Blog Post

Rotating Refugee Crises Demand Development Daring

Tue, Dec 15, 2020

by Gary Kleiman


Another tragedy often overlooked during this year’s global Covid rampage, with their own physical mobility and financial remittance restrictions, is the 80 million displaced population in the UN’s latest tally, approximately one-third official refugees with 80% fleeing one developing country for another. By region over 2020 all these crises worsened, dominated by the longstanding Syrian and Venezuelan exodus combined over 10 million into Middle East and Andean neighbors. Lebanon per-capita has been the leading host for the former, and debt default coupled with political dysfunction spurred native flight, often in rickety boats to Cyprus. Venezuela’s economic meltdown to the poorest in the hemisphere and escape from violence coincides with parallels in Central America’s Northern Triangle, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, the focus of a Biden-led aid-investment initiative when he was Vice President with uneven results.

Asia and Africa are other terrifying out of control examples where the incoming Administration and official lenders must rethink traditional programs, and most importantly expand funding and policy outreach to private commercial banks and asset managers long accustomed to operating in riskier emerging and frontier markets. Myanmar expelled 750,000 Moslem Rohingya in acts of genocide according to a UN report, and the US State Department can make and reinforce the same determination with sanctions that steer the economy from military meddling. Bangladesh received them in the world’s largest camp before beginning its own forced relocation to a separate island prone to monsoon pounding as a “climate refugee” site. In Ethiopia another ethnic conflict unfolded in Tigray province with widespread accounts of human rights abuse and tens of thousands pouring across the border to equally impoverished Sudan, itself in the  throes of endless conflict from the South.

US and world humanitarian agencies have routinely scrambled to supply basic infrastructure and provisions in these emergencies, as the World Bank and other development lenders map immediate social protection and small-scale employment support. Episode and cost proliferation continue to overwhelm public sector response, and private sector business and finance is rarely enlisted enough to make a difference despite lip service to joint sustainability and migration rights goals.

The Trump Administration was not a party to the twin Global Migration and Refugee Compacts negotiated at the United Nations two years ago following 2016’s million desperate arrivals into Europe without updated cross-border understandings. In 2019 the first dedicated refugee forum was held grouping governments, development banks and private sector participants, including the International Chamber of Commerce and multinational firm member Tent Foundation. Together they pledged almost $10 billion and multi-stakeholder collaboration on country frameworks which soon lost momentum and were subsequently overtaken by the Covid outbreak. In Africa Tanzania refused to take on more debt from the World Bank, and Uganda invited input on its policies resulting in rare equal access to jobs and schooling, but complained money and resources provided were miserly. International community mobilization on Venezuela has not followed these guideposts for broad principles and specific commitments, but instead a separate regional blueprint with hundreds of counterparts coordinated by a UN special adviser. It fell short of funding promises both in 2019 and this year, with a $1.5 billion headline number only half met. The process has been stymied by broader divides over the extent of backing for the recognized Guiado presidency against the Maduro regime, as tens of thousands of refugees in Colombia trickle home out of frustration on dual lockdowns and double-digit unemployment.

The Trump administration’s anti-immigration stance stifled US entry and resettlement and financial/policy innovation that assigned more private sector responsibility, despite ideological leanings and mission statements in that regard from the Agency for International Development and other lead players. The Biden team has already signaled intent to break the current 15,000 asylum admission cap and phase in return to the previous 125,000, and to reprise Northern Triangle local business and financial services building to bolster home economies, but can reach for 360 degree hemispheric migration vision with development and private sector partners. It can deploy the State and Treasury Departments to work alongside World Bank officials in refugee specific concessional lending facilities to foster new commercial fundraising instruments, proceeds tracking and bottom-line income and technology creation to alter the relentless displacement trajectory. Venezuela and Central America are pressing national security but also practical debt management and reconstruction issues where experienced emerging market investors can join diplomatic and relief veterans in creating a new class of refugee emergency responders and techniques.