Nationality-based Aid and the Role of Humanitarian Actors in the Making of Non-prioritized Refugees

Shaddin Almasri, FFVT Fellow at German Development Institute (DIE); PhD Candidate at Danube University Krems



The recent movement of Ukrainian refugees towards Europe has spurred a flood of sympathy, open borders, and mass support in the form of government and community aid. Simultaneously, a barrage of criticisms emerged from humanitarian agencies and experts on the multi-tier asylum system now being fostered in Europe. Aid organizations critiqued the diversion of aid from critical crises towards Ukraine, and journalists at prominent media organizations covered the “racist” treatment of those fleeing Ukraine –  more specifically, the splitting of people into two lines (one for Ukrainians and one for other nationalities) at the Polish-Ukrainian border. Furthermore, the revival of a near-moot “Temporary Protection Directive” for Ukrainian refugees – not for refugees from Ukraine – reflected a coordinated response to Ukrainian arrivals, and a willingness to respond to arrivals at much larger scales than those during the so-called “migration crisis” in 2015.

While  the two-tier refugee policy practice being fostered in Europe is rightfully criticized, such practices have been rampant in various crises since the very start of the modern refugee regime as we know it. Realistically, dynamics fostering multi-tier and nationality-based aid have been taking place globally for decades – and the very same organizations now critiquing these structures in Europe have been re-enforcing them abroad for years. What this dynamic fosters is what I am now dubbing as the making of “non-prioritized refugees” – those that are left outside of the mainstream refugee response and aid system in a major host country, and those left invisible by clear prioritization of some refugee nationality groups. Problematically, these approaches in aid deem nationality – an innate characteristic of a refugee – as a clear determinant of the access they will receive in the country that they eventually take refuge in.

Global Recognition

Prior to discussing refugee aid responses, one only needs to observe the largest exclusion of refugees from mainstream discussions on refugees – and that is the Palestinians. Many refugee statistics do not include Palestinians at all as they rely entirely on UNHCR statistics, who do not include Palestinians as they fall outside of the UN Agency’s mandate. Accordingly, Palestinian refugees are attended to by UNRWA, already creating in this structure parallel refugee service provision in clear distinctions hidden in plain sight. Moreover, UNRWA does not serve all countries that received Palestinian refugee populations – those that fled to Iraq and Egypt for instance, do not have UNRWA support. This is due to the fact that UNRWA does not operate outside of the Levant, thus leaving this group, and others similar to it, subject to the benevolence of local policymakers and aid distributors. This distinction is embedded in the refugee conventionArticle 1D states that those receiving aid or protection from other UN agencies other than the UNHCR may not be eligible for protection. The continued existence of UNRWA – and the sensitivity around the integration and recognition of Palestinians and durable solutions – thus continues to foster a parallel regime for their management. In this regime, discussions of refugees often exempt Palestinians – sparking particular aid challenges when Palestinians from Syria took flight to neighboring countries such as Jordan and Lebanon.

Regional Crisis Responses and “Non-prioritized” Minorities

Donor earmarking and calls for proposals are dominant in countries that have specific refugee crisis responses – such as the regional refugee response in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, for instance. Different facets of the Syrian refugee crisis response have specifically faced criticism by activists and academics for its nationality exclusivity and inadvertent impacts on minority groups across its three major host states. As the largest refugee group – with the exception of Palestinians – Syrians have had a special focus by humanitarian agencies and government entities since the influx, and more specifically after the 2015 so-called “migration crisis” to Europe. Syrians made up the largest group of those migrating throughout this period. These culminated in massive aid and development deals across the region, including the EU Facility for Refugees in Turkey and the Jordan Compact.

While these have been widely criticized for their role in externalizing European borders and commodifying refugees, what these criticisms often miss is that, even in its flawed implementation, there are refugee groups excluded altogether and sidelined in the regional refugee response for years. Problematically, Jordan is often dubbed as a refugee “safe haven” – yet funding structures have failed to recognize and adapt to the reality of the presence of minority groups. For instance the structure of the Jordan Response Plan for the Syria Crisis, the key refugee support funding modality in Jordan, only mentions Syrians. The Regional Refugee Response Plan (3RP) notably conflates the terms “Syrian” and “refugee” while often only listing the needs of the former.

Crisis responses often fail to recognize existing refugee populations, and those arriving in smaller numbers alongside large majority groups. In Turkey, non-Syrian refugees are mentioned in passing in project documents and in EU FRiT needs assessments. Afghan refugees have been pushed to the sidelines of the mainstream refugee response, often being especially neglected by both government and non-government actors, with the latter only recently giving increased attention to this population following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021. What we can take from this is that, even in the attempt to diversify the profile of refugees served in Turkey, the approach relied on is fully based on the existence of, or rather, the perceived risk of, refugee crises.  The very same organizations now criticizing the response to Ukrainians in Europe (see: Save the Children and Oxfam’s joint response) have been clear advocates for Syrian refugee integration and inclusion policies that ultimately culminated in preferential and nationality-based policy treatment and aid access for minority refugees across the region. Minority groups in each of Jordan and Lebanon, including Yemeni, Sudanese and Somali refugees, have been left behind by responses – in Jordan, non-Syrian refugees have been included in the UNHCR’s Comprehensive Vulnerability Assessment Framework for the first time in 2021.

National Responses: ‘Non-prioritized’ Majorities

Conversely, “prioritized” refugees may not always be the (recognized) majority group in a host state. In Kenya for instance, Somali refugees make up some 54% of the total refugee population. Long-present Somali refugees as a result of a protracted situation in Somalia, are often made the subject of local tensions and securitized procedures and accusations of terror affiliations by the Government of Kenya, which are often denied as unfounded claims by humanitarian actors. Despite this and following threats of camp closures in 2020, the UNHCR’s negotiated roadmap to camp closures along the lines of the three durable solutions is noticeably exclusive to a single group. While local integration options are made available to refugees in Kenya from the East African Community states, Somalis are absent from these options. The durable solutions that apply to them in the aforementioned roadmap are resettlement and voluntary repatriation, the former of which would only apply for a select few given that spots are open for less than 1% of displaced people annually. This is thus an indirect validation of supporting repatriation for Somali refugees in Kenyan camps who, regardless of their claims to refuge, are left with little options in this proposed roadmap.

Ongoing Refugee Distinctions in and by Europe

As has recently been evident in the Ukraine crisis and the reception of Ukrainian refugees throughout the European Union, host states have clear preferences and hierarchies embedded in asylum seeking and refugee protection policies. This has instantly created categories of Ukrainian and non-Ukrainian refugees, or by other descriptions, white and non-white. Problematically however, NGOs and other humanitarian actors do not appear to take these hierarchies into consideration when planning a response. It has instead become common practice to distinguish responses by the nationality of the arriving group. While this could be conversely described by country of origin, as made evident in the European response to arrivals from Ukraine, this is not necessarily the case as temporary protection measures have thus far only automatically applied to Ukrainian nationals.

While funding is made available on an earmarked basis, the slow pace at which refugees that are “non-prioritized” achieve inclusion by aid organizations and policymakers in their donor states reflects that, ultimately, humanitarian responses are largely based on biased funding structures and government preferences. The value of non-discrimination principles and guidance documents on inclusion in humanitarian intervention is thus fraught with poor consideration of existing groups in refugee responses. As evidenced by recent events, the very interventions of humanitarian organizations can create new divisions between refugees by fostering “mainstream” and “non-mainstream” groups, or “prioritized” and “non-prioritized” refugees.