How to Help in a Global Refugee Crisis

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Worldwide a staggering number of people have been displaced, a large portion of them Syrians. Those moved to send financial aid can find some of the best options here.

How to Help in a Global Refugee Crisis - New York Times
A migrant boy is seen through a bus window in Greece. Nearly 60 million people around the world were forced from their homes because of war, conflict or persecution last year. Credit Milos Bicanski/Getty Images

Nearly 60 million people around the world were displaced from their homes because of war, conflict or persecution last year, a level not seen since World War II. And Syrian people accounted for roughly 11 million of them.

It is hard to process numbers that large, and the many tragic stories behind them. But a single photograph of a 3-year-old Syrian boy who drowned and lay lifeless on a Turkish beach in September humanized the refugee crisis for many people. The boy’s father also lost his wife and another son, as the family crossed the Mediterranean into Greece for a chance at an ordinary life.

After more than four years of civil war, the Syrians face a plight that is far from over. And many charitable individuals, particularly during the holiday season, may be moved to find the most effective ways to help.

Donors who want to help face questions familiar to aid organizations: How does one most effectively deploy limited sums of money to help the most people? Where is the need most dire?

While many refugees are trying to migrate to Europe, Syria’s neighboring countries are under the greatest strain since they are hosting the largest numbers of refugees. In Lebanon, for instance, Syrian refugees now account for between a quarter and a third of the population, according to the International Rescue Committee. Jordan is hosting 630,000 registered refugees, which, the group says, would be the equivalent of the United States’ absorbing the population of Britain.

How to Help in a Global Refugee Crisis - New York Times
Emily E. Arnold-Fernandez is the executive director of Asylum Access, a nonprofit organization that helps refugees with basic human and legal rights. Credit Jim Wilson/The New York Times

“To help the greatest number of refugees, you need first to understand where those refugees are located, and second, to support the organizations addressing refugee needs on the ground,” said Katherina M. Rosqueta, founding executive director of the Center for High Impact Philanthropy at the University of Pennsylvania.

Meeting refugees’ day-to-day needs is vital, but aid workers also urge donors to think about supporting charities trying to solve problems that will help families over the longer term.

“It’s easy to get people who will write a check to help people in immediate need,” said Emily E. Arnold-Fernández, executive director at Asylum Access, a nonprofit advocacy group that focuses on refugees’ human and legal rights.

“But if you are willing to be a little more strategic with your philanthropic dollars, they can go a lot further.”

For instance, many refugees — half of whom are under the age of 18 — are not permitted to work or go to school in the countries where they are living.

That makes it impossible to rebuild their lives, and often tempts families to take dangerous journeys abroad. But some organizations provide schooling for children in the neighboring countries, for instance, or help refugees with legal advice and job skills.

And letting a charity decide how to use donors’ dollars — instead of asking it, say, to use the money for food or blankets — is also helpful because needs often shift rapidly. “You are making a gift to a crisis that is changing moment to moment,” Ms. Arnold-Fernández added.

There are about 4.4 million Syrian refugees outside Syria, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and an additional 6.5 million Syrians who have been uprooted inside their country.

Resettling a small number of them in the United States has become a political issue in recent months, as several Republican governors, presidential candidates and members of Congress opposed plans to accommodate 10,000 refugees. But some charity workers said that opposition spurred others to give.

Several tools below provide guidance on where to donate, as well as a sampling of well-regarded organizations to which donors can give directly:
Hope for Syria is a one-stop shop of sorts, since it will evenly divide donations among nine well-regarded nonprofits — including Catholic Relief Services, HIAS and Islamic Relief USA. These groups focus on several aspects of the crisis, including helping those inside Syria and resettlements in the United States. “If you wanted to give to one place where it meets all of the points, that is the group,” said Sam Worthington, chief executive of InterAction, an alliance of 195 American nongovernmental organizations working overseas.

InterAction, whose nonprofit members must meet certain governance standards, also has a dedicated page on its website that lists several of its members that are helping Syrian refugees. Filters on the site can help donors locate charities that focus on a specific issue, like refugee camp management, helping children or education.

■ Charity Navigator has a list of its top 19 charities involved in the Syrian crisis, which all have been granted at least three of four possible stars using its rating system. The stars are awarded based on a charity’s financial health and efficiency, accountability and transparency. Charity Navigator is working on adding another component that will include charities’ results and outcomes, which are challenging to measure but more illuminating, said Michael Thatcher, the group’s president. He suggests that donors vetting charities look at an organization’s website to see if it publishes any evidence of results.

■ The International Rescue Committee is a group highly rated by charity trackers and professionals that helps refugees at every juncture. The group is now working to set up a reception center on the Greek island of Lesbos, where many Syrians seeking refuge in Europe land after traversing the dangerous route — often on rubber dinghies — from Turkey.

Roughly 2,000 of its workers are providing aid to displaced people inside Syria, as well as those in neighboring countries and in Greece. Beyond food and shelter, they also provide health care and protection services for vulnerable women and children, and programs to help develop long-term job skills. The group, which aims to raise $33 million over the next year for these programs, also helps resettle refugees in 26 cities across the United States.

Oxfam America is helping Syrians in their home country — as well as in Jordan and Lebanon — with clean water, sanitation and other vital items. That might include cash and supplies like blankets and stoves, or vouchers for hygiene supplies. They are also helping families get the information about their rights, while connecting them to medical and legal services. Individuals can earmark donations for the crises in the Middle East, though the organization said it is often best to give to its general fund, which enables it to be more nimble.

Doctors Without Borders has a limited presence in Syria, particularly after the abduction of some staff members last year and the partial destruction of a medical facility in November that killed seven people. But it still operates six medical facilities in northern Syria — which provide vaccinations, maternity care and burn treatment — and directly supports 150 health posts and field hospitals in the country. The doctors also help refugees in neighboring countries including Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq, and have operated search-and-rescue ships in the Mediterranean, which, to date, have rescued more than 18,000 people attempting the voyage to Europe.

Save the Children helps refugees in several ways, by providing emergency aid and health care and rebuilding damaged classrooms and supporting schools, inside Syria and in neighboring countries. The organization supports 55 schools in northern Syria. It also supports six health-care facilities that provide medical services and 24-hour emergency care for pregnant women inside Syria. It runs child-friendly spaces for children affected by the conflict as well, which provide a sense of normalcy.

■ A regional group of 200 organizations, called 3RP, is coordinating programs supporting Syrian refugees and tried to collectively raise $4.5 billion in 2015. But it had received only about half that amount by the end of November. The groups include various United Nations agencies, including its refugee agency and the World Food Program. The food program assists more than 1.3 million Syrian refugees in five neighboring countries through the use of electronic cards, which they use to buy food. When the program is fully funded, each refugee will receive $27 a month. Last month, it dipped to $21 — or about 70 cents a day.

Given the enormous number of uprooted Syrians, the crisis has dominated the headlines. But aid workers said that people might also consider the millions of other refugees who have been forced to escape horrific conditions in other corners of the world. Rising numbers of Afghan refugees face their own challenges, while Burundi, in Africa, is on the verge of a civil war. Mass killings have civilians living in fear, and more than 200,000 have reportedly fled into neighboring countries like Tanzania.

“This has gotten almost no attention in the popular mind-set, yet people are being forced to leave their homes behind,” said Ms. Arnold-Fernández of Asylum Access. “And nobody is noticing.”


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