Most people don’t know anything about the shadow UN government providing food, housing, education and documents to almost 100 million people around the world. The “citizens” of this de-territorialized state are refugees, displaced persons, stateless people and others who are warehoused like criminals in giant, open air camps, usually without the right to leave.
These camps are run by a network of humanitarian organizations: UNHCR (refugees and stateless people except Palestinians), UNRWA (Palestinian refugees), WFP (victims of conflict and natural disasters), UNICEF (children in need) and others The collective mandate of these organizations is to keep people alive while they are waiting for their lives to resume. The lie of the system is that some day, in the distant future, things will return to “normal” and all the displaced people in the world will be able to go home.
Most of these agencies are actually separate from the main UN system and get their money from a separate fundraising process. This gives member states more control over their budgets than for the UN as a whole. According to OCHA, the UN agency that coordinates aid, the cost of these programs is just over 25 billion dollars. (In case you were wondering, that’s the same amount the US plans to spend on 100 new bomber jets.) This target is never met and there is never enough money, but over the last few years, the UN has managed to scrounge together enough to limp through the year.
In refugee camps, IDP camps and other places reliant on humanitarian aid, these UN agencies serve as a de-facto government for millions, providing food, housing and education. Keeping a minimum standard of living traps millions in long-term camps without hope or future. But it does keep people alive.
2018 is going to be different for the citizens of camp-states. It’s going to be worse.
Trump has already cut the budget for UNRWA in half is getting ready to slash the US contribution for many other agencies. Cuts to Syrian aid will affect not only Syrian refugees, but neighboring host countries like Lebanon. These cuts will bite deep: the US provides the majority of humanitarian aid in the world, though this accounts for less than 0.1% of our budget (not including military aid.)
As Reuters puts it, “(w)hile the United Nations said more money may still come in, Washington is reviewing its Syria policy, including humanitarian support, and Trump has questioned the value of such aid.” Meanwhile, the cuts to UNRWA will start to kick in beginning in June, when emergency food in Gaza begins to run out.
What will happen around the world when aid agencies can no longer provide a minimum standard of living in refugee camps?
What’s missing from many conversations about foreign aid is the fact of globalization and global migration. Foreign aid is still spoken of in terms of the Marshall Plan, where the goal of US aid is to spread our way of life and political system to other countries. Little thought is given to the intersection between humanitarian emergencies and migration, despite the clear example of the Syrian war.
Under the current system, rich countries like the United States give the UN money to keep refugees and displaced people in camps, far from US borders, and to cut down on the need for migration. Is this fair or just? No. But it is part of our government’s decades’ long strategy to cut down on people smuggling and keep migrants away. While this strategy may be morally reprehensible and racist, if you could distill it down to one word, that word would probably be “practical.” If the Trump administration's approach could be described in one word, that word would probably be “punitive.”
Cutting foreign aid will likely cause a massive humanitarian crisis in multiple points around the world, prompting an enormous surge out of camps and into the global migration system, a network increasingly earning billions for organized crime. No longer to refugees and migrants flee to neighboring countries, now they enter a global migration system that is linked together and may encompass thousands of miles. A person from Afghanistan may enter the US via Mexico. A Guatemalan woman may end up trafficked to Japan. Overwhelmed UN agencies will be unable to stop this from happening. Asylum systems in receiving countries may be shut down, causing receiving states to shut their borders.
Voters in the US and other rich countries will likely demand increasingly harsh “solutions.” At what point does even a wall seem like it’s not enough? At what point does migration into the US become a “state of emergency” in the eyes of many voters, perhaps necessitating a response from the military? How would a showman like Donald Trump spin such a scenario? We may be about to find out.