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Migration-sensitive or migration-specific? Exploring funding approaches for mixed migration

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The evolving nature of mixed migration, particularly its drivers, politicisation and corresponding flows, continues to challenge humanitarian actors to respond in a way that is appropriate, adapts with learning, and adheres to humanitarian principles of independence and impartiality.

Since 2017, the Migration Emergency Response Fund (MERF), one of the Start Network’s financing mechanisms, has supported approximately 30 humanitarian projects (including some information gathering initiatives or Collaborative Information Collection and Analysis grants) directly related to mixed migration. The global Start Fund, Start Network’s flagship financing mechanism for small to medium scale emergencies globally, has over the same period of time, supported at least six interventions specifically related to mixed migration, showcasing its ability to behave as fund that could flex to be migration-sensitive in nature. However, these were outside the MERF’s geographic remit across North, West, and Central Africa, as well as parts of Europe.

With the MERF scheduled to come to the end in December 2020, and as the Start Network enters its tenth year and continues to plan for its future, it continues to be important to iteratively review how its financing mechanisms can best serve members and beneficiaries, particularly in a shifting humanitarian context.

To set the scene, we need to go back to the initial inception of a forerunner of the MERF, the European Refugee Response (ERR), which ran in 2015-2016 in response to the refugee ‘crisis’ in Europe, which received intense media coverage prompting policy debate, political attention, publicity, and engagement. The MERF was established off the back of this in 2017 as a dedicated migration contingency fund to rapidly respond to humanitarian spikes in need along migration routes in Africa and parts of Europe.

Fast forward five years and that attention for mixed migration has waned as the number of people on the move and the accompanying political focus they generated have reduced. In 2020, the emergencies involving people on the move are smaller and less frequent leading to constructive questions and discussions about whether mixed migration emergencies are better supported by dedicated funding (‘migration-specific’) or general humanitarian funding (‘migration-sensitive’).

A recently commissioned research piece by the Start Network looked at just this question. It raised interesting findings concerning whether the funds needed to support mixed migration emergencies are optimised if the fund, like MERF, is migration-specific, or, like the Start Fund, migration-sensitive. Ravenstone Consult drafted the piece using an online survey that engaged 52 respondents, primarily made up of Start Network members representing 21 member agencies, and additionally consulted seven Start Network staff members. Of the respondents who answered:

  • 70% agreed or strongly agreed that a fund dedicated to mixed migration emergencies such as MERF ‘adds value over a general humanitarian pooled fund’;
  • 13% disagreed or strongly disagreed;
  • 13% were neutral;
  • 4% did not know.

Key informant interviews provided more nuance. A number of interviewees highlighted the underlying chronic nature of many mixed migration, where spikes in need are hard to identify and which requires a longer-term approach.

“To understand migration – we need to have good contextual analysis over 2-3 years, scenarios, etc. We then need to pick out circular humanitarian peaks or crises and, rather than evaluate individual crisis situations, we then evaluate the impact of these peaks on the wider context over time. Rather than just responding to the individual peaks, we actually respond to the impacts of these peaks on the underlying context.” (Interview, Local partner)

“We need to add more nexus aspects to it, think of solutions and coordinate with development/peacebuilding actors. Lots of issues in this region are about social cohesion, support to local organisations as the frontline safety net – we don’t have large scale emergencies outside Libya, so no big displacement movements – instead we need smaller, more resilient communities’ approaches.” (Interview, Member agency)


So what does this mean?

On the whole, HQ-based and Start Network staff tended to be more in favour of merging MERF into the Start Fund. Field-based member agency staff were more likely to argue for a dedicated fund such as the MERF, although the reasons for this tended to be one of principle and highlighting migration as an issue, rather than practice or the mechanism itself.

Many members expressed various positive benefits of the migration-dedicated nature of the MERF. This included how it was able to meet the particular needs of mixed migration emergencies in a funding environment where few donors have funds ready to go in a manner that is flexible and fast. Members also flagged their appreciation for the migration expertise and knowledge that having a migration-centred fund built both in experience and capacity.

Other members believed that there may be opportunities to include mixed migration responses as part of the more global Start Fund. Speaking to the somewhat unique characteristics of mixed migration as something more than just needing short-term emergency assistance, one member said, “The MERF could be merged into the Start Fund, but would be as effective only if the Start Fund is adapted to enable more flexibility in terms of timeframe or amount as at the moment the Start Fund is stricter than the MERF” alluding to the fact that the MERF has a 1-3 month intervention timeframe for responses (and in exceptional circumstances could be extended to six months) as opposed to Start Fund’s 45-day response window.

Another member floated the idea of a hybrid response mechanism, saying, “I don't know if you need a dedicated fund as much as earmarked funds of a general humanitarian fund. This way you ensure that migration emergencies have a minimum of dedicated funding but reduce risk of funds being unspent if no alerts are raised.”

Overall, findings seem to suggest that where the MERF plays a similar emergency function to the Start Fund, the Start Fund would suffice. However, the MERF’s experiences have highlighted the chronic structural gaps and neglected crises in migration response more broadly in a way that Start Fund could not or would not have responded to.

Some work will be required to ensure that learning from the MERF is properly mainstreamed in the Start Fund processes. This could include review of more flexible timeframes or better guidance on implementing protection activities (which are often big components of mixed migration humanitarian programmes) in rapid-onset crises or in anticipatory responses. With regards, to allowing for longer term responses or chronic situations, these currently remain outside the scope of the Start Fund and Start Network’s wider financing strategy. As the MERF comes to an end, it will be important to recognise the funding gap that may emerge in some countries. As noted by one member in the survey, “sometimes MERF funds are the single opportunity available to support migrant needs in some contexts.”

As the United Nations’ Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) and UN OCHA’s Country Based Pooled Funds (CBPF) look set to continue, it’s a reminder that pooled, unearmarked contributions are the lifeblood of Emergency Response Funds (ERFs) and are rising in popularity. While the Start Fund operates in a manner similar to these other ERFs, the MERF, in contrast, remains unique in the sector as a migration-specific fund for INGOs. The seeds of discussion around its impact and how it will influence members’ and the wider Start Fund, both strategically and operationally after its culmination, are now being planted and the fruits borne are expected to flavour approaches going forward.

By Chris Horwood, Director of Ravenstone Consult

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