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All refugees are created equal — but they aren’t treated that way

A reinforcing cycle of press coverage, public interest, and diplomatic effort favors some conflicts over others, leaving millions of the displaced without the help they need.

Awa Ibrahim Abakar, 35, a refugee from Darfur, in Koufroune, Chad, last month. Abakar said gunmen killed her husband and wounded one of her four children. The conflict in Sudan, ranked fourth by the Norwegian Refugee Council, is back in the headlines after a resurgence of violence there.YAGAZIE EMEZI/NYT

On June 20, World Refugee Day, we may ask: Are all refugees and internally displaced people treated the same? The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), one of the world’s largest humanitarian aid agencies, seeks to answer this question in its annual report, “The World’s Most Neglected Displacement Crises.” Sadly, the answer is a resounding no.

Every year, NRC assesses specific metrics to identify who is most at risk of slipping through the cracks: how much political will the international community devotes to each crisis; how much media attention crises receive; and how much aid is provided for a crisis as a percentage of international appeals.


Most of the 10 most neglected humanitarian crises are again in Africa: Burkina Faso, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi, Sudan, Cameroon, Mali, and Ethiopia. This year, three crises in the Western Hemisphere are also on the list: Colombia, Venezuela, and El Salvador.

The discrepancies in global attention can be striking. For every dollar of humanitarian aid raised per person in need in Ukraine, just 25 cents were raised per person in need across the world’s 10 most neglected crises.

Do you remember the last report you read about the crisis in Burkina Faso, which enters — and tops — the list for the first time? That country’s deterioration has been swift and devastating. By the end of 2022, nearly one in four Burkinabè needed humanitarian aid, 40 percent more than at the start of the year.

Displaced children attend class in the town of Dori, Burkina Faso, in 2021, where surging violence has only intensified, displacing hundreds of thousands of people. Sam Mednick/Associated Press

In 2022, some 375,000 articles were written in the English-language media about the world’s 10 most neglected displacement crises, according to statistics from the online media monitoring company Meltwater. In comparison, 1.98 million articles were written about the displacement from Ukraine during the same period. If you’re reading this article, your attention is a statistical anomaly.


What does this mean for displaced people in neglected crises?

With inadequate resources, many critical needs may go unmet and opportunities for a better future for younger generations may be lost.

In many crises, donors provide “earmarked” funding that can be spent only on projects and priorities identified by the donor, preventing the flexibility needed to ensure humanitarian actors can reach the most vulnerable.

The United States has a relatively good record of avoiding tight earmarking. The Migration and Refugee Assistance and International Disaster Assistance funding provided by Congress with strong bipartisan support often permits needed flexibility. This is why increasing the base account levels, rather than funding crisis response through supplemental legislation, is so critical: It allows for predictability and strategic targeting of those most in need globally. But even US funding ($10.1 billion for fiscal year 2022) is not keeping pace with the humanitarian needs, which the UN estimated this year at over $51 billion worldwide.

Scarce humanitarian resources should go to those in greatest need. But media attention and strategic interests factor into donor decisions. European leaders are understandably seized by the Ukrainian catastrophe unfolding on their doorstep — and propelling refugees into their cities.

It is remarkable that humanitarian crises in the Western hemisphere — close to Washington and US media hubs — have also made the list of the 10 most neglected crises.

When press coverage wanes, the international community often takes its eye off the ball. Crises that are not on the front pages do not move a populace to urge their leaders to action. This may well be the case with Sudan — a crisis that was the fourth most neglected in 2022 yet leapt into the headlines when violence erupted in Khartoum, deepening the problems there. A lack of attention at the diplomatic level is a dangerous long-term aspect of neglect.


The NRC report does not advocate shifting funds from some crises to others. NRC recommends that the press, diplomats, and donors increase overall support for neglected crises, ensure greater reliability and flexibility of aid, and push for diplomatic solutions.

As NRC points out, the price tag to provide adequate support for many of the neglected crises is relatively small. Seven out of 10 countries in this year’s report represent tiny humanitarian appeals, each just 1 percent or less of what’s been requested for humanitarian aid globally.

We should all be concerned by what the NRC report tells us. Neglect is a choice that puts at risk the lives and the future of those who are forcibly displaced. Neglect also undermines broader global interests and challenges the principle of our shared human dignity.

Mark C. Storella is a member of the board of the Norwegian Refugee Council — USA, professor of the practice of diplomacy at Boston University’s Pardee School of Global Affairs, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for population, refugees, and migration, and a former ambassador to Zambia.