Reflections on the Global Refugee Crisis: Bridging Divides, Sharing a Commitment to All Humanity

"Reflections on the Global Refugee Crisis: Bridging Divides, Sharing a Commitment to All Humanity," by Taryn Higashi

Unbound Philanthropy’s broad aspiration is to welcome all newcomers and to strengthen communities. We work to ensure that migrants, refugees, and all people are treated with respect and can live with dignity, regardless of where they were born, their race or religion, their gender or sexual orientation, or their socioeconomic status.

Since we are a foundation that focuses on migration, over the past several months we have been giving careful thought to how to assess and respond to the global refugee crisis. By necessity, we concentrate on particular parts of the migration picture where our specific background and expertise are most likely to help improve the lives of newcomers. In the US, for example, we work to promote the most secure status possible for undocumented immigrants with deep roots in the country. In the UK, we focus on implementing existing pathways to legal status and citizenship for asylum seekers and undocumented youth. In both countries, we support efforts of newcomers and receiving communities to know, understand, and accept one another.

As countries in the West are forced to confront refugee crises and terrorist threats that people in other regions have endured for decades, we stand by our values. We remain committed to nondiscrimination and the dignity of all people, in a world where everyone can realize their potential.

We have been speaking with funding colleagues, grantees, and other experts to hear their response to the crisis as we work to articulate our best contribution. Here is what we’re hearing about the challenges that confront us all and how our grantees and other organizations are responding, followed by our reflections and next steps.

The global context

2015 has brought immigration, asylum, and refugee resettlement front and center in the minds of the public and policymakers, with large numbers of refugees moving across borders from different countries, intense media concentration on the European refugee crisis, and the attention that the crisis has received from US presidential candidates.

More than 874,000 migrants and asylum seekers have traveled by sea to European shores in 2015. Of those, over 700,000 people (more than the entire population of Seattle, WA) have claimed asylum in the region. More than four out of five of those migrating to Europe are from Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Somalia, and Iraq—countries that are suffering from conflict, violence, or repressive governments. On the American continent, 68,000 children arrived alone in the US in 2014—many of them fleeing violence in Central America—a tenfold increase since 2009.  

Experts remind us that the global refugee crisis has been building for years, with countries adjoining conflict regions, such as Jordan, Pakistan, and Kenya, bearing the overwhelming burdens. Today, more than one in five people in Lebanon is a Syrian refugee. Lebanon has a geographic size smaller than the state of Connecticut, but has taken in 1.1 million refugees. The increased attention to the refugee crisis is new, though, because of the recent collision of the crisis with the everyday lives of Westerners.

The situations that cause refugees to flee their homes are extremely complex. Resolving them can take decades, or longer. Until solutions can be found, it is critical to enhance—not undermine—protection for refugees, and their integration into receiving communities. This has always been true. People don’t lose their human rights when forced to flee their country.

Refugee protection and integration are even more essential at a time of widespread insecurity. Sowing fear of refugees, and making it harder for refugees to embrace their rights and the opportunities that our communities provide, are exactly the kinds of responses terrorist groups seek. While receiving country governments need to continue their already robust security checks to keep militant extremists from arriving as refugees, they simultaneously can and must live up to their responsibilities to protect and integrate people who are fleeing violence and terror in their home countries.

Advocates and funders respond to the crisis

For varied reasons, many organizations working on behalf of asylum seekers and refugees operate separately from organizations working on behalf of immigrants. In recent conversations with leaders in these different fields, however, we are hearing a compelling case for bridging the divisions. The laws and policies for “immigrants,” “refugees,” “asylum seekers,” and “asylees” are interrelated and part of the same broad system. Moreover, when it comes to the human faces of the people to whom we attach these terms (often members of the same family), the distinctions wash away.

In the US, for example, the United We Dream Network is advocating consistently on all their social media channels for generous resettlement of Syrian and Central American refugees. Welcoming America has launched the This is Who We Are campaign, encouraging and sharing statements and actions from receiving communities in support of Syrian refugees. The Center for American Progress is collaborating with the Women’s Refugee Commission, Kids in Need of Defense, and America’s Voice to coordinate communications with the media, and to connect immigrant rights advocates with refugee rights advocates. Many state and local immigrant rights groups are contacting their policymakers, urging support for the continued resettlement of refugees from the Middle East, and for alternatives to detention and due process for Central Americans seeking asylum in the US.

Speaking at the November 17 meeting of the Four Freedoms Fund (FFF), Marielena Hincapié, Executive Director of National Immigration Law Center, told us “We can no longer afford to continue working in silos, with some of us focusing on immigrants’ rights and others focusing on refugees and asylees. The public does not make that distinction, and neither should we. Whether we migrated for economic reasons or fled violence, we have to work together to challenge the conflation of terrorists with refugees and immigrants…Now more than ever, we need to be united in building a strong and inclusive movement of new Americans.”  

In the UK, Citizens UK, a leading multi-sector organizing group, is walking door to door to organize support for Syrian refugees and is forging refugee-support collaborations with UK human rights and human services organizations. Their Refugee Welcome campaign generated a million-strong petition to Downing Street that helped lead to a reversal of position by the government, which agreed to accept a (still modest) quota of 20,000 Syrian refugees by 2020.

Funders’ groups are working to increase understanding of refugees and to urge members to respond. FFF, a funder collaborative seeking to secure the full integration of immigrants in the US democracy, is encouraging its grantees to take an active role in responding to the refugee crisis. FFF is also working with their donors to assess rapid response needs in the field, and to align FFF-supported work with donors’ direct grant making.

There has also been an active response from funder affinity groups such as Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees in the US, the Association of Charitable Foundations in the UK, and Ariadne in the EU, which have held highly-attended webinars and telebriefings on how funders can respond to the crisis.

Artists are illuminating the human costs of the refugee crisis and of harsh government responses. Culture Strike has collaborated with Mariposas Sin Fronteras, End Family Detention, and 15 artists to create Visions from the Inside, a visual art project inspired by letters written by women and children from Central America who are seeking protection as refugees within the US (as seen above). The “inside” of the title is the jail-like detention centers where women and children are held for weeks or months awaiting resolution of their asylum claims. Counterpoints Arts in the UK has teamed up with photographer Jillian Edelstein on a remarkable photo-journal that goes beyond the media’s one-dimensional lens to show refugees in their resilience and joy, as well as their fear and desperation.

How Unbound Philanthropy is responding

As a modest-sized foundation, Unbound Philanthropy fills a particular role. We bring our specific expertise to intensive and long-term work with a focused set of grantees to change hearts, minds, and policy on migration and human rights in the US and UK. So while we join with other funders in responding rapidly to the immediate crisis, our most valuable contribution will be intensifying what we do best: infrastructure building, exchange of ideas and knowledge, and fostering a steady shift of political will that can only be built relationship by relationship and "brick by brick" over years.

In both the US and UK, we will continue to work on building public understanding about migrants and refugees, integration of migrants and refugees into receiving communities, andlegal rights and protections. As a learning foundation, our priorities will continue to evolve, but these will be our focus areas through 2018, the time horizon of our current Strategic Plan.

And, while they may not all have “refugee” in the name, our ongoing programs will continue to support refugee protection and inclusion. In the UK, we have been investing in building the communications capacity of the migrant and refugee field for several years. Even before the current crisis, we began supporting several high-profile moderate Muslim leaders to develop the communications tools, messages, and collaborations that help ensure that their voices are heard prominently when crises occur. We also fund City of Sanctuary, which is a network of neighborhoods, towns, and cities across the UK that is mobilizing supporters for new laws that provide more and better ways for people fleeing violence and terror to come to the UK safely and lawfully.

The fruits of this work have been both notable and noticed. For example, #WalkTogether, a collaborative campaign to memorialize the 10th anniversary of the July 2005 terrorist bombings in London, brought residents together in gatherings across the city. It generated stories in prominent media outlets in the UK and abroad, as well as thousands of messages that trended on Twitter.

In the US, grantees have worked for years to dispel dangerous myths about newcomers that keep communities divided. Grantees are responding robustly to the misguided notion that refugees arriving in the US are dangerous people, and are helping to push back against anti-Muslim sentiment through intensified “hearts and minds” work. These efforts are all the more important now that there has been a growing backlash to accepting Syrian refugees into the US.

Unbound continues to forge partnerships that help us connect foundations that support the voices of refugees with other interested funders. Collaboration is core to how we work; we see even greater opportunity now to partner with funders who have focused on increasing understanding of Muslim communities in the US and UK. We hope that this work will, among other things, promote greater leadership development opportunities for Muslim refugees and all refugees, so that they can define their own stories, as the DREAMers movement has so successfully done. 

Leveraging our leadership role among immigrant rights funders, we also will support deepening of relationships between refugee and immigrant leaders, and the expansion of the immigrant rights movement’s agenda to include refugees and asylum seekers.

While our vision is long term, we know that when working with immigrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers everything can change in an instant. This makes our work challenging. But it also means that we should be as forward-looking and optimistic as possible. While we navigate this highly complex time ahead, we will continue to listen and share ideas with all of you, our valued partners in this work. And we will keep our sights set on the incredible outpouring of support that unites us all and reaffirms our collective humanity. We see strength and justice on our side.


Thank you to several experts who spoke with us for this article: Michelle Brané, Director of the Migrant Rights and Justice Program at the Women’s Refugee Commission; Ben Johnson, Executive Director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association; Doris Meissner, Senior Fellow and Director, US Immigration Policy Program at the Migration Policy Institute; Kathleen Sullivan, an independent consultant to foundations and nonprofits; and Wendy Young, President of Kids in Need of Defense.