Asylum costs: The great labelling fraud

Children of Syrian asylum seekers playing in a transit centre near Zurich (Switzerland).
Political article
Again in 2016, every fifth franc of official development spending remained in Switzerland. This makes Switzerland the largest recipient of its own development funds.

In early April both the Swiss Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) and the OECD published their latest Official Development Assistance (ODA) figures within a short space of time. Measured against gross national income, Switzerland's ODA rose to 0.54% in 2016. This increase is puzzling, given that the share of development cooperation proper had contracted to 0.39% from 0.41% the previous year, as stated by the DFA. The contraction in development cooperation and humanitarian aid was therefore offset by the rising share of asylum costs. In reality, 19.5% of Swiss ODA goes to asylum costs. Alliance Sud clearly denounces this method of calculation, which is permitted by the OECD.

In the OECD Development Assistance Committee (DAC) international ranking, Swiss ODA is still among the top ten, alongside countries like Germany which, despite high asylum costs, continues to provide additional funding for development aid proper. In the leading group, the level of "genuine development funds" (i.e. minus asylum costs) of Norway, Luxembourg and, but for a narrow margin, also Sweden, remains twice as high as that of Switzerland.

Switzerland has been charging asylum costs to its ODA budget since 1998. Between 2004 and 2013, even at its most generous – Switzerland outstripped the second-placed donor country by almost twice. Since then, Switzerland has in fact been surpassed by some countries, but is still in the leading group. It is mainly EU countries that have been attributing ever more asylum costs to development aid since 2014. One commendable exception is Luxembourg. France, the United Kingdom and Ireland also charge only a small percentage of asylum costs to development funds.

The bogus claims arising from the practice of charging asylum costs to ODA are impeding any genuine comparison of ODA levels of DAC member countries, as the methods of computing asylum costs vary from country to country. This prompted the DAC in 2016 to launch a methodological clarification process, which at best will eventually rein if not eliminate the charging of asylum costs to development budgets – however unlikely this may be. The Development Cooperation Directorate (DCD) of the OECD does view the question of asylum as an important task incumbent on member countries, but is nevertheless critical of this cost allocation practice and warns that it ought not to lead member countries to neglect their commitment to long-term development cooperation.[1] This clarification process will reveal whether DAC members share the opinion of the DCD. The extent to which asylum costs will be chargeable in the future also depends on what is agreed regarding the new OECD measurement standard – Total Official Support for Sustainable Development (TOSSD) – which should track financial flows to developing countries and those to which asylum costs may have been charged. Failing agreement on TOSSD, ODA is at risk of being even further inflated by costs not related to development.


Wrangling over figures

Official Development Assistance (ODA) spending is meant to foment economic and social development in the recipient countries or intended for multilateral organizations. In 1970 the rich countries promised in the UN framework to spend 0.7% of their Gross National Income (GNI) for the development of poor countries. ODA gauges the extent to which OECD countries shoulder their responsibility to aid the world's poor and poorest.

It has been possible since 1992 to charge some costs of sheltering and hosting asylum seekers locally to ODA. However necessary and meaningful these tasks may be, they contribute nothing to the development of poor countries. Consequently, Alliance Sud, like the DCD, is also critical of charging such costs to ODA budgets.


[1] Rich Countries Criticized for Using Aid Money to Host Refugees instead of Tackling Poverty, Reuters, 26 April 2017