UK spends increasingly more development aid on domestic refugees

By Sam Ursu

UK spends increasingly more development aid on domestic refugees

Britain plays a relatively minor role when it comes to hosting and supporting refugees. Nevertheless, since 2022, the UK has been increasingly diverting an increasingly larger portion of its ODA (Official Development Assistance (ODA) budget to cover domestic refugee costs.

Of the 36.4 million refugees registered worldwide in 2023, the UK hosted slightly over 365,000 (about 1% of the world’s total), up from 231,597 the year before. Nevertheless to cover domestic refugee costs. In 2022 alone, Britain spent £3.7 billion of its aid budget on hosting refugees domestically or 29% of its ODA budget, up from just £410 million in 2016, according to an official research paper published by the British Parliament on May 15, 2024.

Although this is permitted under OECD rules as long as those funds are limited to the refugee’s first 12 months within the country, many British NGOs and other stakeholders roundly criticized this redirection of ODA funds for solely domestic purposes.

See also: OECD warns Britain to get its development aid mission back on track

Notwithstanding this, the British government has officially rejected a recommendation that the Treasury “ringfence” the equivalent of 0.5% of GNI exclusively for use in development assistance outside of the UK because doing so would be “unaffordable”. Subsequently, the British government allocated an additional £2.5 billion directly from the Treasury in order to pay for the costs of hosting refugees domestically.

A diminishing presence

At last year’s Global Refugee Forum, the British government was chided for providing less financial aid for hosting refugees to countries such as Jordan and Lebanon, where large numbers of refugees are being sheltered. The British government responded to this by reiterating its past successes on agreements such as the Jordan Compact of 2016, but it did acknowledge that insufficient support from the international community remains “an issue.” The British government also stated that it has contributed £5.6 billion to the International Development Association (part of the World Bank) since 2017 and that some of those funds went to the World Bank’s Window for Host Communities and Refugees.

According to the parliamentary report published on May 15, 2024, 71% of the money that Britain spent on refugees in 2022 was for people being hosted domestically, with just a little over £200 million being spent to assist refugees elsewhere, and £121 million of that was in the form of contributions to multilateral agencies such as the World Food Program and the UNHCR.

In terms of direct bilateral aid, the report found that Britain has spent £150 million since 2016 on support for refugees being hosted in Jordan. Britain has spent £10.8 million since 2017 to deliver aid for refugees in Yemen and £36 million during the same period for Palestinian refugees being hosted in Syria. It also said that Britain is “working with” international agencies to support refugee programs in South Sudan, but no financial numbers were provided.

Since 2017, Britain has spent £370 million to support Rohingya refugees from Myanmar in Bangladesh and has contributed “nearly” £30 million to support Rohingya communities inside Myanmar.

All the above-mentioned however are accomplishments recorded before 2020 when ODA spend remained steady at 0.7% of GNI.

An uncertain future

In 2020, the formerly independent Department for International Development (DfID) was merged with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to create the FCDO. Experts have repeatedly noted that due to numerous changes in leadership at all levels, the integration has been somewhat chaotic, leading to an overall reduction in capacity for Britain’s foreign aid efforts and a loss of experienced staff.

See also: Merger of International Development Department limited UK’s aid capabilities – watchdog

Furthermore, lower UK aid funding for refugees abroad has greatly reduced Britain’s influence on global efforts to support refugees. In countries such as Lebanon, British support fell from £149 million in 2019 to just £22 million in 2022, and in Jordan, British aid was slashed to £42 million in 2022, down from £131 million in 2019.

With the exception of strong government support for hosting refugees domestically (or in Rwanda), it remains unclear whether Britain will resume a more active role in providing humanitarian support and funding for refugees globally anytime soon.