118th Congress: Humanitarian Engagement for Displaced Populations

The United States Congress continues to play a critical role in humanitarian leadership. Over the past two years, Congress passed important legislation that provided life-saving food aid to those impacted by the war in Ukraine, funding for global humanitarian assistance for displaced populations, authorized new sanctions against the junta in Myanmar, and provided additional protection measures for women and girls in refugee camp settings.

As the 118th Congress begins in earnest, Refugees International will be looking to Members of Congress to advance protection for displaced people globally by:

  1. Protecting asylum and upholding the rights of people on the move.
  2. Focusing on the protection needs of marginalized minorities.
  3. Shifting power toward displaced people, other aid recipients, and local civil society organizations in international humanitarian and refugee responses.
  4. Providing robust humanitarian funding for global displacement needs.

Global Context: Historic Needs, Bold Leadership Needed in 2023

Today, more than 100 million people are displaced globally, and the humanitarian needs of this population will continue to grow as new emergencies continue to stretch the global humanitarian response. The massive earthquakes on February 6, 2023, have shattered the lives and livelihoods of countless people across Türkiye and Syria. And after five seasons of consecutive below-average rains, the humanitarian crisis in the Horn of Africa is deepening. Twenty-two million people there are acutely food insecure, and 5.1 million children are acutely malnourished.

Forcibly displaced women and girls face innumerable challenges meeting their basic needs, including securing suitable shelter, education, childcare, and healthcare. Displaced women and girls also face unique risks to their safety in their countries of origin, during their journeys, and in the countries where they seek refuge. Forced displacement exacerbates pre-existing risks and gender inequalities. Gender-based violence (GBV), for example, is a major risk for women and girls that increases during displacement.

Draconian restrictions on access to asylum, both in the United States and abroad, are a cause for alarm. American leadership is crucial to uphold the principles of protection for asylum seekers and refugees. Americans continue to strongly support the U.S. refugee resettlement program: recent polling shows that 70 percent believe the United States should be resettling refugees. That number jumps to 89 percent if someone knows a refugee personally.

Climate migration and climate displacement are no longer future challenges; they are happening before our eyes. Extreme weather events were responsible for more than 94 percent of this disaster displacement. Climate-related displacement disproportionately affects those in vulnerable situations. Disaster-induced displacement often leads to temporary, local movements. However, climate change is making it harder to return home. Reporting by Refugees International finds that people displaced by climate change receive inadequate support from their governments and the international humanitarian community on a range of issues, including durable shelter, planned relocation, and alternative livelihood support.

Unfinished Business

In the previous Congress, several promising pieces of legislation were introduced but not passed. Refugees International is calling on the 118th Congress to reintroduce, prioritize, and pass the following bills:

  • The Refugee Protection Act offers a much-needed affirmative vision of asylum in the United States and at its southern border and expanded protections for persecuted and forcibly displaced people. Refugees International urges Congress to consider it a blueprint for a comprehensive update of our refugee protection system. 
  • The Afghan Adjustment Act is a bipartisan bill that provides a path to permanent residency for the more than 70,000 Afghans paroled into the United States in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.
  • The Safe from the Start Act recognizes that forcibly displaced women and girls face increased threats of gender-based violence (GBV) and ensures that U.S. funding supports prevention and early response to GBV in emergencies.

Priorities for the 118th Congress

Humanitarian assistance approaches, both for emergency and protracted populations, require continuing bipartisan support as well as new thinking and bold leadership.

1. Protecting asylum and upholding the rights of people on the move

Across the globe, many counties have continued an alarming trend towards blocking and restricting access to asylum rather than upholding the rights and protection of forcibly displaced people. These policies lead to pushbacks and stranding migrants; return programs that are not truly voluntary (because migrants are stranded when they opt-in); “stabilization” schemes that do not truly allow for integration and dignified life in transit countries; visa controls, passport and documentary requirements that block access to pathways and lead to more dangerous routes; and temporary or limbo pathways that divide families, exploit migrant workers, and do not allow for transition to permanent status or political participation. Unfortunately, the Biden administration is continuing this trend with policies like the recently proposed transit ban and its complicated handling of Title 42.

Efforts to keep in place Title 42, the COVID-19 related border expulsion policy, delayed the implementation of a clear and comprehensive plan to ensure a humane reception of asylum seekers at the border and fair processing of their claims. Now that Title 42 is set to wind down this year, Congress must act quickly to ensure that asylum seekers are treated with dignity and respect, and that federal, state, and local entities along the U.S. southern border are working together to receive people seeking safety in a safe and orderly manner. 

Refugees International recommends that the Congress:

  • Highlight and oppose efforts to degrade the rights of asylum seekers.
  • Continue Congressional funding for NGOs and local government’s support for asylum seekers released by DHS.
  • Support appropriation of funds to USCIS for the handling of asylum and other humanitarian applications as well as legislation reforming the immigration courts and ensuring access to counsel for asylum seekers.
→ Dive Deeper: Supplementary Protection Pathways to the United States: Lessons from the Past for Today’s Humanitarian Parole Policies

2. Focusing on the protection needs of marginalized minorities

People in the same displacement context may experience varying degrees of discrimination, risk, and harm. This is especially true for marginalized minority groups. Although there is no official definition, marginalized minorities are generally understood to be national, ethnic, religious, linguistic, LGBTQ+, and other groups who are fewer in number than the rest of the population, and who face unique challenges in a displacement crisis.

Displaced people who are members of minority groups are likely to be affected both by the immediate events leading to their displacement and by a long‑term legacy of discrimination. This amplified discrimination can lead to major barriers to support and integration for marginalized minorities and result in policy gaps that can have negative effects for years to come.

Refugees International recommends that the Congress:

  • Prioritize the needs of marginalized communities, ensuring commitments through oversight of the State Department and USAID and raising the visibility through Congressional hearings and public briefings.
  • Urgently, the Congress should continue to uplift and pursue avenues for protection of Afghan women and girls living under threat from the Taliban.
  • Pursue legislation and engage the Biden administration toward increased support for accountability for abuses against Burma’s citizens (including the Rohingya), increased resettlement of Rohingya and other refugees from Burma, and further pressure on the Burmese military junta via targeted sanctions.
→ Dive Deeper: Networks of Care for Displaced LGBTQI+ People: How the United States Can Support LGBTQI-led Organizations in Central America and Mexico and Hope amid Despair: Finding Solutions for Rohingya in Bangladesh 

3. Shifting power towards displaced people, other aid recipients, and local civil society organizations in international humanitarian and refugee responses

For years, the United States has championed the localization agenda through high-profile pledges and international commitments. However, Congress must do more to help ensure that these pledges become reality in local and regional contexts around the world and are not stymied by bureaucratic hurdles. Congress should support direct funding for local NGOs and ensure leadership from affected populations are incorporated into decision making at all levels.

The humanitarian response in Ukraine provides an important test case. Unfortunately, even though U.S. government support for humanitarian action in Ukraine has been both extremely generous and vital for helping Ukrainians in need, the regrettable reality is that less than 1 percent of the $3.9 billion in humanitarian contributions tracked by the UN from all donors last year have been transferred directly to Local/National Non Governmental Organizations (L/NNGOs) in Ukraine. Of the more than $1.29 billion committed or delivered to Ukraine by the U.S. government in 2022 and specifically tracked by the UN, no funds have flowed directly to Ukrainian organizations. Ukrainians are widely acknowledged to be delivering aid to their own citizens faster, more efficiently, and at less cost than international responders.

Refugees International recommends that the Congress:

  • Work with USAID toward concrete reforms and to help tackle bureaucratic impediments to further localization approaches, as well as expanding support for country-based pooled funds.
  • Support USAID and the State Department in efforts towards the localizing of aid in Ukraine in 2023, which will greatly enhance the sustainability of the humanitarian response going forward and will help build a more resilient Ukrainian civil society.
→ Dive Deeper: Efforts to Localize Aid in Ukraine One Year On: Stuck in Neutral, Losing Time

4. Providing robust humanitarian funding for global displacement needs

The United States continues to lead global humanitarian funding and plays a pivotal humanitarian diplomacy role. This life-saving assistance has been essential to helping in both new emergencies and protracted displacement responses, and we thank the members of the U.S. Congress for their support. However, it must be noted that global needs for displaced populations and those seeking domestic asylum continue to increase and, despite additional supplemental funding support provided in Fiscal Year 2022, additional funding is needed. Support is needed to meet these humanitarian and development challenges and support sustainable solutions.

Congress has traditionally supported funding USAID and State Department programs that include International Disaster Assistance (IDA), Migration and Refugee Assistance (MRA), the Emergency Refugee and Migration Account (ERMA), and other core accounts supporting peacekeeping operations, food assistance, and maternal and child health.

Refugees International recommends that the Congress:

  • Increase international humanitarian funding toplines to allow operational organizations to respond to escalating demands and to expand support for resiliency investments, an agreed-upon best practice for longer-term self-sufficiency.

Cover Photo: Stefani Reynolds via Getty Images.