President Trump’s 2018 budget request not only proposes drastic reductions to the State Department and USAID, including funding to the United Nations and its affiliated agencies. It also proposes to entirely eliminate the State Department’s Emergency Refugee and Migration Assistance (ERMA) account, which would deny his government a critical tool for averting disasters around the world.
The majority of the world’s 65 million refugees and internally displaced persons are living in protracted situations with sadly predictable humanitarian needs that are covered through the regular annual appropriations process. But the emergency account – part of the budget since 1962 — is uniquely important. It specifically sets aside a smaller and more flexible pot of money to enable the president to respond quickly to emergencies that were not anticipated when budgets were drawn up many months before.
Having a contingency fund gives the president the ability to intervene with agile and focused aid that can be the difference between life and death for thousands of people in an emergency that can’t wait for the slow budgetary process for new funding.
A few examples illustrate the effectiveness of ERMA funding, budgeted last year at $50 million, in urgent, unpredictable situations:
- When famine struck the Horn of Africa in 2011, the president drew $10 million from ERMA to help get aid quickly to hundreds of thousands of internally displaced Somalis and to the sudden new influx of about 300,000 Somali refugees into Kenya and Ethiopia, bringing the total number of Somali refugees in the region to more than 950,000. The State Department’s refugee bureau was able to add another $96 million from its regular appropriation to fund an emergency airlift of 100 metric tons of life-saving emergency protein, plastic sheeting for shelter, blankets, and jerry cans inside Somalia where it was most needed.
- Even though the refugee emergency in Syria started in 2011, no one predicted that the number of refugees would increase by over 340 percent from 2012 to 2013. In 2013, the president drew $15 million from ERMA to help deal with the unanticipated mushrooming of the emergency, a small but important part of the much larger US contribution to the humanitarian effort in and around Syria that year.
- The civil war that started in South Sudan in December 2013 forced almost 2 million people to flee their homes just in the first year. Refugees urgently needed not only emergency food and other humanitarian aid but many of the 1.5 million internally displaced people also needed to be relocated to safer areas as fighting threatened to engulf settlements where they were staying. The president drew $50 million from ERMA that year to avert an even worse humanitarian disaster.
Retaining this budget line and having this money available enhances the president’s ability to try to keep new emergencies from becoming more catastrophic and destabilizing. The White House does not appear to appreciate that in cutting ERMA it would be tying its own hands when there is a need for early interventions to new emergencies that might help to avert far more costly disasters from developing.