I Don’t Know What You Can Do About the Refugee Crisis

A couple of people have asked me if there is anything they can do about the refugee crisis.

The short answer is ‘I have no idea’, but here are some things to bear in mind…

It’s virtually always better to donate money rather than clothes. It’s often an illusion to think ‘I have no money but I can help in a way that doesn’t cost money’ – transporting clothes costs money. It may not cost you money, but it’s going to cost someone. Transferring money costs nothing. One of the toughest issues about crises is logistics – clothes don’t help with this. People that think I’m being annoying should read this from the government, or even better this from a group in Calais (the group are sited on a Guardian piece saying they urgently need clothing donations, whereas the line ‘The storage is overflowing and they can’t take anymore’ suggests it’s not so simple). It’s also worth bearing in mind that often just selling the thing yourself and donating will do more for the cause; outside somewhere as close as Calais, UNHCR can provide clothes in a way that is much more effective, and generally they can use your money to provide things these people need much more than clothes.

Friends who have donated clothes please don’t take this personally, I genuinely think you are better people than me.

The three places I would consider giving to are:


  • The burden is heavily falling on UNHCR, and they have a lot of reasons to move their total intake of money in the best way possible (someone pointed out to me this was a golden opportunity to make the UN look good).
  • A huge amount of problems come when charities have no idea what’s going on the ground level, in this case the UN are the ground level.
  • My only concern about giving to UNHCR is that given that the problem they face is predominantly a logistical one, and that the vast majority of money they receive will not be from private donors, they are unlikely to rely on, or change their actions much with, the money you send them. On the site they say things like your money  ‘Could provide two families with synthetic mats’. but they would be crazy if they were making decisions on how many bed mats they were going to provide based on private donor money. Appeals generally do this because there is an overwhelming amount of studies that show people are more likely to give if they can visualise their impact. Saying that, the UNHCR currently have only 37% of what they think they need, so they seem fairly confident that they can move more money in effective ways, and whatever happens your money will be useful as part of the overall pool.

Doctors Without Borders

  • Doctors without borders have been highly praised for their transparency by Givewell who are usually quite critical of disaster charities, they have been giving them growing support since their work on the Haiti appeal.
  • Doctors without borders do allow you to earmark donations (see FAQ 5) but they don’t recommend it. This is fair on their part: you can’t expect them to just suddenly up and leave all their other programs; fire doctors that have relevant skills and needs; hire new ones; leaving their logistical infrastructure badly damaged.
  • They give thorough information on what they are doing in the refugee crisis.


  • I trust them basically. It’s hard to be transparent about a lot of what they do, but they are making increasing efforts to do so. I have watched a few interviews with Ray Oppenheimer – the head of the USA branch – and he makes good arguments for the motives of the organisation. Singer supports them also, which whatever you think of Singer, if they did anything fishy he’d be the first to not take any bullshit.
  • They actively encourage directing funds into emergency appeals, and it’s something they’ve become more experienced in recently. They are basically somewhere in between the other two organisations in this respect, although I can’t work out if this is hedging bets, or getting the best of both worlds.
  • Any money they don’t use on this crisis they will use in another one.

Giving to Emergencies

To be honest it’s only through writing this that I’ve decided I will donate. I have read a lot in the past about how disaster appeals are just not effective ways of giving. And was appalled to find out how badly a charity I previously gave to responded to Haiti. Particularly the thing that made me think twice before giving to emergency appeals was this report on giving opportunities in the Ebola outbreak: although NGO’s had acted significantly better than they had done in previous disasters; and they had found some good giving opportunities; Givewell were still confident this wasn’t as an effective use of money as giving to the Against Malaria Foundation. For those of you who don’t know Givewell and are sceptical that any organisation could be unbiased, it’s worth taking a look at the report, and also having a look at the way they measure the impact of the charities they recommend giving to.

On reflection though, I’ve realised that some of the main criticisms of disaster relief – not using all the funds, applying the funds so slowly that the intervention is irrelevant, not having the necessary communication networks on the ground – were not relevant here.

BUT, I still think it’s worth bearing in mind that against the approximately 60 million refugees in the world there are roughly  200 million people with Malaria.

Malaria does cause horrendous suffering, also 4% (2.2 million each year) of deaths in the world are caused by bad water sanitation. Both of which you can definitely have a very positive impact on here and here.

But because of some thoughts about the nature of suffering relating to: duration; acclimatisation; future and past projection; torture; expected quality of life; political and social impacts; I have decided there is enough doubt for me to give a bit extra for this. If you simply want to give to the worst off then you should still give to Malaria victims or people with poor water sanitisation.

Whether there is something more qualitative you can do I’m not sure. The group in Calais mentioned earlier are requesting help from people, particularly with practical skills. But you may also be able to help with distribution in the camp.


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