Four things you can do to support refugees

AsylumAccess_KnowYourRights_Sandra ten Zijthoff
photo from Asylum Access

by Kate Hovde

On January 27th, 2017, the president of the United States issued an Executive Order restricting access to the United States for two groups: a) all refugees, regardless of place of origin or status of their applications to be admitted to the U.S.; and b) citizens from seven nations (including those who had been already been issued visas, such as students, tourists visiting family, etc.). This order, which is currently being litigated in U.S. courts, has brought renewed attention to the plight of refugees. Currently, there are estimated to be 65 million displaced persons worldwide, 21.3 million of whom are considered refugees. Over half of these are children.1 In all, the ongoing refugee crisis is considered the worst since World War II.

Nearly a fourth of refugees are composed of those fleeing the ongoing conflict in Syria. An estimated 4.8 million Syrians have fled their country. Even before the Executive Order, the vast majority of these refugees were unlikely to gain access to the United States, but instead are either internally displaced or have been taken in by neighboring countries like Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan, which are struggling and/or reluctant to support them. Most of these refugees are living in large camps, in extremely poor conditions. Turkey now has over 2.7 million Syrian refugees, and Lebanon has over 1 million. As a donor, here’s how you can help:

1) Support the majority of refugees where they are with critical humanitarian aid:

There are a number of organizations providing critical relief on the ground, both in Syria and in countries where refugees have fled. Here is a sampling of those groups:

  • Médecins Sans Frontières operates six, and provides support to approximately 150 medical facilities in Syria.
  • Mercy Corps provides food, water, sanitation, hygiene, and shelter. It also builds playgrounds, sports fields, and other places for children to play and provides psychosocial support programs to help kids deal with trauma.
  • Oxfam International provides clean drinking water, cash, relief supplies, and connection to medical, legal, and support services. Oxfam has also built shower and toilet blocks in refugee camps, informal settlements, and on deserted routes used by refugees.
  • Save the Children provides food and medicine, helps maintain schools, repairs water systems, distributes hygiene kits, and provides safe spaces for children.
  • UNICEF delivers immunizations, clean water, food, education, physical protection, and clothing to children.
  • UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) delivers rescue kits (thermal blanket, towel, water, food and clothing) to survivors arriving at refugee camps; runs reception centers where refugees can be registered and receive medical care; provides temporary emergency shelter; and provides specialist support and care to children traveling alone.
  • World Food Programme provides food for approximately four million people monthly within Syria and is also providing cash for food for refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq.
  • The White Helmets (Syria Civil Defence) are 2,900 volunteers from local communities who provide search and rescue services and medical aid in response to daily bomb and mortar explosions—often risking their own lives in the process.

2) Support a flexible fund to respond to the situation as it evolves: For donors who want to amplify their impact by working collectively, the Center for Disaster Philanthropy (CDP) is seeking additional funding for their Global Refugee Crisis Fund. Funding decisions for the Refugee Crisis Fund benefit from the expertise of both disaster relief and area experts, and a first round of grants to benefit women and children in Syria has already been allocated. CDP is also a source of additional guidance for donors interested in funding in this area.

3) Help shift local laws and provide legal counsel: Governments historically have barred refugees from working, starting businesses, and supporting themselves. Therefore, the amount of humanitarian aid needed is greater because countries taking in refugees often do little to help refugees rebuild their lives. For donors interested in investing in increased self-sufficiency and longer-term stability for refugees, a few groups are working to change laws and broaden opportunities:

  • Asylum Access works to change legal frameworks in refugee-hosting countries so refugees can meet their own needs (donate here). It provides assistance to help refugees gain legal status and work permits.
  • The International Refugee Assistance Project provides legal aid to refugees who wish to resettle from their first countries of refuge to the U.S. How, where, and whether this work will continue depends in part on legal resolution on the refugee issue within the U.S. courts;
  • Refugee Rights Turkey, which U.S. donors can support via the US-based refugee Solidarity Network, provides legal aid to refugees seeking asylum in Turkey, and advocates to improve Turkey’s laws so refugees there can access their rights.

4) Support refugees who have gained entrance to the United States. Refugees who have been admitted to the U.S. have already gone through an extensive vetting process which includes in-person interviews, fingerprinting, health screenings and background checks by various U.S. agencies, including Homeland Security.2 This process can take up to two years. Donors interested in helping refugees who have been able to gain access to the United States can consider supporting agencies working on resettlement. A list of agencies can be found at:

Note: We have removed Oxfam International from this list pending investigations into allegations of staff misconduct and misuse of funds in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake.