Thomas Campean / Anadolu Agency

White House turns to crowdfunding campaign for Syrian refugee crisis

A White House–coordinated campaign on Kickstarter has raised $800K on premise that governments alone can’t do enough

The Obama administration has launched its first-ever crowdfunding campaign this week to raise money for Syria’s growing refugee crisis, in a bid to draw the American public into supplementing the U.N. refugee agency’s strained budget.

The initiative, requested by the White House Office of Digital Strategy, is also a first of its kind for Silicon Valley crowdfunding platform Kickstarter, which typically hosts “creative” projects, not charities. As of Wednesday, the second full day of the campaign, donors had raised over $800,000 for the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) — enough to cover “immediate necessities and a place to sleep for 3,000 people in need,” the campaign page says.

That sum, of course, is a drop in the bucket for the Syrian crisis, which has displaced 12 million people both inside and outside the country. To date, the UNHCR has only received $1.8 billion of the $4.5 billion it has requested from foreign governments for Syrian refugees in 2015. Meanwhile, "the need is growing every minute, as more desperate people flee for their lives,” said Brian Hansford, the UNHCR spokesman in Washington, D.C. 

The White House's latest effort to stem the funding shortfall comes as hundreds of thousands of desperate refugees fleeing Syria’s bloodshed continue to arrive on European shores. The influx has triggered pushback from various European governments, who say they cannot cope, and prompted calls for wealthy nations like the United States to do more to help. Washington is the largest single contributor to the UNHCR, but it has resettled just a tiny fraction of the four million Syrian refugees who are currently living in Syria’s neighbors as well as Europe.

In a blog post on the White House website, staffer Joshua Miller explained the campaign's premise: Helping Syrians does not need to be left up to the U.S. government alone. The Obama administration has donated over $4.5 billion to the Syrian crisis, and “large corporations have donated millions more,” Miller said. “But you do not need to be a government or Fortune 100 company to #AidRefugees.”

“This isn’t just about what I can do as president,” Obama is quoted as saying. “Every single one of us — from citizens to NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) — can help refugees find safe haven.”

The UNHCR, which is a partner in the campaign, is keen to make the point that small contributions can make a difference. The Kickstarter page explains where the money will go: $15 provides one person with a mat and sleeping bag, $70 covers a “complete emergency rescue kit,” and $600 can provide a year of education and care for a Syrian child. And while anyone can donate to relief efforts directly through the agency's homepage, aid groups hope the White House's social media kick — flagged with the hashtag #AidRefugees — will draw more attention to the cause. 

The recent attention paid to refugee resettlement has been helpful in raising awareness about the crisis, Hansford said, “but 86 percent of all refugees are still in developing countries,” like Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, “and the infrastructure there is at a breaking point."

As Syria’s conflict drags on into its fifth year, there are also fears that donor fatigue will set in. Funding shortfalls have already forced U.N. partners to temporarily cut food vouchers for refugees outside camps, putting urban refugees — the vast majority of Syrian refugees — at risk. Overburdened host countries, like Jordan, have taken measures such as cutting off medical insurance and closing their borders with Syria.

“The stark reality we are facing is that our resources are being far outstripped," Hansford said. "That means, of course, that hard choices will need to be made."

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