are two possibilities. The big one is acknowledging the reality of loss and damage and engaging in a fruitful discussion towards tangible remuneration mechanisms and pathways, which would go a long way to showing renewed commitment and good will. The second option, while smaller, is still profound: When providing President-elect Biden’s promised pledge amount to the Green Climate Fund, explicitly support ways to enable loss and damage discussions within the Fund; and call for centering issues of displacement within those discussions.
  • Supporting UNHCR’s Strategic Framework for Climate Action and their recent “legal considerations paper.” UNHCR will launch a Strategic Framework for Climate Action very soon—and it will be the first of its kind. This year, as part of this, they released a legal considerations paper on protection for people displaced by climate change and disaster. While it does not change international law, it does make explicit use of the 1951 Refugee Convention, regional refugee definitions (under the Cartagena Declaration and OAU Convention), and international human rights law to make the case for expanded protection for those displaced by climate change and disaster. We think it’s a progressive step forward. I believe that a Biden Administration should signal its leadership in this space by actively engaging with UNHCR’s Strategic Framework and regional implementation process; as well as vocally supporting its legal considerations paper.
  • Joining the “Group of Friends” of the Platform on Disaster Displacement (PDD). PDD is an influential state-led initiative that seeks to implement a protection agenda that better prevents and prepares for climate-related displacement. The PDD’s “Group of Friends” consists of States that are most interested in supporting PDD’s work. Re-engaging and becoming a “Friend” of the PDD would signal that the U.S. is once again interested in leading on these issues and would allow you to get up to speed about progress on the international protection agenda.

Building up capacity and centering work on climate-related displacement within the State Department

Turning towards a more effective internal State Department organization on this issue is also important. In this regard, I would recommend:

  • Expanding the migration office within State and the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM). As Eric Schwartz, RI’s President, mentioned and knows from experience, the migration office in PRM is under-capacity. It should be expanded and include dedicated specialists on climate change.
  • Putting into place the building blocks within the State Department to support a progressive protection agenda. RI helped Senator Markey to put together legislation on climate-displaced persons in 2019. It’s a progressive Bill—and one that we support wholeheartedly. We understand, however, there are limitations to getting it passed in the short-term. However, we believe some of the proposed building blocks of the Bill could be put into action now—and the State Department is an important part of that work. You should carefully consider the Bill’s proposed “Coordinator of Climate Change Resilience” position at the State Department. The Coordinator would be in charge of collecting data and reporting on climate change impacts on migration and displacement. This would establish the baseline for creating the conditions for understanding to what degree climate change has forced someone to move, and identify communities that would qualify for any special protection designation.

Photo Credit: Joseph Sohm-Visions of America/Getty Images.