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Senate Foreign Aid Bill Would Slash Refugee Aid

U.S funding for refugees could be cut by hundreds of millions of dollars next year under the Senate’s proposed spending plan even as a global humanitarian crisis, spurred by the exodus of millions of people from their homes in Afghanistan, Iraq, and especially Syria, grows steadily worse.

The Senate’s fiscal 2016 foreign aid (S. 1725) bill would reduce by 14 percent, or $415 million, the Migration and Refugee Assistance account, which is currently funded at just under $3.06 billion.

Renewed domestic attention has focused on the plight of Syrian refugees following the publication last week of pictures of a drowned Syrian toddler washed ashore on a Turkish beach and wall-to-wall media coverage of the efforts of tens of thousands of migrants, mostly Syrian refugees, to attempt the dangerous trek into and through Europe.

“What is happening in Europe right now is an emergency within an emergency,” said Kari Diener, deputy director of advocacy for Mercy Corps. “It’s saying the U.S. and other donor countries must pay attention to the crisis in Syria.”

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in late August reported it has only 41 percent of what it needs to meet the needs of registered Syrian refugees for the rest of the year, a funding gap of nearly $800 million. And the World Food Program announced last week that due to lack of funds it had to remove one-third of Syrian refugees living in the region, including 229,000 people in Jordan, from its already scaled-back food voucher program, according to the Associated Press.

The potential for Congress to significantly reduce fiscal 2016 appropriations to the refugee assistance account under the State-Foreign Operations spending bill is worrisome to aid advocates, particularly as the United States is traditionally relied upon to make up for shortfalls in international aid needs when other donor countries fall short of their pledges. The Syria crisis is no different, they say.

Nearly 60 million people were displaced globally in 2014 – the highest number ever recorded, according to a June report from UNHCR. That means roughly one in every 122 people is either internally displaced inside his or her own country, a refugee or seeking asylum. Only 37.5 million people were displaced a decade ago.

The possible cut to the Migration and Refugee Assistance account, which provides necessities to refugees and other displaced people, is a result of the mandatory spending caps ordered by the Budget Control Act.

House Would Keep Refugee Aid Steady

The House State-Foreign Operations spending bill (HR 2772) would keep funding stable at fiscal 2015 levels while the Obama administration requested a decrease in funding of about $600 million.

“The big surprise for us was that the Senate was more than $400 million below [enacted levels],” said Ann Vaughan, director of policy and advocacy at Mercy Corps. “They even used some of this emergency funding and it still wasn’t enough.”

Given that more money for refugees could have been appropriated through emergency funds, it is a big question why the account was not leaned on more heavily to make up the entire $415 million difference, she said.

“The normal narrative is that the Senate is very strong on these accounts,” Vaughan said. “We generally lean on them to have these higher numbers” that are then reconciled with the lower numbers in the House bill.

In addition to enduring funding, the Senate bill used both Overseas Contingency Operations and emergency spending, neither of which is subject to mandatory spending caps, to reach $2.64 billion for the refugee account.

The legislation notes carryover balances totaling $415 million that could be used to make up the shortfall from enacted levels. However, aid advocates argue that carryover balances are traditionally used by the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development to meet the needs of unforeseen emergencies such as the back-to-back earthquakes in Nepal earlier this year.

“We need a full budget, plus carryover,” Diener said. “Budgeting in this way creates a very bad precedent.”

In the short-term, the refugee assistance account will likely remain stable as a stopgap funding bill looks likely to be passed to prevent a government shutdown when the current fiscal cycle ends on Sept. 30. In any following bipartisan, bicameral talks on a sweeping fiscal 2016 spending deal, House lawmakers looking protect refugee funding will have an ally in Senate Democrats.

Senate Appropriations Ranking Member Barbara A. Mikulski is prioritizing securing an additional $415 million for the refugee account to keep it equal to current levels.

“We’re hoping in conference that that [Senate] number would be restored back up to the current enacted level for fiscal 2016,” said Mark Lotwis, vice president for policy and government relations at InterAction, a coalition of more than 160 humanitarian organizations. “We are well aware of the tough budget environment.”

Vaughan said she was gratified to see that both the Senate and House bills kept funding levels constant at nearly $1.9 billion for the International Disaster Assistance account, which helps internally displaced peoples of which there are an estimated 7.6 million in Syria alone. The administration had requested a decrease to the count of $154 million.

“Every year, the administration low-balls the requested amounts for the humanitarian accounts and then Congress has to go back and plus-them to amounts that are reasonable,” the Mercy Corps official said. “We look to Congress to save the day.”

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