Remarks to the World Affairs Council
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration
Thank you, Steve, for that kind introduction, and for the invitation to join you for breakfast. Thank you for coming out so early to hear me speak about America’s responsibility to refugees.
I’ve been the Assistant Secretary since early April. Since then, I’ve been on a few trips to learn more about refugees and US humanitarian aid programs. This visit – a day in Cleveland and two days in Pittsburgh, is my first domestic trip.
Welcoming refugees is a core part of who we are as a nation. It reflects our national values. Just last week at the Department of State, we observed World Refugee Day. We did it this year in a very moving and inspiring way – by hosting a naturalization ceremony for nineteen individuals who entered the United States as refugees. Their stories begin in far flung places like Afghanistan, Bosnia, Iran, Sierra Leone, and elsewhere. One was born a refugee in a camp in Thailand. Their journeys reflect some of the tragedies our world has known this century.
Surrounded by family and loved ones, these nineteen individuals took the Oath of Allegiance before officials of the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security, and the White House. They had entered the room as refugees, but left as American citizens. Three of the refugees were siblings. One woman held a particularly vocal and active toddler in her arms – and of course everyone watched the baby when we were supposed to be listening to the speeches of officials!
As the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Gutierres, said, “While every refugee’s story is different and their anguish personal, they all share a common thread of uncommon courage: the courage not only to survive, but to persevere and rebuild their shattered lives.”
Last week, the UN refugee agency announced there were 42 million displaced people worldwide. This includes 15 million refugees who fled their own countries and crossed borders, and 26 million displaced within the borders of their own countries, such as the Sudanese in Darfur.
Every year, the United States welcomes some of the world’s most vulnerable refugees. We provide protection from persecution due to race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. The US isn’t the only country that resettles refugees – all told more than 25 other countries take them in – but we do resettle more refugees than any other country.
We provide support so refugees get on their feet during their first weeks and months – and move quickly toward becoming independent, productive members of their new communities. And Pittsburgh is an important part of that tradition. You have welcomed more than 2,500 refugees from 22 countries since 2002. It is very moving to meet and talk to refugees and hear their stories.
I’d like to tell you the story of one family of Bhutanese refugees who arrived in Pittsburgh from Nepal in June 2009. They were part of a group of people forced out of Bhutan because they were descended from people who moved to Bhutan from Nepal in the 19th century. The husband told us from the beginning that he hoped one day to be a doctor. His wife went to work right away at a laundry so that her husband, who had good English and a college degree, could find a job in a field that would make use of his education in science. In a few months, he found a job as a lab technician at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. He also worked a second job, earning extra money working as an interpreter with a long distance interpreter service. Recently, he decided it was time to earn the college credits he needs to apply to medical school. He is also a highly respected leader and active in the Bhutanese Community Association of Pittsburgh. This is just one example of Pittsburgh offering newly-arrived refugees the opportunity to pursue their dreams.
The U.S. Refugee Admissions Program is a public-private partnership. Resettlement’s success depends upon the work of local non-profits, communities, churches and volunteers. It depends on dedicated people here in Pittsburgh and in hundreds of other communities around the United States. These past few days, I heard from local leaders, members of the community and refugees about their successes and concerns for the program.
My bureau at the State Department, the Bureau for Population, Refugees, and Migration, also provides assistance to the refugee overseas. As we look at the plight of the displaced around the world, we know there are significant humanitarian challenges.
Overseas, we work primarily through multilateral organizations, such as the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Alone, the United States cannot meet all of the world’s humanitarian needs. But our investment in these organizations attracts contributions from other donors. Multilateral organizations work in places where Americans can go – but also in places where it is dangerous for Americans, yet we still want to see changes take place. Together, we are better placed to meet these urgent needs. Together, we improve the effectiveness and efficiency of our response.
So where are we focusing much of our attention? In the Middle East, we continue to support assistance for Iraqis in the places to which they have fled. At the same, we are also concerned about the crisis in Syria. The United States has already provided over $52 million to efforts to protect and assist those fleeing the violence in Syria.
In Asia, we are deeply concerned about ethnic and sectarian violence in Burma that has led Burmese to flee to neighboring countries to seek refuge. Enthusiasm about recent democratic changes in Burma are tempered by our very real concerns about violence against the Rohungya people of Burma’s Rakhire state. We continue to press for a halt to hostilities, for sustained and unfettered access to Burma’s conflict zones, and for genuine political dialogue toward national reconciliation and lasting peace.
In Africa, there are now more than 600,000 Sudanese and South Sudanese refugees; one-third of these have been displaced in the past year.
In Mali, rebel conflict in the north and a coup in March have produced insecurity and instability. This conflict has resulted in over 170,000 internally displaced persons and some 210,000 refugees in neighboring countries. This crisis also comes at a time of extreme food shortages in the Sahel region.
Meanwhile, there are almost a million Somali refugees in the Horn of Africa, of whom a third fled last year. Millions more remain at risk inside Somalia. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, innocent civilians continue to suffer unspeakable abuse.
In the Congo and elsewhere, we know that refugee women and children are in danger of sexual violence, physical abuse and exploitation, and separation from families – among other threats. We work to ensure that commitments made by President Obama and Secretary Clinton to protect women, girls and other vulnerable people around the world are being incorporated into the design and operations of assistance programs.
These are only a few of the many challenges that we are called on to address around the world. Thanks to the generous, bipartisan support from Congress, the United States continues to play a leadership role in responding to these challenges.
Why do we do this? America was founded as a place of refuge. The Statue of Liberty welcomed the tired, the poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free. We welcome to our shores those fleeing hunger, poverty, persecution, and desperation. Our culture, our history, and our character are defined by their contributions. It is how we have become who we are.
And as I continue my work with the State Department, the faces of refugees I’ve met stay fresh in my memory. The Sudanese who had traveled from the North to begin a new life in Independent South Sudan. The Iraqi widow with her little girl in Damascus. The Afghan girl in Virginia, now attending UVA. Successful Cuban-Americans in Miami. And I know refugees I’ve met in Pittsburgh will also inspire me in the days ahead.
With that, I’m happy to take your questions, now.