On World Refugee Day, 110 Million People Must Leave Home to Flee Conflict and Persecution

To protect the rights of marginalized populations, we must fund local refugee organizations directly.

A group of refugees from Pakistan and Afghanistan protest in front of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees office in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on May 23, 2023. (Pradeep Dambarage / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Tuesday, June 20, we celebrate World Refugee Day—honoring the strength and bravery of those who have been forced to flee their homes. This day grows with significance every year, as the number of people forced to flee conflict and persecution has reached a historic high of 110 million, with an additional 306 million in need of humanitarian assistance and protection. These numbers are a stark reminder that compounded crises—including conflict, climate and COVID-19—are driving unprecedented levels of human suffering, economic vulnerability and forced displacement. 

With the 2023 theme of World Refugee Day, “Hope away from home,” we must question whether we, as humanitarians, are effectively using our resources to create an environment for refugees to become self-sufficient. Today, we are called to question our approaches to addressing the extremes of the displacement crisis and our accountability to its affected populations. Our answers are more critical than ever, as needs soar and funding gaps widen.

Less than 2 percent of international humanitarian assistance went directly to local organizations in 2021. … The gap between policy commitments and program delivery has been growing.

The vicious spiral of one emergency after another is having grave, long-lasting consequences—particularly for displaced women and girls. It dramatically increases their risk of multiple forms of violence and discrimination. It interrupts their access to lifesaving services such as reproductive healthcare and prevention of gender-based violence. 

Extraordinary efforts are needed by the international community and organizations, such as the Women’s Refugee Commission, to address the crises that are causing marginalized populations to lose their rights. To do so, we must prioritize the solutions we know can have the greatest impact and save lives.

The global humanitarian community has repeatedly made commitments to fund local organizations directly, to center gender equality and resilience, to strengthen work across the humanitarian-development nexus, and to be more responsive to the needs, vulnerabilities and priorities of displaced people.

Although there has been a huge uptick in rhetoric and policy statements related to these issues, meaningful change has been limited. The gap between policy commitments and program delivery has been growing.

In the 2016 Grand Bargain, large donors and aid organizations committed 25 percent of international humanitarian assistance to local organizations to improve the efficiency of humanitarian action. Yet, less than 2 percent of international humanitarian assistance went directly to local organizations in 2021.

Funding also remains woefully low for gender-related humanitarian needs. While gender-based violence against women and girls soared during the COVID-19 pandemic, only a third of funding needs were met in 2021—the lowest proportion in four years. 

Local residents stand in a flooded street after the explosion at the Kakhovka hydropower plant unleashed floodwaters in Kherson, Ukraine, on June 10, 2023. (Narciso Contreras / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

However, women’s rights organizations and defenders continue to be on the front lines of crisis response. Despite their limited organizational budgets, they provide protection and service and serve as the experts, leaders and agents of change in all crisis-affected countries. Their contributions and experiences underscore the necessity of channeling a larger proportion of humanitarian aid directly to local organizations.

Not only must we increase funding to local women’s organizations—we must also invest in long-term global partnerships with women’s rights leaders and organizations. Rather than seeing them as mere extensions of humanitarian service delivery, we must shift our focus to lasting solutions by supporting their work of response, recovery and peace-building. The most effective way to achieve this is through increasing direct, flexible funding and providing them with both rapid-response funds and multi-year operational resources. 

Elevating women’s voices, agency and leadership depends upon ensuring their safety and security. Violence and persecution against women humanitarian workers, human rights defenders and peace-builders have increased sharply around the world, including in Afghanistan, Ukraine and Sudan. There can be no meaningful engagement of women in humanitarian action when those working to promote gender equality and end conflict are silenced. 

Not only must we increase funding to local women’s organizations, but also invest in long-term equitable and principled global partnerships with women’s rights leaders and organizations.

For over 30 years, the Women’s Refugee Commission’s work with civil society partners has proved that local solutions are the most effective, inclusive and sustainable. Localization aims to place power in the hands of those living through crises and experiencing loss. It gives voice, ownership, tools and resources to respond to the needs and priorities of communities through grassroots solutions.

Ending conflict and suffering means strengthening women’s and girls’ leadership and participation in all aspects of humanitarian response planning, decision-making and programming, and also embracing the concerns of other minority groups such as people with disabilities and the LGBTQ. To truly support refugees’ courage and resilience, we need a foundation for a safer and more equal reality.

Let’s honor displaced people today by stepping up our action by trusting, supporting and funding local refugee organizations. 

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Sarah Costa is the executive director of the Women's Refugee Commission, a leading global organization advocating for the rights and protection of women, children and youth displaced by conflict and crisis.