U.S. International Refugee Assistance: Issues for Congress
Report for Congress
Issues for Congress
January 3, 2003
Analyst in Foreign Affairs
Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade Division
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
U.S. International Refugee Assistance: Issues for
The United States is the largest national contributor to international
humanitarian assistance programs for refugees. Traditionally, it contributes to
refugee appeals both to alleviate the suffering of innocent victims and out of concern
that refugee flows can lead to instability in countries or regions important to U.S.
foreign policy interests. The United States is also the largest resettlement country.
The money for humanitarian assistance and some of the costs of resettlement in the
United States is authorized under the Migration and Refugee Assistance (MRA)
account of the Department of State Authorization bill and appropriated in the Foreign
Operations Appropriations bill. Though not the topic of this report, the bulk of
assistance for refugees who resettle in the United States is authorized and
appropriated in the Labor, Health and Human Services (HHS) legislation. This
report discusses the size of the U.S. international refugee assistance budget and its
allocation between humanitarian assistance and admissions.
With the end of the Cold War, U.S. refugee policy began to evolve to reflect
changes taking place in the international arena. The nearly exclusive anti-communist
focus began to shift as conflicts among nations moved away from the constraints of
superpower politics and toward a more complex array of internal disputes. These
new conditions led to a change in the nature of refugee emergencies and in the types
of programs that the United States and the international community provide for
refugees and other people forced to flee their homes. In addition, it resulted in a
tremendous increase in the number of people needing assistance. These factors also
influenced the continuing debate between the Administration and the Congress and
within the Congress about the U.S. role with regard to refugees.
The MRA is part of the foreign aid appropriation, and because humanitarian
emergencies are growing in number, complexity, and size, it faces enormous budget
pressures, both from traditional foreign assistance programs and from newly
emerging national priorities. While refugee assistance enjoys considerable support,
Congress and the Administration face the difficult task of funding humanitarian
needs within a constrained budget. For the last several years, with the exception of
FY1999, the appropriation for the MRA account has remained at about $700 million.
P.L. 107-115, signed into law on January 10, 2002, appropriated $705 million
for the MRA and $15 million for the Emergency Refugee and Migration assistance
(ERMA) for FY2002. The President requested $705 million for MRA and $15
million for ERMA for FY2003. The Senate Committee on Appropriations (S.Rept.
whereas the House Appropriations Committee (House Rept. 107-663) recommended
$800 million for the MRA and $20 million for ERMA. P.L. 107-228, to authorize
appropriations for the Department of State for FY2002 and FY2003, was enacted on
September 20, 2002. This report will be updated periodically.
In troduction ......................................................1
Expanding Needs of Refugees Worldwide..........................2
The Changing Nature of Refugee Situations.........................3
From One War to Another...................................3
The Plight of IDPs.........................................3
Complicating Factors Exacerbated by War......................4
Seeking Assistance in Failed States............................4
Humanitarian Assistance as a Tool for War.....................5
Challenges of Resettlement..................................5
Civilian and Military Roles in Humanitarian Assistance............6
Addressing the Causes of Refugee Flight...........................6
The Role of UNHCR...........................................7
The Role of UNRWA..........................................8
Overview of U.S. Refugee Assistance..................................8
Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA)...................9
Food For Peace (FFP)......................................9
Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI)..........................9
Department of Defense.........................................9
Office of Humanitarian Assistance and Peacekeeping.............9
Department of State...........................................10
Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM)............10
U.S. Funding for MRA and ERMA...................................10
Migration and Refugee Assistance (MRA) Account..................10
Overseas Refugee Assistance................................10
Refugees to Israel.........................................11
Emergency Refugee and Migration Assistance (ERMA)..............13
U.S. Contribution to UNHCR.......................................14
The Debate in Congress............................................15
Finding Funds for Emergency Assistance..........................16
Improving the Efficiency of International Refugee Programs...........17
List of Tables
Table 1. Migration and Refugee Assistance............................12
Table 2. ERMA Appropriations and Drawdown........................14
U.S. International Refugee Assistance:
Issues for Congress
There are over 12 million refugees worldwide, included in the total of close to
20 million individuals characterized as “people of concern.”1 The result is a
continuing increase in costs and expenditures required to address the problem.
While the global trend suggests that the numbers of refugees may have stabilized in
recent years, the ebb and flow of population movements remain largely dependent
upon external events and usually require an immediate response. Two major factors
influence U.S. decisions to aid refugees: (1) an American bipartisan tradition of
humanitarian concern for suffering people and (2) a concern that refugee flows can
lead to instability in countries important to U.S. foreign policy. U.S. assistance takes
the form of aid to refugees in their countries of asylum and admission to the United
States for some refugees of special concern. The problem for Congress is how to
respond programmatically to refugee needs in a way that satisfies both the American
tradition of providing assistance and U.S. budgetary limitations. This report
examines the problem, and the response over time by Congress and the executive
branch. It also considers the role of the international community through the United
Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).2
Before reviewing the U.S. financial assistance to refugees, this report will
examine the evolution of the refugee problem worldwide and briefly review the
international response to it.
1 The term “people of concern” is used by the United Nations High Commissioner for
Refugees (UNHCR) to include not only those fleeing across borders (refugees), but also
returned refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced persons (IDPs) and returned IDPs.
IDPs are individuals uprooted within their country but not necessarily given protection and
assistance under humanitarian law. UNHCR extends assistance to certain groups not
protected under the UNHCR mandate by grouping them as part of the broader definition
“people of concern.”
2 This report replaces an earlier CRS Issue Brief IB89150 and will be updated periodically.
Expanding Needs of Refugees Worldwide
UNHCR,3 established by the U.N. General Assembly in 1950 and made
operational in 1951, is mandated by the United Nations to lead and coordinate
international action for the worldwide protection of refugees and the resolution of
refugee problems. UNHCR’s initial mission was to help resettle European refugees
after World War II, and its mandate reflects this history. UNHCR became the
institutional mechanism for the implementation of the 1951 Convention relating to
the status of refugees. This Convention established the definition of a refugee and
the organizational tasks and responsibilities of the international community toward
refugees.4 However, the definition of a refugee was not universal; the 1951
Convention allowed states to limit the definition of refugees to those created by
events occurring in Europe prior to 1951.
When international and intergovernmental refugee organizations were
established in the 1950s and 1960s, their mandates were fairly specific and defined
refugees as persons who fled their country in response to persecution on the basis of
race, religion, ethnic or social group, or political opinion. While refugee situations
did not always conform to these definitions, they usually could be accommodated
within the mandates of the humanitarian relief agencies. Refugee emergencies
usually did not receive worldwide media attention. There was little news coverage
of the hardships faced by refugees in their exile. Refugee assistance was also
provided in a relatively safe setting because humanitarian assistance was given with
the agreement of the host government involved.
In response to subsequent large refugee movements that increasingly occurred
outside of Europe, the time and geographical limits of the 1951 Convention were
eliminated with the 1967 Protocol, to which the United States is a party.5
Furthermore, the UN General Assembly passed resolutions requesting that UNHCR
not only help refugees, but also provide assistance to asylum seekers, returnees, and
those displaced within the borders of their own countries; these many groups make
up the “people of concern” to UNHCR.
The number of refugees in camps around the world increased steadily as a result
of the conflicts that erupted after the end of the Cold War, straining the regular
budgets of the agencies that assist them. But the numbers displaced by warfare or
other manmade disasters within the borders of their own countries grew even more.
These internally displaced persons (IDPs), such as those in Sierra Leone, Bosnia, or
Chechnya, currently outnumber traditional refugees.
3 See UNHCR website for further information: [http://www.unhcr.org].
4 See the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. Under the
1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol which followed, contracting States agreed to
cooperate with UNHCR and facilitate its supervisory function.
5 The 1967 Protocol removes the geographical and time limitations written into the original
Convention under which mainly Europeans involved in events occurring before January 1,
According to UNHCR, the number of people of concern declined from a record
27 million in 1995 to 19.8 million by January 2002. This figure included
approximately 12 million refugees (persons who fled from their country), 462,700
returnees (people returning to their country but not fully resettled), 940,800 asylum
seekers, 5.3 million IDPs, 241,000 returned IDPs, and another million others of
concern.6 UNHCR estimates that an additional 20-25 million may be displaced for
political or other reasons from their homes, with the majority receiving little or no
international assistance. The number of refugees and displaced persons in Africa
numbered 20,000 in 1989. Today there are more than six million refugees, IDPs and
returnees in Africa. Much of the increase in numbers of refugees and displaced is
blamed on the rise in ethnic conflict unleashed after the Cold War.
Changing circumstances in refugee producing countries have also altered the
international response and created greater pressure to act. Increasingly, refugee
problems are part of longstanding political disagreements within countries rather than
between nations. Resolving them may require the unified action of many
governments, if not the U.N. Security Council, and raises the sensitive issue of the
limits of a sovereign government’s freedom to repress or harm its own citizens.
International consensus is difficult and often takes years to achieve. In the interim,
humanitarian suffering and destruction continues in the affected countries. Where
the underlying issues remain unresolved, humanitarian assistance is often the only
course which can be agreed upon.
Within the last decade and a half, new kinds of humanitarian situations have
become increasingly common and in fact make up the bulk of international disaster
situations. In addition, the long-held, generally agreed doctrine that nations should
not meddle in the internal affairs of other countries, unless invited to do so, has
begun to be questioned. This has placed humanitarian aid workers in increasingly
dangerous situations and has led to an increased military role for the United Nations
and its member states in activities that range from providing security to delivering
aid. These and other factors have driven up the cost and sometimes reduced the
effectiveness of humanitarian assistance.
The Changing Nature of Refugee Situations
The typical profile of the refugee situation is quite different today from that of
post-World War II, and as a result humanitarian needs have changed as well.
Specifically, new challenges include:
From One War to Another. Refugees often flee to areas that are also at war.
The situation in Rwanda/Burundi/Democratic Republic of Congo are current
examples. Refugee and humanitarian aid workers attempting to help these victims
of war have themselves become victims of conflict.
The Plight of IDPs. IDPs are people driven from their homes by warfare but
not crossing an international border and thus not becoming “convention” refugees.
6 For example, stateless citizens, such as those from the former Soviet Union who have not
been able to obtain citizenship in any of the former republics, are assisted by UNHCR.
For decades these IDPs suffered from lack of international attention even though their
compatriots who fled to another country often received humanitarian aid as refugees.
Examples of this situation today are Afghanistan, the Balkans, Chechnya, Sudan,
and Sierra Leone. One response to the growing numbers of people in this type of
situation has been a broadening of the UNHCR activities or area of responsibility.
In October 1992, UNHCR donor nations approved an expansion of the UNHCR role
to include assistance to the millions of people displaced within their own countries
by war and/or famine resulting from war. This change made UNHCR responsible for
nearly twice as many needy people almost overnight, although in fact the agency had
been assisting many of them previously with informal donor support. In other cases,
such as the current situations in Colombia and Afghanistan, people are prevented
from fleeing warfare because surrounding countries close their borders and UNHCR
and other humanitarian agencies must assist them in extremely difficult and
dangerous situations. Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Richard C.
Holbrook made the plight of IDPs a special concern of his.7 Both the U.N. Secretary
General and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees have also called for increased
attention to IDPs.
Complicating Factors Exacerbated by War. Persons in need may be
victims of a combination of a refugee emergency and a natural disaster, which may
be exacerbated by warfare. Drought in Ethiopia/Eritrea and Afghanistan while
warfare continues are current examples. Other situations include farmers who
cannot farm because of warfare or minefields, leading to food shortages and lack of
livelihood, or families unable to maintain sanitation due to lack of water and waste
systems, posing increased risks to health. The needs of these people have been
served by the international agencies that respond to natural disasters, by the refugee
relief agencies, as well as by the humanitarian agencies, such as the International
Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which respond to civil conflict situations. To
address problems of program overlap among the international agencies and the lack
of clear mandate by any one agency to help, the United Nations Secretary General
Kofi Annan in December 1991 created the U.N. Department of Humanitarian Affairs.
Although it was somewhat successful in coordinating the international response to
all disasters, either manmade or natural, Annan abolished it under his 1997
reorganization plan and established instead a U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator in
the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), thereby raising the
level of attention paid to humanitarian assistance.
Seeking Assistance in Failed States. Humanitarian emergencies
occurring in countries without a functioning government make it difficult for relief
agencies to get assistance to victims of civil war. In these situations, issues such as
visas, shipping clearance, use of roads and airport facilities, water, and power cannot
be addressed centrally. Nor can the issues of protection of aid workers or aid
7 See Ambassador Richard C. Holbrooke, United States Permanent Representative to the
United Nations, Humanitarian Affairs Segment, Economic and Social Council on Internally
Displaced Persons, Statement July 20, 2000 available at:
[http://www.un.int/usa/00_095.htm] and Ambassador Richard C. Holbrooke, United States
Permanent Representative to the United Nations, National Journal Interview, September 5,
supplies be resolved. In addition, warring political factions often insist on separate
negotiations concerning all facets of providing assistance. In the cases of Somalia
and Liberia, the international community attempted to restore order through the
introduction of foreign military forces.
Humanitarian Assistance as a Tool for War. In some internal wars
civilians, and the humanitarian agencies who try to help them, are specifically
attacked in order to change the outcome of the war. Humanitarian aid personnel have
been the targets of various factions in a number of countries. Their protection has
become an area of increasing concern to the United Nations. Between January 1,
1992, and June 2002, 214 civilian U.N. employees were killed, and dozens more
were wounded, some in deliberate, premeditated armed attacks.8 If UN contractors
from non governmental organizations (NGOs) are included, the numbers are much
higher. The recent U.N. response has been to use U.N. peacekeeping forces to assist
in providing humanitarian aid and protecting aid workers. Deputy U.N. Secretary-
General Louise Frechette called on governments to address these deaths in the
following ways: conduct vigorous investigations and punish the guilty; ratify the two
international conventions which address protection of international personnel;
provide additional funding to international agencies specifically for improved
security; and use whatever government influence is available to bring irregular forces9
under better control and discipline. In one report to the General Assembly on this
topic, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan calls for the expenditure of $30 million per
year to protect civilian staff in conflict situations. In his report, he states that only
nine headquarter professionals and 60 field security officers are responsible for
managing a security system to protect 70,000 staff and dependents at 150 duty
stations.10 In May 2002, Annan appointed Mr. Tun Myat as full-time security
coordinator. Other changes, including replacement of the current method of funding
security officers, are expected to take place.11
Challenges of Resettlement. The repatriation of refugees to a homeland
that has been devastated by war and dotted with land mines presents formidable
obstacles to resettlement. International donors have recognized the need to provide
rehabilitation to these countries as well as the usual short-term repatriation assistance,
but the rehabilitation funding has not always been made available. This assistance
may include a very wide range of activities such as help in the election of a new
government, mine-clearing, establishment of banking and commercial facilities, and
8 Summit on Staff Security, ORG/132, June 11, 2002.
9 Remarks of Deputy Secretary-General Louise Frechette at the annual Summit on Staff
Security, June 11, 2002.
10 “Annan to seek 30 million dollars a year for staff security,” by Robert Holloway, Agence
France-Presse, October 20, 2002.
11 Remarks of Deputy Secretary-General Louise Frechette at the annual Summit on Staff
Security, June 11, 2002. In addition, it should be noted that to improve security to its
personnel, the United Nations established at the end of 2001 a new Emergency and Security
Service program. Each U.N. agency pays a portion of the costs. For example, UNHCR will
pay $2 million for this program, as well as another $7 million for other security programs.
UNHCR has included the costs of these programs in its budget appeal for CY2003. See 2003
Global Appeal, UNHCR, p. 51: [http://www.unhcr.ch].
other non-traditional humanitarian assistance programs. Kosovo and East Timor are
the most recent examples of countries that received such help. Cambodia,
Mozambique, Angola, and El Salvador can be included as well. This rehabilitation
often involves foreign military personnel and civil servants, as well as humanitarian
assistance personnel and usually continues for years. UNHCR has also been required
to return refugees involuntarily to countries where they may still face danger because
the asylum country forces them back across the border.
Civilian and Military Roles in Humanitarian Assistance. Increasingly,
the roles of humanitarian agencies overlap with military assistance, as in Kosovo in
1999. Former UNHCR High Commissioner Ogata expressed concern over attempts
to bypass humanitarian agencies in high visibility crises, instead using military or
other newly-created governmental entities. She noted that military involvement has
sometimes undermined coordination among civilian humanitarian agencies and may
create the perception, in the eyes of the combatants, that refugees are parties to the
conflict.12 U.N. Secretary General Annan has also cautioned against mixing military
and humanitarian actions. He stressed that no government should fear that accepting
humanitarian aid will lead to military intervention.13 The use of military forces in
humanitarian assistance emergencies raises other thorny issues, such as how much
force should be used, and whom or what they should protect: refugees, humanitarian14
aid workers, or pallets of aid supplies?
Addressing the Causes of Refugee Flight
The causes of refugee flight are varied but generally involve violation of the
human rights of certain people and their persecution based on race, religion,
nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion. However,
many believe the underlying cause of refugee flight is more basic: conflict, poverty,
underdevelopment, overpopulation, and environmental degradation. There is
widespread agreement that prevention is the best way to address refugee flows.
President Clinton created the new position of Under Secretary for Global Affairs to
allow the Department of State to focus more attention on the underlying causes of
refugee flight. The Clinton Administration also reorganized the Bureau of Refugee
Programs to include population and migration, in order to consolidate all
departmental responsibility for these related matters. The Office of Transition
Initiatives (OTI) was also created as a part of a reorganized USAID humanitarian
emergency response capability. The office assists to countries recovering from
disasters in moving toward self government, sustained development, and permanent
12 “UNHCR: Ogata Warns Against Bypassing Refugee Agencies,” UN Wire, October 4,
13 See report “Protecting Civilians in Armed Conflict: Towards a Climate of Compliance,”
by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, September 1999.
14 For a more in-depth discussion of these issues, see NATO and Humanitarian Action in the
Kosovo Crisis by Larry Minear, Ted van Baarda, and Marc Sommers, Occasional Paper #36,
Humanitarianism and War Project at Tufts University, Medford, MA.
There are many international actors involved in addressing the worldwide
problems presented by refugees and IDPs. These include the United Nations, other
international organizations (IOs), intergovernmental agencies, NGOs, and private or
religious groups (PVOs). Two international agencies of particular importance in
dealing with international refugees are the UNHCR and the United Nations Relief
and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).
The Role of UNHCR
UNHCR has three main functions. First, it provides legal protection to those
who fall within its mandate. Governments establish procedures to determine who is
a refugee and his or her rights in accordance with their own legal systems. UNHCR
offers advice and non-binding guidelines to these governments. In countries which
are not party to international refugee treaties but request UNHCR assistance,
UNHCR may determine refugee status and offer its own protection and assistance.
The core rights accorded to refugees are acceptance of asylum seekers at the border,
non-forced repatriation (non-refoulement), protection of their safety, access to fair
and efficient procedures for determination of refugee status, the same rights and basic
help provided any other foreigner who is a legal resident, and appropriate lasting
solutions concerning their status.
Second, UNHCR seeks permanent solutions to refugee situations. In general,
there are three solutions for refugees: 1) voluntary repatriation, 2) local integration
in the country of first asylum, and 3) resettlement from the country of first asylum to
a third country. UNHCR prefers voluntary repatriation, whereby refugees return to
their home countries. If repatriation is impossible, the UNHCR seeks to locally
integrate the refugees and, if this is impossible, then seeks to resettle the refugees in
a third country.
Refugees and IDPs returning home are also assisted by UNHCR. These
repatriations often require follow-on rehabilitation of agricultural land and
infrastructure to ensure that the refugees can survive in homelands devastated by war.
Although in the long run repatriation is the best and least expensive solution, in the
short run it is often more expensive and dangerous than maintaining refugees in
camps. Additional complications may make the expense even higher.15 In many
recent cases, UNHCR has been urged to repatriate refugees in a short period of time
so that they can participate in elections in their homeland. At the same time, refugees
15 For example, between November 1996 and January 1997, warfare around and in the
camps where Rwandan refugees were sheltered in Zaire created an unstable environment.
Attempts to drive refugees from the camps by various factions, periods of prohibited contact
with the aid agencies, and the need to return many of them quickly to Rwanda all
contributed to a required UNHCR need for $114 million for repatriation and reintegration
of refugees to Rwanda alone for 1997. This amount did not include the many millions more
that were spent by other agencies such as United Nations Development Program (UNDP),
United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and the World Health Organization (WHO) for
activities to rehabilitate both the nations and the people who had been victims of war.
remaining in exile must be offered care and support to ensure that they are not
coerced into returning to a situation where their lives will be endangered.
Third, UNHCR also coordinates assistance from numerous NGOs that provide
emergency humanitarian relief to refugees, including shelter, food, and health care.
The Role of UNRWA
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the
Near East (UNRWA), established in 1949, provides relief assistance and programs
for Palestinian refugees.16 With a lack of resolution to the conflict between Israelis
and Palestinians, UNWRA’s mandate has been renewed ever since it began
operations in 1950 and is currently extended to June 2005. In keeping with its
mission, through all phases of events taking place in the Middle East, it has provided
food, housing, clothing, basic health and education services to over 3.9 million
Palestine refugees. Its role as provider to one group of refugees over 50 years is
unique and continues to be important in the evolving situation in the Middle East.
UNRWA is a subsidiary organ of the United Nations; its chief officer reports
directly to the General Assembly. It is governed by an Advisory commission of
which the United States is a member.
Overview of U.S. Refugee Assistance
Within the U.S. government, three agencies provide some form of international
refugee assistance. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and
the Department of Defense (DOD) receive funds under the broader category of
“humanitarian assistance.” The State Department also has specific programs
dedicated to addressing refugee issues. The next section will review briefly the roles
of each agency. Each is guided by specific legislative authority, including but not
limited to the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, as amended, the Migration and
Refugee Assistance Act of 1962, as amended, and the Refugee Act of 1980, as
amended. How Congress funds U.S. refugee assistance will be addressed later in the
While humanitarian assistance is assumed to consist of urgent food, shelter, and
medical needs, the U.S. Government agencies providing such support can expand or
contract the definition of humanitarian assistance in response to circumstances.
Funds may be used to deliver the service required directly or provided as grants to
16 The UNRWA was established by United Nations General Assembly resolution 302 (IV)
of December 8, 1949.
17 Specific legislation includes Title II of PL 480 (Food for Peace) appropriated through the
Department of Agriculture and administered by USAID; Section 416 (b) of the Agricultural
Act; Department of State Emergency Refugee and Migration Account; and Title 10, Section
For further information on these sources, please refer to Lois McHugh, International
Disasters: How the United States Responds, CRS Report RS20622, July 6, 2000.
IOs, foreign governmental agencies, NGOs, and PVOs, which in turn provide the
USAID has three offices that administer U.S. humanitarian aid some of which
goes directly to refugee assistance:
Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA). As part of the Bureau of
Humanitarian Response (BHR), it is responsible for the provision of non-food
humanitarian assistance. Most of its activities are carried out through IOs, NGOs and
PVOs; it often provides assistance through Disaster Assistance Response Teams
Food For Peace (FFP). FFP under PL 480 and Title II (including Title
II/World Food Program) provides relief and development food aid which does not
have to be repaid and includes an emergency and private assistance donations
program. In addition, Section 416 (b), managed by the U.S. Department of
Agriculture, allows for the donation of surplus U.S. agricultural commodities held
by the Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC.)
Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI). OTI provides post-disaster transition
assistance, which includes mainly short-term peace and democratization projects with
some attention to humanitarian concerns (e.g. community projects such as housing,18
electricity, water) but not emergency relief.
Department of Defense
Office of Humanitarian Assistance and Peacekeeping. DOD’s
mandate is to provide “transportation of humanitarian relief and for other
humanitarian purposes worldwide”19 using funds up to the amount appropriated by20
Congress every year. It provides humanitarian support to stabilize emergency
situations (as opposed to a military mission which focuses on security, military
deployments, force protection) and deals with a range of tasks from provision of
food, shelter and supplies, medical evacuations, disaster preparedness, coordination
with U.S. contractors, and camp construction. P.L. 99-145, as amended (Title 10
U.S. Code, Section 2547) authorizes donation of excess non-lethal supplies under the
18 Other departments within USAID may provide some form of refugee assistance, but it is
unclear how much. For example the aid program Support for East European Democracy Act
of 1989 (SEED) allocates resources to address women’s health, child survival, trauma
counseling and social welfare, and demining, activities which may well be considered by
some to be issues relevant to refugees.
19 P.L. 102-484, as amended (Title 10, Section 2551.)
20 Assessment often coordinated with OFDA.
21 The Denton Program allows DOD to provide transportation of privately donated
Department of State
Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM). PRM22 deals
with problems of refugees worldwide, conflict victims, and populations of concern
to UNHCR (now extended to IDPs). Assistance includes a range of services from
basic needs to community services to tolerance building and dialogue initiatives.
Key programs include refugee protection (asylum issues, identification, returns,23
tracing activities) and quick impact, small community projects.
U.S. Funding for MRA and ERMA
Migration and Refugee Assistance (MRA) Account
MRA funding is authorized in the legislation governing the Department of State
and appropriated in the Foreign Operations Appropriation legislation. (In addition,
under the provisions of the Refugee Act of 1980, the House and Senate Judiciary
Committees provide oversight of refugee admissions and assistance through a
required annual consultation with the Administration.) Because humanitarian
emergencies are growing in number, complexity, and size, MRA funding faces
enormous budget pressures, both from traditional foreign assistance programs and
from newly emerging national priorities. Moreover, the worldwide refugee situation
in general has put donor nations under increasing pressure to provide more funds.
The MRA includes four major components:
Overseas Refugee Assistance. Aid to refugees consists almost entirely
of contributions to IOs and to private voluntary organizations working under the
direction of such organizations in caring for refugees outside the United States. A
small amount, approximately 3%, is provided directly to private voluntary
organizations or to governments of first asylum countries. The primary international
agencies include UNHCR and the UNRWA. In the FY2003 request, the
Administration separated out (within Overseas Assistance) funding for migration.
These funds are expected to support efforts to promote orderly migration and provide
protection to vulnerable migrants, including victims of trafficking. Funds are
expected to go mainly to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). The
United States also contributes to the International Committee of the Red Cross
humanitarian cargo to foreign countries on military aircraft on a space-available basis.
22 When there is functional or programmatic overlap between USAID and PRM, they
coordinate with each other and define partners. Traditionally, PRM provides funds for
UNHCR and other multilateral actors; USAID creates bilateral arrangements with NGOs.
23 Further detail about the ERMA and MRA funding will be provided in the next section.
(ICRC), a private international humanitarian organization that acts as an intermediary
in situations of armed conflict.24
Refugees to Israel. The United States provides funding through a grant to
the United Israel Appeal to help finance the resettlement of Jewish refugees in Israel.
Refugee Admissions. Funding is provided to cover the costs of screening
and processing refugees for admission to the United States; medical examinations;
language training; cultural orientation; care and maintenance until they arrive in the
United States; and transportation loans for travel to the United States. It also
includes reception and placement grants to cover initial resettlement in the United
States. (The bulk of the domestic costs of refugee resettlement in the United States
is appropriated in the HHS authorization and appropriation legislation.)25
Administration. This category includes the costs of personnel and operating
expenses for the State Department Bureau of Refugee Programs, including PRM.
Table 1 shows amounts appropriated and how it was allocated for the last few
24 Unlike other IOs, the United States contributes to the regular budgets of these refugee
agencies through the Migration and Refugee Assistance appropriation rather than out of the
International Organization and Programs appropriation. UNHCR is also funded outside
the IO account.
25 For information on refugee admissions costs and appropriations, see CRS Report
RL31269, Refugee Admissions and Resettlement Policy, by Andorra Bruno and Katherine
Table 1. Migration and Refugee Assistance
(thousands of $)
Ref ugee $142,360a $92,900 $92,854 $92,000 $105,000
Overseas Refugee Assistance
Africa 144,235 154,847 190,900 195,600 195,600
Near East97,963108,250 106,959103,400103,400
Europe 310,083 a 57,692 104,153 88,000 77,000
Multiregional 67,215 73,286 58,569 57,700 56,600
Migr ationc –- –- –- 16,000 15,700
Subtotal 680,140 455,925 531,270 537,000 524,000
Refugees to Israel70,00060,00059,86860,00060,000
Administration13,470 13,800 15,01016,56516,565
Total $905,970 $622,625 b $699,002d $705,565 705,565
a P.L. 106-31, the FY1999 Emergency Supplemental Appropriations Act included funds for Kosovo
and appropriated $266 million for this account to be available until September 30, 2000. Of this
amount, $225.5 million was allocated to assistance in the regions, $40 million to resettlement
in the United States, and $0.5 million to administrative expenses. In FY1999, $97.9 million
was obligated and $166.6 million was carried forward to FY2000. The FY1999 Supplemental
Appropriation is discussed in CRS Report RL30083 by Larry Nowels.
b Of the $622.6 million appropriated in FY2000, $21.0 million was not made available until
September 30, 2000. This amount is included in the FY2000 column of the chart above.
c In FY2001, funds for Migration activities ($14.5 million ) were included within the individual
Overseas Assistance regions. Beginning in FY2002, they were combined into a new Overseas
d Of the $698.46 million appropriated in FY2001, $6.9 million was carried forward into FY2002 as
follows: Overseas Assistance East Asia ($771,000), Overseas Assistance Europe ($256,000),
Overseas Assistance South Asia ($2.7 million), Multiregional Activities ($390,000), and
Refugee Admissions ($2.8 million). These funds are included in the FY2001 column of the
e In addition to the $45.4 million appropriated for south Asia in FY2002, $100 million was available
from the Emergency Response Fund (P.L. 107-38).
Since the early 1990s, U.S. refugee expenditures have increased
substantially. The MRA budget grew from $449.7 million in FY1990 to nearly $671
million in FY1996, then leveled out at $650 million annually until FY1999. At the
same time, special appropriations for refugee emergencies and expenditures for
humanitarian programs in other accounts also increased. Refugee activities in the
Balkans brought considerable pressure to bear on the account beginning in FY1999.
Both Congress and the President have attempted to keep refugee expenditures in the
foreign aid budget level since that time partly because of budget pressures to reduce
the entire International Affairs budget function (function 150), of which refugee
assistance is a piece, and also because of other new or growing emphases in the
foreign aid program. Refugee needs in general are difficult to predict as is the
funding required, making planning for future expenditures difficult.
P.L. 107-115 was signed into law on January 10, 2002 and appropriated $705
million for the MRA and $15 million for ERMA for FY2002. For FY2003, the
President requested $705 million for the Migration and Refugee Assistance account.
The Senate Committee on Appropriations (S.Rept. 107-219, on S. 2779)
recommended $782 million for MRA and $32 million for ERMA; the House
Appropriations Committee (House Rept. 107-663, on H.R. 5410) recommended $800
million for the MRA and $20 million for ERMA. Authorization legislation enacted
as P.L. 107-228, authorizes $820 in each of FY2002 and FY2003 for the MRA.
Emergency Refugee and Migration Assistance (ERMA)
Because refugee emergencies occur at unpredictable intervals, the United States
established ERMA in 1962. This account is a no year account which may be drawn
upon at the President’s discretion without fiscal year limitations. It is replenished
through additional appropriations as necessary. The fund is available until spent26
and provides wide latitude to the President in responding to refugee emergencies.
Emergencies lasting more than a year come out of the regular Migration and Refugee
Account through PRM. The President must report the drawdown of this fund to
Congress. Table 2 shows appropriations for, and drawdowns in, ERMA in response
to refugee emergencies in recent years. The appropriation for FY2002 was $15
million and the FY2003 request is also $15 million.
26 Governed by P.L. 103-326, the maximum amount is $100 million. Authorized in sections
Table 2. ERMA Appropriations and Drawdown
(millions of $)
Approp. 79.3 50.0 50.0 50.0 50.0 195.0 12.5 15.0 15.0
Drawdown 81.0 35.0 22.0 53.0 57.0 85.0 40.0 82.0 25.0
* P.L. 106-31 appropriated an additional $165 million for ERMA for FY1999 in response to the
Kosovo emergency. This is in addition to the $30 million appropriated in the regular
U.S. Contribution to UNHCR
The total budget of the UNHCR tripled in the early 1990s as a result of
increasingly complex humanitarian situations. The calendar year (CY) 2002 budget
was $1.05 billion. The CY2003 budget appeal is $876.5 million, although it is likely
that this number will be increased through supplemental requests to cover new
emergencies. Raising money in a timely fashion has become increasingly difficult
for the international agencies, both for humanitarian assistance programs and for
repatriation programs. Since many countries earmark their funds for specific
programs, the shortages are not spread evenly to all the humanitarian emergencies or
even to all programs in a country. Other disaster agencies have similar patterns of
uneven expenditures. The UNHCR has expressed concern that the continuing failure
of donors to meet the funding needs of the humanitarian aid programs means that
UNHCR has not been able to meet the very real needs of refugees, returnees, and
IDPs. The high level of contributions of rich nations to the Kosovo crisis and lack of
contributions to African crises have established what is described by some as a
double standard. Although UNHCR receives donations from a large number of
governments, inter-governmental organizations, private voluntary agencies and
individuals, nearly 95% of the funds contributed come from 15 donors – fourteen
industrialized countries and the European Commission. The U.S. government is the
largest contributor to UNHCR, providing at least 25% of all contributions. U.S.
funding to UNHCR comes through two channels: a small portion for administrative
expenses comes from U.N. assessed dues through the Commerce, Justice, and State
appropriation, and voluntary contributions through the Foreign Operations
appropriation. In FY2002, the U.S. voluntary contribution to UNHCR was $255
Until U.S. FY2003 funding has been appropriated, programs will continue to
operate at FY2002 funding levels. A key concern is whether UNHCR will receive
adequate contributions from the United States in FY2003. The State Department’s
Population, Refugees, and Migration Bureau expects to have refugee needs equal to
FY2002 and there could be a significant shortage in refugee program funding,
including funding to UNHCR. Any additional funds would depend on the possibility
of a supplemental appropriation (with a likely delay in funding of UNHCR
Since 1999, UNHCR’s annual budget has seen shortfalls, which have resulted
in cutting planned programs.27 Since UNHCR relies primarily on voluntary
contributions, it depends on the annual generosity of its donors and cannot anticipate
from year-to-year how much money will be available nor how much it will have to
spend. Some pledged contributions are also late. These problems create a general
cash availability crisis. In February 2002, UNHCR froze its administrative budgets.
As of June 30, 2002, only $678 million had been received as income, which led to
an 11% decrease in planned programs. The UNHCR annual budget was cut in
Calendar Year (CY) 2002 from just over $800 million to $710 million. According
to UNHCR, these funding shortfalls have most seriously affected programs in Africa,
as well as in Thailand, Papua New Guinea, and the Caucasus.28
While UNHCR continues to encourage contributions from additional
governments, the small number of donors, in addition to earmarking contributions
for particular refugee situations or programs, has led to problems funding refugee
emergencies. The unpredictability of global conflicts also contribute to UNHCR’s
financial difficulties. UNHCR cannot fully anticipate the extent and costs of new
refugee emergencies. During CY2002, UNHCR had to make a supplemental appeal
to fund new emergency needs in Afghanistan, Macedonia, East Timor, Liberia,
Angola, and Zambia, as well as the new programs to protect U.N. personnel. For
CY2003, UNHCR has made another supplemental appeal. UNHCR has introduced
new mechanisms to improve its funding flows, including the creation of an
operational reserve to cover some emergencies and other unexpected costs.
The Debate in Congress
Recent debate in Congress over the refugee budget has included both the
funding issues facing all the programs in the foreign aid account and the policy
differences that arise both between the Administration and the Congress and within
Congress over U.S. refugee policy.
The number of refugees admitted to the United States for resettlement is set
every year in consultation between the Administration and Congress. This is a
requirement of the Refugee Act of 1980, as amended. The initial costs of resettling
refugees in the United States are financed through the MRA. The number of refugees
admitted dropped during the Clinton Administration from 113,000 admitted in
FY1994 to 70,000 in FY1997. The Clinton Administration expected to continue
these reductions based on fewer admissions from the former Soviet Union and
27 2002 Global Appeal, p. 16.
28 Some European countries have contributed new funds. “More money trickles in for U.N.
refugee agency after urgent appeal,” Agence France-Presse, October 25, 2002.
Southeast Asia. Refugees located in camps throughout Southeast Asia that the
United States pledged to accept under the Comprehensive Plan of Action (CPA, a
1989 international agreement to address the refugee crisis in Southeast Asia), have
mostly been admitted. Most of the Amerasians and former political prisoners have
also been admitted to the United States. The number of Soviet Jews and
Evangelicals admitted also continues to fall.
Some members of Congress do not support this reduction in refugee admissions.
The FY1998 resettlement ceiling was raised to 83,000 largely at the urging of
Congress. The actual number admitted in FY1998 was 77,080. (The FY1999 ceiling
was raised in mid year to 91,000 to include Kosovars who were added on an
emergency basis and the FY2000 admission level of 90,000 continued to reflect that
resettlement need.) Actual figures show the FY1999 total as 85,525; FY2000
admissions came to 73,147. For FY2001, 69,304 refugees were admitted (with a
ceiling of 80,000) and by contrast, following the terrorist events of September 11,
2001 and greater security concerns, in FY2002 only 27,113 were admitted. The
ceiling established for FY2003 is 70,000.29
Finding Funds for Emergency Assistance
The cost of responding to refugee and humanitarian emergencies has risen.
Pressure on the Foreign Affairs budget, the 150 account, caused by rising emergency
costs, has led to concerns about the bilateral development assistance programs. In
the last few years, many of the private voluntary agencies working in the
development field, as well as U.N. and U.S. development specialists have expressed
concern that the rising costs of emergency assistance are reducing the amount of
money available for development assistance.
Several approaches have been used to address the growing need for refugee
assistance and the anticipated growth in refugee repatriation needs without further
draining the development aid accounts. For example, in response to the need to help
Kurdish refugees displaced after the Persian Gulf War in 1991, Congress transferred
interest on money from the Persian Gulf Regional Defense Fund and Defense
Cooperation Account, two funds established to channel contributions from other
countries to counterbalance U.S. Iraqi war expenses. A supplemental appropriation
in FY1994 provided assistance for the Rwanda emergencies. Supplemental
legislation enacted in the Spring of 1999 (P.L. 106-31) reimbursed the agencies and
provided new funding for aid both in Central America and the Caribbean, for natural
disaster response, and to pay for humanitarian assistance to Kosovo. The
29 For information on refugee admissions policy, see CRS Report RL31269, Refugee
Admissions and Resettlement Policy, by Andorra Bruno and Katherine Bush. For further
information on admission issues, see CRS Issue Brief IB10103, Immigration Legislation andth
Issues in the 107 Congress, by Andorra Bruno; CRS Report RS20836, Immigrationth
Legislation in the 106 Congress, by Ruth Ellen Wasem. For information on allowances
for victims of trafficking, see CRS Report RL30545, Trafficking in Women and Children:
The U.S. and International Response, by Francis T. Miko and Grace Park.
Administration requested an FY2000 supplemental to meet the continuing needs in
Kosovo and most recently in the FY2002 supplemental request for Afghanistan.30
Improving the Efficiency of International Refugee Programs
Meeting the growing need for humanitarian assistance to refugees in other
countries within a constrained budget can also be helped by improving the
effectiveness and efficiency of international refugee organizations. The Clinton
administration emphasized the need for efficiency in the U.N. refugee agencies.
Consolidation of humanitarian assistance programs, which partly address refugee
issues, was one of the Department of State’s suggestions for U.N. reform. In the
United Nations, OCHA now issues consolidated appeals for major humanitarian
emergencies. These appeals simplify donations and eliminate overlap and
competition among the agencies included such as UNHCR, UNICEF, World Food
Program (WFP), and WHO.31
30 For information and discussion of Supplemental appropriations between FY1999 and
FY2002, see CRS Reports by Larry Nowels on this topic by fiscal year.
31 UNHCR has also approached the information technology industry to add its talents and
tools to help refugees. During the Kosovo crisis, UNHCR received assistance from
Microsoft, Compaq, Hewlett-Packard, Canon, Kingston Technology, Security World Ltd,
and ScreenCheck B.V. in the development of a computerized refugee registration and
documentation kit. The kit will be adapted to other refugee situations.