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Joint US-UNHCR Press Briefing on the Mali Refugee Crisis
August 3, 2012

António Guterres
UN High Commissioner for Refugees


Anne C. Richard
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration

Press Conference
August 3, 2012

A woman speaking during a press conference
Anne C. Richard, Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration and UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Antonio Guterres briefed the international media in Geneva August 3, 2012.

Assistant Secretary Richard:  Thanks everyone for coming this morning.

I have known the High Commissioner for a few years, but when I was confirmed by the U.S. Senate for my current position as Assistant Secretary for Population, Refugees and Migration, he came to visit in Washington and invited me to travel with him at some point.  I wasn’t completely certain he was serious, but he was very serious.  We just completed our trip together.  If you’ve never had the chance to travel with him, I recommend it.  He is indefatigable, he is incredibly well-versed in all the in’s and out’s of refugee crises, and of course he is quite committed to the cause of refugees.  That was partly the reason for our trip, was to bring attention to a relatively neglected crisis.

It’s really three crises, I would say.  It’s the food crisis in the Sahel region, it’s what’s happened in Mali, the conflict that has beset the north of that country, and it’s also the refugee flows to neighboring countries.  So in Burkina Faso we traveled north to visit the Damba refugee camp.  We met with refugees.  We sat and talked with them and got a much better feel for the particular crisis at hand involving refugees from Mali.

The United States is very concerned about the crisis, and we’re also concerned that there are not sufficient resources going to it.  The United States has provided $355 million worth of aid and food to countries in the Sahel and the refugee portion of that is $34.5 million.  The largest piece of that goes to UNHCR.

I think I’ll stop there and turn to my traveling companion so that he may say a few words, too.

High Commissioner Guterres:  First of all thank you very much to you all for being present.

Indeed, we had a very moving mission together, and it was for me a great please to travel with Anne Richard.  First of all, because she has been first in the NGO movement, now in the U.S. government, a very strong and committed fighter for the cause of refugees.  And second, because by far the United States is our largest supporter and in particular the largest supporter of our activities in relation to the Mali refugee situation.

I know that you represent the press, and obviously I can understand that for the press the focus at the present moment is much more centered in Syria than in situations like the Malian one.  But I think it is very important to underline that we are witnessing in the Sahel a dramatic humanitarian situation.

The number of refugees from Mali has reached 260,000 and they are in countries that are facing a very difficult food security situation — Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso — have kept their borders open, have shared their resources in a very difficult economic situation and in a very difficult food security situation for their own peoples.

On the other hand, the number of people displaced inside Mali and the number of people affected by the conflict and violations of human rights inside Mali is enormous.  Almost 200,000 people displaced, an enormous number of people impacted by the conflict and violations of human rights, and very difficult access to them.  Many of them have no humanitarian support of any kind because there is no access for humanitarian actors to several areas inside northern Mali.

On the other hand, because this has been to a certain extent a forgotten crisis in today’s world, we have the opportunity to witness that not only UNHCR but all food programs and all the NGOs working with us are struggling with a dramatic lack of resources.  Our budget for the area is $153 million, and until now we project to receive about $60 million.  After what was said by the Assistant Secretary of State about the American contribution, you understand that all the others together are indeed very very limited.

So I would like to make a very strong appeal not only for UNHCR operations, but a very strong appeal for the international community to come together and support the Malian refugees and support the host countries and the host communities, many of them living in as desperate economic situation as the refugees themselves.

On the other hand, for the international community to also get together and make sure that all efforts are made for a political solution.

In Bamako there is an attempt to create a government of national unity.  It is absolutely essential that that takes place because for the moment there is no interlocutor representing the government of Mali.

On the other hand there is a mediation and ECOWAS guidance that is led by the President of Burkina Faso.  We had the opportunity to talk with him and to the Minister of Foreign Affairs.  The mediation will be trying to create conditions for a peaceful settlement of this crisis.  Again, it’s very important that the countries of the region and the whole international community supports this effort and does everything possible in order to make sure that political conditions are met for this humanitarian tragedy to come to an end.

I would appeal to the representatives of the media to really also focus on this tragedy and to draw the attention of the public around the world for not only the drama that is being felt and lived by the people of Mali and the neighboring countries, but also to make people understand that in the complexity of the Sahel situation with the number of movements that are, the actors that are intervening, there is a very serious threat for peace and security not only for the whole region, but in my opinion with global implications.  So it’s not only a question of solidarity, it’s a question of enlightened self-interest for the international community, even here in Europe, to be committed for the solution of this crisis and be committed to support the people in need.

Media:  I have several questions.

First of all, I’d like to start, Mr. Guterres, with the last point you made about the threat to regional but also global security.  Would you elaborate upon that? What do you mean?  Do you mean because of an infiltration of al-Qaida into the northern Mali conflict?  And apropos of the northern Mali conflict perhaps a political unity government can be achieved eventually in southern Mali, but what are the prospects for anything changing in the north with all of these terrible things that are occurring and with the cultural heritage sites being destroyed and so forth?  How can that be stopped?  What can the international community do?

Sorry, I don’t mean to sideline you, Ms. Richard.  I’d like your input too.

High Commissioner Guterres:  Why is it a threat of much that goes far beyond northern Mali in itself?  For several reasons.  Many of the fighters that are now in northern Mali came from Libya, heavily armed.  Many of them were in the Libyan army and in the militias that were supporting the leader Gadhafi.

You have in northern Mali several actors in this conflict.  You have Tuareg actors like the MNLA or the Ansar al-Din , but you have the Movement (inaudible).  You have Boko Haram of Nigeria.  And we have been told by several witnesses that there are fighters coming from Somalia to Afghanistan.

On the other hand, if you look at the Tuareg population, you have Tuaregs in Algeria, you have Tuaregs in Libya, you have Tuaregs in Mali, you have Tuaregs in Niger, you have Tuaregs in Burkina Faso.  And if you look at the map, you are not very far from the Sudan-South Sudan crisis or from the Somalia crisis or even from Yemen.  And you are all aware of what has been the activities of the al-Qaida of the Arabian Peninsula.  The al-Qaida of the Islamic Magreb is also active in northern Mali and in several other countries of the region.

So if proper humanitarian assistance is not provided and if a political solution is not found, the risk of this conflict to go far beyond Mali is, in my opinion, enormous and the implications are very serious for the whole region.  Let’s not forget that many of the states of this region are very fragile and have enormous economic social difficulties and very limited capacity in relation to security.

On the other hand, what can be done?  First of all it’s important that there is a government that is representative and can be the voice of Mali and the mediation is engaging.  We were briefed by the President and the Minister for Burkina Faso with several Tuareg movements in the north.  Exactly to create the conditions both for humanitarian aid to be provided and for a dialogue that might lead to some kind of solution allowing for this problem to be confined and not to represent a threat with the dimensions that I mentioned.

Media:  Just to quickly follow up on that, what about the involvement of ECOWAS?  There has been talk for months on and off —

High Commissioner Guterres:  The mediation that is taking place is in the ECOWAS direction.  The mediator was selected by ECOWAS.  This is the initiative that now is on the table.  My appeal is for the international community to support this initiative because this is the chance for a peaceful solution of this dramatic situation.  I wouldn’t like to make any other comments because they would only undermine the possibilities of success.

Assistant Secretary Richard:  The United States supports a peaceful negotiated settlement.  What we saw in talking to refugees was that they had voted with their feet and they had fled the north because it was dangerous and fighting was going on.  But also we met one young man who had fled because of the imposition of Sharia law and his concern that if you didn’t wear the right length of your pants or if you were seen walking with a woman even if she was your sister, you could get into trouble.  So he had seen instances of this so he had decided it was time to go.

Eighty percent of the population of Mali lives in the south.  As the High Commissioner mentioned, thousands of people have fled.  So this situation is terrible, and the best thing would be for some peaceful resolution so that people could go home.

This is a very tough year for crises as the High Commissioner knows well.  We’re looking at refugees fleeing Syria.  We see refugees fleeing from the south of Sudan into South Sudan and Ethiopia.  We also have our regular needs such as camps in Kenya for Somalis.

What we’re finding is everything is being stretched thin.  You’re all reading about what’s happening in Syria on a daily basis, but we were concerned that this particular crisis has been neglected.

My thinking is that a refugee child fleeing Syria is just as vulnerable and deserving of support as one fleeing from Mali.  That’s part of why we wanted to draw your attention to what was happening because more aid is needed for all of these situations.

Media:  Tom Miles from Reuters.

Following up on Lisa’s question, I’m not an expert on the Mali situation and you’re quite right, that our focus here has been on, for me anyway, more on Syria than Mali.  But we did have a chance to speak to a politician from Mali the other day who explained his view of the situation.  From what he was saying the north of the country seems to be being terrorized by a few thousand, no more than that, people who are insurgents or whatever you’d like to call them.  It seems a case where military intervention sooner rather than later would resolve things or help to stabilize the country very very quickly.  It seems there’s a call for military intervention for the UN Security Council to approve this.

Assistant Secretary, I think you said we’re for a peaceful negotiated settlement, but does that preclude military intervention?  This is obviously not the Army of Bashar al-Assad.  This is, if it’s really a couple of thousand people with small arms would it not be a good opportunity to intervene quickly and nip the problem in the bud?

Assistant Secretary Richard:  I think that’s premature.  We’re vigorously working through diplomatic channels, my colleague, Assistant Secretary Johnny Carson, is one of the senior State Department diplomats who’s been working on Africa for years and years.  He visited Bamako recently and he is intensely involved in this.  So I’m doing my piece which is looking at trying to get more humanitarian assistance into the neighboring countries — Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso.

One of the things that was very touching about our trip was how welcoming the Burkinabe are to the people coming in.  They have accepted them, they have open borders, and they’re sharing their pastureland for grazing of the animals that are accompanying these refugees who are a pastoralist community.  So I think we were both touched by the welcome the people of Burkina Faso are giving to the refugees.

High Commissioner Guterres:  Two comments.  First, the kind of weapons that is available in northern Mali is not only small weapons.  If you are aware of what was the arsenal of Libya and that Gadhafi has opened the depots, you can understand that some of those weapons are really quite heavy.

Secondly, what mediators told us was that from their perspective it’s important to distinguish two things.  One thing is the activity of terrorist groups.  The other thing is the problems that exist related to the way different communities live together and the way those communities have from the past set a number of unresolved problems that need to be addressed.

And of course the risk of looking only at the first part is that you might be moving a lot of people into a radical approach instead of trying to bring the communities together because they have lived together for centuries but there are a certain number of unresolved issues that need to be addressed.  Tuaregs, Arabs, Sungai, Pearl, and other groups.  So I think this is the perspective that the mediators explained to us.

The interest in finding a solution that brings the communities together and isolates those that have other objectives.  Avoiding the risk of giving to those the capacity to mobilize and support the populations that indeed have to be able to rebuild the country as a functioning state.

Media:  Alex Skopta, [inaudible] TV.  I hope you’ll allow me nevertheless a few questions about Syria.

How do you think the resignation of Kofi Annan affects your work for the refugees and your help for the refugees in Syria?

High Commissioner Guterres:  First of all the work we are doing to support the refugees especially in Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq and cooperating with the Turkish government is leading the direct support to the refugees together with the Turkish Red Crescent in Turkey is of course taking place in the context of our cooperation with the government of these countries and is not directly linked to what happens in Syria.

We are also operational inside Syria with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent helping the people that are displaced.  Obviously if the conflict intensifies, the capacity to deliver there will be more and more limited.  So we are naturally very concerned with the conditions to be able to work not only with the Syrians affected by the conflict but with the Iraqis that we are supporting inside Syria.  Already ten thousand of these Iraqis have gone back to Iraq.  We are actively cooperating with the government of Iraq in order to facilitate their reintegration into Iraqi society.

We have now Syrian refugees in Anbar Province and we are again cooperating with the government of Iraq in order to create conditions for them to be welcomed and to receive protection and assistance.

So obviously an intensification of the conflict leads to the risk of a larger outflow of Syrians, of a more difficult situation for the Iraqi refugees in Syria and more difficult access to the Syrian population that we are trying to help, as I said, in close coordination with the Syrian-Arab [Red Crescent? represent] and our other partners at —

Media:  How many more refugees do you expect?

High Commissioner Guterres:  I don’t think it makes sense to — There are many possible scenarios and we all have seen crisis of this nature in different parts of the world.  Let’s hope that this doesn’t evolve into the kind of gigantic outflows we have witnessed in Afghanistan or Iraq.  Let’s hope that, again, a solution is found.  But of course we have to do contingency planning for more dramatic situations.

Assistant Secretary Richard:  One of the things we’ve seen is that a lot of Syrians are trying to stay within Syria.  There’s a million people displaced within Syria.  So as serious as the situation is for the refugees who cross borders into Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and again we see governments stepping forward to keep their borders open and to host.  There are a lot of people in need who are still inside Syria.

They need help, and we’re fortunate that international organizations and NGO partners are able to get help inside, because it’s very hard for some of us to have access into the country.  So it makes it harder to monitor the situation, get accurate numbers, but it’s absolutely lifesaving work and we’re very grateful to UNHCR and ICRC and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and some of our non-governmental organization partners for doing that.

Media:  [Reuters].  On Syria, we’ve heard from UNHCR about a lot of outflows into Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq.  And I think three of those countries Syrian refugees are basically going into camps.  But going into Lebanon they are pretty much doing what they think is a short term trip, staying in hotels or apartments.  I’m not aware they’re going into camps.  And Lebanon is of course something of a tinderbox.

I’m wondering if they do not get the chance to return as a lot of them are expecting to, what is the capacity of Lebanon to absorb a large influx of Syrian refugees over the longer term?  How many do you think that Lebanon can cope with?  And is there a worry that if they don’t go back at some point this is going to be a much worse problem in Lebanon because obviously nobody wants to live in a refugee camp, but at least there you have a controlled situation.  Whereas if they’re just in the general population it may be more inflammatory.

High Commissioner Guterres:  It’s not for UNHCR to enter into the complexity of the political debate about relations between Lebanon and Syria, and we all know how much there is a strong linkage between these two societies.  So it’s natural that Syrians coming into Lebanon find ways to be received by the local population to more easily integrate in the local communities.

Until now the truth is, and the number of Syrians in Lebanon is much larger than the number of refugees assisted, much larger.  We don’t know.  It’s difficult to know exactly how many.  But just to give the parallel with Syria, with Jordan that has direct control, we are assisting in Jordan about 40,000 people.  And according to the Jordanian government, there are more than 140,000 Syrians that came into Jordan and didn’t go back.  So the number of Syrians today in Lebanon is difficult to estimate.  Until now, as I said, the Lebanese society has proven its capacity with our support and with other international actors to host these communities.  And to be honest, we are happy with that because we prefer this than the encampment solution, even if we understand at a certain moment the encampment solution might be necessary as it was the case in the beginning in Turkey and it now is the case also in relation to new arrivals in Jordan.  We will be ready to cooperate with the Lebanese authorities if necessary, let’s hope not, to also use that solution if the capacity to absorb through the more natural ways that have been used until now becomes no longer available.

There is always the encampment solution but I think it’s much better for the refugees to be able to live with the community and to benefit from a much more normal, if I can use the word, way of life.

Media:  [VOA].  I’d like to go back to Mali, if I may.

High Commissioner Guterres:  Oh, you may.  That was exactly the idea.  [Laughter].

Media:  I thought so.

I know that life as a refugee or displaced person is not a great situation, but I want — You ask for money, and I want to know what the actual impact on the refugees and displaced of not having money is having upon them.  That is, are they not getting enough food?  Are they not getting the water they need or the health care they need?  You haven’t mentioned I guess this terrible situation of about a million chronically or severely acutely malnourished children and what their risks are in terms of death.

Then I’d also, if you would, you’ve met refugees and you spoke to them.  That’s what you told us.  What impressed you most?  Was there any particular situation that you found really compelling?

High Commissioner Guterres:  I’d suggest that I answer the first question and you answer the second.

Assistant Secretary Richard:  Okay.

High Commissioner Guterres:  For the moment we have been all concentrating on lifesaving assistance which means essentially shelter, food, water, and health.  And in relation to these basic needs we are not entirely satisfied, but the situation I would say is under control.

The World Food Program has been able to maintain support to these populations, but they are very worried because their perspectives of funding in the medium term are very limited.  So there is a risk of the food pipeline to be impacted, and it was very radically conveyed to us.

In relation to water in Burkina Faso, for instance the average is below, is about 80 percent of the 15 liters per day per person when it should be 20 liters per day per person.  So as I said, we are not there from the point of view of providing lifesaving assistance in the exact conditions in which that is necessary.

But very little is being done on education.  Very little is being done on livelihoods and support to the capacity of people to be self-reliant.  And very little is being done to support the local communities that are hosting the refugees because there are no funds for that.  This is again, risk.

On the other hand, now we are in the rainy season.  So, for instance, the cattle that came, we estimate that into Burkina Faso 100,000 animals came, practically the same number of animals as the number of refugees themselves.  Now it’s relatively easy for them to find grass because of the rain.  But in three months’ time there will be no rain and these cattle will be competing with the local cattle in very very dramatic situations.

So there are a certain number of things that we should be doing now in relation to the environment, in relation to the support of the local communities in order to make sure that this program is sustainable.  And unfortunately, we have not the funds to do it at the present moment.

So to cut a long story short, basic lifesaving has been guaranteed, of course with gaps.  Concerns, for instance, with cholera in several areas.  Until now able to avoid it but it’s a big concern.  In some areas it’s already existing in non-refugee populations, in local populations.  But lifesaving activities have been essentially guaranteed.  But all the other things that are needed in order to provide for a dignified life for refugees and adequate support for local communities that sometimes have exactly the same kind of needs, we are very far from doing what is essential.

I mentioned the figures about the UNHCR funding gap, but all the NGOs that talked to us yesterday mentioned that their own funds are being exhausted.  The same with other UN agencies.  So indeed, we are all very very worried as unfortunately the situation does not tend to improve and likely we might even have new outflows of refugees, especially if the conflict intensifies or if some kind of operations take place.  There is always an immediate impact of displaced populations when that happens.

Assistant Secretary Richard:  This refugee crisis was similar to other refugee crises in the families, multiple generations; you see them living in very harsh conditions and you see the standards that the High Commissioner mentioned, the severe standards trying to be maintained and upheld in terms of water and sanitation, food, health care, and other basic needs.

What was different about this group of people was that they are nomadic, and so they are used to moving.  When we pulled up in our SUV there were several gentlemen on camels.  The first thing they did was invite the High Commissioner to wear a turban, and they wrapped it around his head so that only his eyes peeped out which I thought cut a very dashing figure and not his usual attire for visiting.

More seriously, what that meant was that they already own tents and they’re used to putting up tents, so they’re using additional plastic sheeting and tenting equipment to expand those tents to be more comfortable.

They brought animals with them.  The children have had milk in some cases.

So there are aspects to this community that are a little different, and different sometimes in positive ways.

A couple of things that concerned us was one, what will happen in the fall when it’s time for children to go back to school?  If they’re not back in Mali, there were a lot of children there and we know that in an emergency, even in an emergency, the safest place for children and the way to keep them occupied, entertained and thriving is to have them in school.  So that was an issue that we talked to the Burkina Faso government about.

In talking to the women, we heard the same answer over and over again which was that they wanted to have some kind of activity, some kind of revenue-generating project so that they could not just sit idly, but instead be active.  It’s my understanding that women in this culture do usually do a lot of work, so they were eager to have help to do that.

Those are the types of things that if there’s additional funding we can move ahead from just the basic lifesaving to some more projects that help people thrive.  Not just survive, but thrive.

Media:  [Inaudible], Spanish News Agency.

To Mrs. Richard, you said that the U.S. administration has preference to use the diplomatic channels to look for a solution of this crisis in Mali.  But in what instance do you think that it’s possible to have any dialogue with an extremist and radical Islamist group?  So at what point do you think it’s possible in a future scenario to give military assistance to a government of unity, official government of unity in Mali?

And for Mr. Guterres, I would like to know the current situation of outflows and inflows of refugees from the north of Mali.  Are people still feeling in big numbers from the north to the neighboring countries and displacing inside the region?  Because we have now the number you gave us, but now the specific situation, how do you foresee for the next weeks?

Assistant Secretary Richard:  I’m not trying to give you the brush-off, but your question addresses things that are not in my portfolio, so I’m going to take a pass on that.

I can tell you that several different parts of the State Department are grappling with this crisis.  In addition to the Africa Bureau there’s the Counter-Terrorism Bureau and there are folks who are concerned about North Africa.  So we can get representatives from there to talk to you. 

High Commissioner Guterres:  The present inflow, when I mean the present I mean in the last few days, has been relatively limited.  And the reason is at the present moment there is not a major conflict taking place because the Malian army is completely left the north.  The MNLA also was kicked out from the north which means that a certain number of groups, namely [Unsardine], [Mujal], et cetera, have control of the situation.  So there is no active conflict at the present moment.

But of course there are some people fleeing because of human right aspects.  But of course that represents smaller numbers of people moving.

Simply, the situation is not solved so we need to be prepared for any resumption of conflict that might generate new, big outflows, and at the same time, we are very concerned with the fact that humanitarian aid inside Northern Mali is very limited.  Again, we are now in the rainy season.  The rainy season has many problems in some aspects like logistics, risks of health.  But it has the advantage of allowing for people to survive more easily.

When the rainy season ends if humanitarian aid at that moment again will not be available inside Northern Mali, we could have a major outflow, not because only of conflict but also because of famine like it has happened in Somalia last year.

So we are very concerned and we are doing, we had recently in Dakar a meeting of the different humanitarian actors of the region to prepare contingency plans for what could be an aggravation of humanitarian crisis if that happens in the near future.

But in the last few days when we were there, there was not any massive movement crossing the border as we have witnessed a few weeks or months ago.

Assistant Secretary Richard:  Thank you.