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U.S. Must Not Dismantle Population, Refugees and Migration Bureau

Stripping the refugee agency out of the State Department would weaken humanitarian priorities in U.S. policy, argues former USAID official Jeremy Konyndyk. He says the White House’s motives for pushing this reform should be questioned.

Written by Jeremy Konyndyk Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
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An activist from the Church World Service holds up a poster in front of the Capitol in Washington, D.C. on September 27, 2017. The protest urged Congress to pressure U.S. president Donald Trump to allow more refugees to enter the country. ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP/Getty Images

It has been a rough year for the State Department’s Population, Refugees and Migration bureau – colloquially known as “PRM.” Speculation about PRM’s future has swirled following the Trump administration’s moves to curtail refugee admissions and a proposal by the White House Domestic Policy Council to eliminate the bureau and distribute its components to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS; resettlement and migration policy) and USAID (assistance funding).

Most observers agree that resettlement and migration functions should stay at State, but the question of whether assistance funds should shift to USAID has gotten more traction. These two matters are likely linked – stripping PRM of its program funds would leave it greatly diminished and far more vulnerable to a DHS takeover. But the issue of program coherence nonetheless remains an important one to address on the merits.

The office I used to lead – USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) – would be a major beneficiary of such a change. Shifting PRM’s assistance portfolio to USAID would roughly triple OFDA’s budget, adding nearly $3 billion a year to its existing $1.5 billion appropriation.

So it may be surprising that I have deep reservations about this idea. Why? I fear that diminishing or removing an empowered humanitarian voice from the State Department weakens humanitarian priorities in U.S. policy writ large. And I believe there are ways to address legitimate concerns about the existing structure without dismantling PRM. Let’s dive in.

First, it is important to acknowledge that there are downsides to the current setup. In an era that demands greater coherence from the humanitarian system, U.S. humanitarian assistance remains split across three offices – two at USAID (OFDA and Food for Peace [FFP]) and State/PRM. Each has a different focus – food, refugees and everything that isn’t food or refugees. In 2017, these are no longer sensible dividing lines for humanitarian assistance. Food and non-food aid must be mutually reinforcing in order to be effective, and the assistance needs of refugees and non-refugees are often broadly similar. Moreover, these divisions mean each office funds programs in different ways, with its own redundant grant procedures, reporting requirements and programming tactics (more on this below).

The argument for folding PRM’s funding into USAID is primarily about streamlining this outdated assistance model. Doing so (along with an anticipated merger of OFDA and FFP within USAID) would consolidate all U.S. humanitarian funding into a single bureau at USAID. This could lend greater alignment to U.S. humanitarian assistance strategy, enable the U.S. to speak with one voice (rather than three) in U.N. agency governing bodies, and harmonize the very different funding approaches that USAID and State/PRM now employ.

If that were the end of the story, I could wholeheartedly support such a move. But it is not.

For humanitarian action is not just about aid – it is also about protection. This requires diplomatic and policy engagement – areas in which the State Department plays a key role and often carries a lot more weight than USAID.

Somalis fleeing into Kenya, South Sudanese fleeing into Uganda, Syrians fleeing into Jordan or Burmese Rohingya fleeing into Bangladesh don’t just need food, shelter, water and health assistance. They also need legal protection, respect for their human rights, and access to job markets and education systems. Under international law, they need a process in place for making asylum claims, and for ensuring they will not be forced back to life-threatening conditions in their home country (a legal principle known as non-refoulement).

These are, fundamentally, foreign policy matters. They are best pursued with refugee-hosting governments through diplomatic channels. A message on non-refoulement carries more weight coming from the ambassador than from a USAID mission director. PRM keeps State Department leadership attuned to these issues, and ensures they are raised diplomatically when needed. PRM’s stature within the department – and, in turn, an ambassador’s ability to negotiate refugee protection with a host government – is heavily tied to PRM’s program budget. It is a truism in government – but an accurate one – that controlling resources gives leverage at the policy table.

Leaving PRM’s policy functions in State while moving its programming to USAID is a recipe for marginalizing this aspect of humanitarian action. Inside State, PRM would get far less traction because – when stripped of its $3 billion budget – it would be seen (accurately) as a much weaker player. Leverage with host governments would be diminished, as well, because PRM’s policy engagement would no longer be backed up by substantial program funds.

And weakening PRM doesn’t just weaken U.S. refugee policy – it weakens U.S. humanitarian policy. In the interagency policy process, having strong and empowered humanitarian voices at both State and USAID helps amplify humanitarian perspectives in deliberations. And PRM is an important go-to for the secretary of state; on humanitarian matters, PRM typically holds more sway with the secretary than anyone at USAID outside of the administrator.

Marginalizing this channel will permanently erode the priority of the humanitarian concerns reaching the secretary’s desk – and that, in turn, will send signals throughout the rest of the department.

The views expressed in this article belong to the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

longer version of this piece was originally appeared on the blog of the Center for Global Development.

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