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How Can the World Afford to Help Its Refugees?

Illustration by Rienk Post/iStock

Increasingly there are just too many humanitarian crises in the world: Ebola, Syrian refugees, Nepal earthquake, South Sudan civil war and more. There are 60 million displaced persons in the world today, a 25 percent increase in just two years and more than any time since World War II. Given all of these events, we need to focus more on prevention and resilience because we know that is more cost-effective and prevents deaths.

Thomas D. Kirsch, MD, MPH ’86, is the director of the Center for Refugee and Disaster Response at the Bloomberg School.


Currently, it cannot. Humanitarian crises and the world’s response to them are drastically altered every decade or two. The refugees of the 20th century are not the refugees of today. While countries of Southern Europe generously accept large numbers of refugees, despite their own failing economies and unemployment, they cannot adequately feed, shelter or provide employment for the long-term. Resentment is rising. The UN community, strongly adhering to the R2P (responsibility to protect), must recognize that populations have an equal right to live, thrive and enjoy the culture of their native country. The uncomfortable reality is that all efforts must be refocused on the source, ending the conflicts and abhorrent leadership—or be willing to accept refugees for decades to come.

Frederick M. Burkle, Jr., MD, MPH, DTM, is a senior fellow and scientist at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative.


Refugees can be a major resource for the host countries and we should not see them as a drain to society or the economy. They are often dynamic individuals who take action to flee persecution and conflict. Given the right circumstances—education and skills training—refugees have potential to become constructive contributors to their adoptive communities. The costs associated to providing basic life and livelihood support to refugees these days is really not crippling. Far from it. Most countries can afford it. Albert Einstein, Billy Wilder (film director), Carl Djerassi (contraceptive pill inventor), Sigmund Freud and Friedrich Nietzsche were all refugees. Think how many of these we turn away because we are reluctant to bear a small cost. 

Debarati Guha-Sapir MS, PhD, is a professor in the Institute of Health and Society at the University of Louvain School of Medicine.


I believe the question is asked incorrectly; rather, “How can the world not afford to help refugees?” Beyond the moral, ethical and human rights dimensions, the approximately 145 states/parties that have signed the 1951 Refugee Convention and 1967 Protocol have clear responsibilities to protect and assist refugees. The funds needed to support the 20 million refugees globally are minor compared to overall development assistance. Furthermore, there is a strong (and self-interested) economic argument to provide effective aid to refugees: reductions in diseases of epidemic potential spreading globally (e.g., polio, Ebola) and in multiple displacements (e.g., current massive migration to Europe). Finally, the manner and mindset in how we provide aid to refugees must change. We need to provide refugees with livelihoods, more cash than in-kind assistance, and develop new financing schemes that combine humanitarian and development funding. 

Paul Spiegel, MD, MPH, is deputy director of the Division of Programme Support and Management at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. 


The real question is: Can the world afford not to help its refugees? Marginalized, underfed, insecure refugees bear the immediate burden of our neglect. The world pays the long-range costs in terms of insecurity and missed human potential.

We shouldn’t help refugees just because we fear the consequences of not doing so, or as a gesture of humanity. It’s also a wise investment. Albert Einstein and Alek Wek are just two of the millions of refugees who have made the world better, once their basic needs were met and they were allowed to work. The financial cost is modest. The real issue is political will.

Emmanuel d’Harcourt, MD, MPH, is the senior health director of the International Rescue Committee.

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