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Funding for refugee rights stagnated before migrant crisis, analysis shows

Refugee rights advocates in London assembled a convoy to deliver aid to the Calais "Jungle" Refugee Camp in France last year. (Alisdare Hickson/Flickr)
Funding for refugee rights began to stagnate in the years leading up to the current migrant crisis, according to a report released today.
“For the last few years of available data, we’ve seen that funding focused on the rights of migrants and refugees has remained flat,” Sarah Tansey, program manager at the International Human Rights Funders Group, told Humanosphere. “So with the benefit of hindsight, we can see now that this data comes at a time the crisis was really growing, but the funding didn’t seem to grow proportionally to the crisis.”
Researchers from Foundation Center and the International Human Rights Funders Group analyzed the $2.7 billion in human rights funding for 2014, the latest year complete data is available.
“Because much of the grants information is collected from IRS forms or relies on direct reporting, there can be a several-year lag from the time a grant is made,” Anna Koob, author of the report and knowledge service manager at Foundation Center, told Humanosphere. The funders included in the research also have different fiscal years, reporting formats and languages, which the authors said adds to the time it takes to standardize the data.
The report, released annually since 2010, shows many increases and fluctuations in human rights funding. But migrant and refugee rights have consistently received 11 percent of total human rights funding, despite the emergence of migrant crises in Central America and the Middle East in 2014.

Now, Foundation Center says philanthropists are more aware of the threats to refugee rights and have responded accordingly.

Refugees have the right to safe asylum, the right to fair hearings of their refugee claims, and to be treated with dignity and with respect to their basic human rights like any other citizen. Advocates have fiercely condemned the most recent violations of these rights, including U.S. President Donald Trump’s travel ban from seven predominantly Muslim countries, widespread forced returns of refugees to the regions they fled, and police harassment and abuse of refugees and migrants in France.

Rights activists have also pushed for more funding throughout the current migrant crises. But according to Iain Levine, deputy executive director at Human Rights Watch, more grant-making may not have been able to prevent rights abuses seen on such a large scale in the current crises.

“Could we all use more funding? Absolutely. Would more funding earlier on have changed the situation? It’s really hard to say,” Levine told Humanosphere. “I would not want to blame funders for the current situation, but I would say there’s an enormous need now for donors to combat the rising wave of xenophobia and nationalism that we’re seeing in many parts of the world, particularly the U.S. and Europe.”

This rise in nationalist sentiment emerging in Europe, the U.S. and other regions of the world is what makes it more important than ever for funders to use the data that’s available for all aspects of human rights, the report’s authors say. They also stress the importance that funders locate gaps in the field and determine where their donations can be most useful.

Number of grants awarded by the 237 member foundations affiliated with IHRFG, Ariadne, or Prospera. (Foundation Center, 2017)

Number of funders from the 237 member foundations affiliated with IHRFG, Ariadne, or Prospera. (Foundation Center, 2017)

In terms of foreign aid for human rights, Sweden provided 16 percent – the most of any other country, according to the report. EU institutions, Norway and the United States had the next-largest shares, each contributing 10 percent.

In terms of foundation aid for human rights, the United States has consistently had the most donors. But the report indicates this may be changing.

“The number of funders outside the U.S. keeps growing,” said Tansey, who said there were 112 of such funders in 2014, compared to just 49 in 2010. This provides a more inclusive global perspective on what funders are doing to advance human rights, she added.

Later this year, IHRFG and Foundation Center are releasing a five-year trend analysis to examine shifts in human rights funding from 2011 through 2015.


About Author

Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email or see her latest work at