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New research explores the opportunities and challenges of a migration-specific rapid response fund

News Article

The Migration Emergency Response Fund (MERF), funded by the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), was established in January 2017. The MERF’s aim is to address the unpredictable nature of the mixed migration context across the Mediterranean and rapidly respond to new or emerging needs. It built on the Start Network’s experience of collaboratively responding to the needs of migrants and refugees through its two European Refugee Responses (ERR) in 2015-2016.

Since 2017, the MERF has funded 30 projects across eight countries in Europe and Africa, including seven Collaborative Information Collection and Analysis (CICA) grants. It has done so through two phases, the first phase ran in 2017 in partnership with 15 Start Network members across 18 countries primarily in Europe and North Africa. The second phase was launched in July 2018, involving 23 members across 11 countries in North, West, and Central Africa.



With the MERF coming to an end in December 2020 (and the disbursement pot closing a bit earlier) the Start Network team commissioned a research piece to better understand the opportunities and challenges of running an NGO-driven, context specific, rapid response contingency fund. Using a mixed methods approach involving literature review, online survey and key informant interviews, the researchers received 52 survey responses and undertook 29 interviews. Respondents included staff from Start Network, member INGOs, national NGO partners, and donors at country, regional and headquarters levels. 

Seventeen key findings and 18 recommendations were drawn from this research and are detailed in the final report. The findings highlight the time and capacity required to set up a new humanitarian financing mechanism, particularly a thematic one, from building technical expertise, to adapting tools and raising awareness. Some of these initiatives were more successful than others.

The research piece notes the fluid character of migration emergencies. As one interviewee observed:

“Migration is special and different from most humanitarian situations: it’s a journey, people are affected at different points and in different ways. It’s more complex. Is it an aid problem or a humanitarian issue?” (Start Network Staff Member)

Though they may have clear spikes, migration emergencies often have more chronic underlying needs that cannot be covered by rapid humanitarian responses—the so-called ‘nexus’ thinking. As another respondent (from a member agency) noted, it may be best “to see migration as a system, not an immediate need.”

The report also stresses that mixed migration is expected to continue to require humanitarian response capacity globally and that there continue to be many underserved or chronic migration-related emergencies, such as in Morocco and the Balkans. As one interview respondent noted:

“Sometimes MERF funds are the single opportunity available to support migrant needs in some contexts.” (Member Agency Respondent)

The COVID-19 pandemic is likely to further exacerbate these needs. Overall, financing mechanisms must be needs-based, flexible, avoid geographic targeting, and prioritise an impact before instrument approach.

What’s next?

Over the course of the month of August and as the MERF programme winds down, we will be sharing reflections on running a migration-specific fund and what can be learned from nexus thinking. We will also look at on-the-ground learning on implementing migration humanitarian responses in an urban context. We also recently published our practical guidance on implementing feedback and complaints mechanisms in the context of mixed migration. We hope this shared reflection and learning will contribute to ongoing discussions on the complexity of mixed migration responses in humanitarian contexts.

Within the Start Network, learning from the MERF will feed into its strategy for national and regional hub development, establishing a Start Financing Facility and growing the Start Fund.

Read the Migration Emergency Response Fund Research Piece

Read the management response

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Refugees and Migrants

  • by Melina Koutsis