Opinion

UK aid budget cuts are part of a much deeper problem

UK aid is failing refugees and asylum seekers both here and abroad by spending its overseas aid budget on newly arrived migrants. It's a political decision that is having devastating consequences

A Rohingya man carries a UK Aid bag in a refugee camp in Bangladesh

A Rohingya man carries a UK Aid bag in a refugee camp in Bangladesh. Image: Francois-Olivier Dommergues / Alamy Stock Photo

At the end of last month, government figures revealed that UK aid to both Afghanistan and Pakistan is to be cut by 53 per cent, from £304.4 million to £141.9m, alongside major cuts to all regions, including East Africa which is in the midst of a four-year major drought.

These decisions made by the government from the comfort of Whitehall directly impact people in regions facing humanitarian crises caused by conflict, poverty and climate change. In contrast, approximately £3.7 billion of the UK aid budget was spent by the Home Office in 2022 for housing asylum seekers in emergency hotels and accommodation while they await their asylum decisions.

The increase in the backlog of asylum decisions combined with a court ruling that the Home Office could not cease providing accommodation support when asylum seekers were at risk of homelessness during the pandemic (previously many were made homeless) has contributed to an increase in the cost of housing asylum seekers in hotels in recent years. Yet these people, fleeing persecution and human rights violations, are not living in luxury. The hotels and centres are often overcrowded and lack basic amenities.

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Under international Official Development Assistance (ODA) rules set by 37 donor countries, of which the UK is a leading member, the first year of support to newly arrived asylum seekers and refugees qualifies as ODA. This type of assistance, referred to as ‘in-donor refugee costs,’ is intended to cover the first year of supporting refugees with basic services and accommodation. The support is in line with the UK’s duty of care and legal and moral obligation to provide for refugees and asylum seekers seeking sanctuary in our country.

In 2020, when then-Chancellor Rishi Sunak controversially cut the UK’s aid budget from 0.7 per cent to 0.5 per cent of gross national income, programmes supporting some of the most marginalised people in the world were cut. Yet, the Home Office continues to increase its spending of the UK aid budget, surpassing spending on humanitarian assistance, education, water and sanitation in 2021. This means that more and more of the aid budget is being spent in the UK.

While other countries such as Australia and Luxembourg do not count any in-donor refugee or asylum costs from their ODA budgets, the UK not only counts all costs, but the Government strictly manages the 0.5 per cent target as a ceiling. This means that the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) must ensure that spending does not exceed 0.5 per cent of GNI for any given year. This creates an ‘either-or’ choice where funding to support refugees in the UK happens at the expense of tackling poverty and crisis abroad.

The recent decision to add an extra £2.5bn to the ODA budget for refugee and asylum costs in the UK for 2022 and 2023 illustrates the political nature of the choices being made. The UK has an option to either choose to not count in-donor refugee costs as part of their ODA budget, or they could choose to stop treating the 0.5 per cent target as a hard ceiling and expand the budget as refugee costs increase rather than taking this money from other programmes, as Germany and the USA have done.

This is a political decision made by the UK government that doesn’t need to be made. The real-world consequences of this are clear. Just last month, Save the Children UK announced the closure of their programme providing education and nutritional support to women and girls in Afghanistan.

The UK is failing asylum seekers and refugees in the UK and those facing conflict, climate change and inequality globally. By redirecting development assistance aimed at tackling poverty reduction, building climate resilience, conflict prevention and peacebuilding in the world’s poorest and most marginalised regions for domestic expenses, the government risks undermining long-term development efforts and avoids tackling the root causes of displacement and addressing the question of why so many people are forced to leave their homes every day.

The UK is not alone in facing these dilemmas, but it stands out for having taken a series of decisions that balance the books at the expense of marginalised people both in the UK and abroad.

As the realities of conflict and climate change become more pressing, we need to get back to UK aid being used as long-term investment in the countries directly affected to prevent further displacement and ensure peace and stability, whilst also treating asylum seekers and refugees with the dignity and fairness all people deserve.

Paul Abernethy is Co-Head of Policy, Advocacy and Research at Bond, the UK’s network for organisations working in international development. @paul_abo

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