An official website of the United States government

U.S. Policy and Response to Recent Refugee Crises in Africa
May 15, 2014

U.S. Policy and Response to Recent Refugee Crises in Africa

Remarks by Simon Henshaw
Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration
Ethiopian Community Development Council
Washington, DC
May 1, 2014

Good morning and thank you for that kind introduction. It is an honor to be here. The best part of my job is the chance to meet people like you who dedicate their lives to helping refugees get a fresh start. Congress may have passed the Refugee Act of 1980, but it is your efforts, and those of local communities, that have helped implement the resettlement program – by opening hearts and homes to refugees from around the world. I understand that some of you may have once been refugees yourselves, facing the same obstacles and challenges your clients do today.

Millions of refugees depend on the expertise and dedication of organizations like ECDC. We at the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration depend on you as well. As you know, our resettlement program is the largest in the world and has welcomed more than 3 million refugees to the United States since 1975.

Last year was a remarkable one for refugee resettlement; in 2013, the President set the ceiling for arrivals at 70,000. When the year was over, our final total included 69,927 refugees from 65 countries. I don’t have to tell you, but that represents 69,927 lives on the path to a new beginning in the United States.

Increasing resettlement of African refugees is a major priority for the Obama Administration. Last fiscal year we resettled nearly 16,000 Africans to the U.S., and this year we are looking to resettle at least 15,000. PRM is working hard with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to raise the number of referrals and to improve our own processes so we can admit the refugees they refer more efficiently. We are expanding resettlement infrastructure such as medical clinics and interview facilities throughout the continent and interviewing refugees in countries including Mauritania and Namibia where we haven’t worked in previous years. We have also begun offering resettlement to populations such as Eritrean Afaris in Ethiopia and Somalis in Eritrea, who lacked these opportunities before.

When the Government of Chad recently resumed the resettlement of Sudanese, the Department of Homeland Security immediately returned and just completed its first series of refugee interviews in Eastern Chad in four years. We hope that refugees from Darfur will begin departing from Chad and arriving in the United States later this year. PRM is also determined to see the Congolese resettlement strategy come to fruition. We and our partners are expanding our program to resettle Congolese refugees from Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, Burundi and Southern Africa. And whereas most other resettlement countries have closed their doors to resettling additional Somalis, our commitment to admitting Somali refugees remains strong. In fact, we admitted more Somalis last year than in any year since 2006.

Of course PRM works not just to resettle those who flee, but also to respond to crises, save lives, ease suffering and support voluntary return and local integration when possible.

In a crisis, our first priority is ensuring a rapid and coordinated humanitarian response. The United States is the world’s single largest donor to humanitarian causes. In fiscal year 2013, PRM provided almost $2.4 billion to protect, shelter, and care for people forced to flee their homes. The organizations we support handle the acute and protracted phases of an emergency, provide life-saving assistance and help lay the groundwork for recovery and reconciliation when the conflict is over.

We also engage in humanitarian diplomacy, exerting the influence of the world’s most powerful nation on behalf of the world’s most vulnerable people. We advocate with governments to keep their borders open to those fleeing conflict in neighboring countries. We urge other nations – behind closed doors and in public – to join us and contribute their resources to humanitarian appeals. This humanitarian diplomacy is every bit as crucial to our mission as the dollars we donate and it’s a unique part of my bureau’s mission.

As the principal humanitarian advisor within the State Department, PRM strives to make sure our foreign policy stresses respect for humanitarian principles and protection for vulnerable populations. And we work with other governments, the United Nations, U.S. government agencies, and our refugee officers at U.S. embassies to protect and assist refugees, internally displaced persons, stateless people and migrants on the ground. Our outreach is sometimes quiet, but it can have a huge impact. It can ensure that refugees are not forcibly returned, that undocumented migrants are protected from abuse and exploitation, and unaccompanied children are reunited with their parents.

Another priority for PRM is protecting women and children caught in crisis. Conflict leaves them more vulnerable to sexual and domestic violence, human trafficking, forced and early marriage, and other forms of gender-based violence. Too often, gender-based violence is recognized as a problem too late, after major humanitarian response efforts are underway. To close this gap, in 2013, the United States launched a new multimillion dollar initiative called ‘Safe from the Start’. Its aim is to equip the humanitarian system to prevent and respond to gender-based violence around the world in the earliest days of an emergency, which is often when such needs are most critical.

We are working to apply these priorities in the major emergencies to which we are responding today. Syria, of course, is the biggest one so I will say a word about that before turning to situations in Africa.

Syria is one of three “level three” emergencies the global community faces today. That is the UN’s highest level of humanitarian emergency. And the situation there is getting worse. The United States is the largest single donor to humanitarian relief efforts there and PRM helps to protect and feed more than 2.7 million Syrian refugees throughout the region. And we will continue to press all parties to the conflict, particularly the regime, to expand humanitarian access to reach more than 9.3 million inside Syria in desperate need of food, shelter, and health care.

The other two ongoing “level three” emergencies are the ones unfolding in South Sudan and the Central African Republic (CAR). And since we are focusing here on U.S. policy responses to crises in Africa, I will discuss these emergencies in some detail.

In CAR we are in a race against time to save lives. One million Central Africans have been displaced. Nearly two thirds are displaced within CAR while one-third have fled to neighboring countries and are now living as refugees. They have gone to Chad, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the Republic of Congo.

We are deeply troubled by the escalating violence and lawlessness, the attacks by ex-Seleka rebels and anti-Balaka militias, and the fact that communities are being targeted because of their religion. The danger is so grave that UNHCR has taken the extraordinary step of evacuating certain Muslim populations under siege, relocating some to other parts of the country and some to neighboring Chad, essentially helping them become refugees. Gunmen have attacked not only innocent civilians but also international peacekeepers and humanitarian workers. Victims include three workers for the aid organization Doctors Without Borders who were killed in Nanga Boguila this past weekend. Among those who have fled the violence in the CAR are over 100,000 nationals of the neighboring countries – or even countries as far away as Mali – who had been living and working in the CAR for many years, even generations. We commend the African Union and French forces in CAR for leading the effort to quell the violence and save lives, and we welcome the UN Security Council’s April 10 decision to deploy a UN peacekeeping operation. The United States has committed up to $100 million to support the African Union and French forces, in addition to the humanitarian aid we provide for civilians.

In late March and early April, Assistant Secretary Anne Richard visited southern Chad and Bangui where she witnessed first-hand the misery spawned by the violence. She met with both those affected and those striving to help them. She saw how host countries, UN agencies, and NGOs are providing shelter, food, and protection and what enormous challenges they face.

Following this visit, our Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power announced $22 million in additional U.S. Government funding for humanitarian assistance to help people affected by the CAR crisis, bringing the total to more than $91 million in FY 2013 and FY 2014. We anticipate adding to this in the near future to support the latest funding appeals from humanitarian agencies.

In addition, the United States is providing $7.5 million for conflict mitigation, peace messaging, and human rights programs in CAR. We have also sponsored high-level inter-religious dialogues to help establish a basis for national reconciliation in CAR. And we are urging all parties to end the violence, establish judicial mechanisms to punish human rights abusers, and work toward an inclusive political process leading to democratic elections in February 2015.

The situation in South Sudan is equally alarming. Approximately one-tenth of South Sudan’s population has been displaced by the violence that began on December 15. Close to 1 million people have been displaced internally. And nearly a quarter of them have fled to insecure and underserved areas where food and assistance could be cut off. More than 293,000 new refugees have been forced to flee to neighboring countries, including Uganda, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Sudan. As the conflict drags on, the condition of these refugees is worsening, and more and more of them arrive suffering malnutrition. Like civilians in CAR, South Sudanese are being targeted based on their ethnicity and with shocking brutality. Just last week, for instance, anti-government forces massacred several hundred civilians in the northern city of Bentiu.

We are also disturbed by the hurdles aid groups are facing as they seek to reach people in need. Humanitarian workers—both international and South Sudanese—are working at great personal risk to save lives. They have been physically attacked and targeted for harassment. Their relief supplies have been looted or delayed in customs, and their vehicles stolen, blocked, or hijacked. In Bor, as you may know, gunmen forced their way into a United Nations Mission to South Sudan (UNMISS) compound and opened fire on civilians who had taken shelter inside. Around the country there are currently 87,000 IDPS, including nearly 80,000 civilians seeking protection at eight UNMISS bases.

The Executive Order (E.O.) signed by President Obama sends a clear message to the Government of South Sudan and Riek Machar’s forces: those who threaten the peace, security, or stability of South Sudan, obstruct the peace talks and processes, undermine democratic institutions, or commit human rights abuses will be at risk of U.S. sanctions.

The only solution to this crisis is for the parties to the conflict to adhere to the cessation of hostilities agreement they signed on January 23, and cease the violence immediately. President Obama’s Envoy, Ambassador Donald Booth, is in Ethiopia now working to bring the warring parties to the negotiating table for peace talks set to resume later this month.

We are calling all parties to immediately and fully cooperate with the United Nations and humanitarian organizations, as they carry out the urgent task of protecting civilians and providing life-saving assistance. Humanitarian groups must be able to do their jobs without the threat of violence, taxation, or arbitrary impediments. The Government of South Sudan should cease all negative messaging about UNMISS and fulfill its duty to restore law and order. We also urge those countries that have committed additional forces to UNMISS to work with the United Nations to deploy to South Sudan and immediately reinforce this Mission.

The United States is the leading donor of humanitarian assistance to South Sudan. We are providing more than $411 million in fiscal years 2013 and 2014, including $83 million announced just last month, to aid displaced persons both inside and outside the country. Last month, USAID, and the EU and UN humanitarian agencies jointly issued an urgent “Call for Action” on South Sudan, calling for more international support for the people of South Sudan. Neighboring countries are helping by keeping their borders open to those fleeing the violence. Ethiopia is providing land for new refugee camps. Kenya is expanding the Kakuma) refugee camp. Uganda is expanding transit centers and settlements as well.

Still, the needs are tremendous. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the crisis response plan is only thirty percent funded. With the rainy season in South Sudan already upon us, the humanitarian situation will likely grow worse in the coming months. Insecurity has prevented humanitarians from doing normal, vital dry season prepositioning. The risk of famine in South Sudan is quite real, as many South Sudanese have not been able to plant their crops and have lost their livestock as a result of the conflict.

These so-called “mega-crises” are not the only problems that demand our attention. For instance, we are worried about the treatment of African migrants and asylum seekers in Egypt—especially those who have been kidnapped, detained, and subjected to severe abuse by smuggling networks. In addition to ongoing reports of abuse in the Sinai, we are also following trends suggesting that routes are shifting westward toward Libya.

The plight of urban refugees is also worrying. This is one reason I traveled last year to Kenya and Uganda. Both countries have large populations of refugees living in urban environments. In Kenya, the government is rounding up urban Somali refugees from Nairobi and Mombasa and either moving them into camps if they are registered or deporting them to Somalia. We are concerned that refugees relocated to camps lose the right to move about freely and the ability to earn money and become self-reliant. We are also disturbed about reports that some urban refugees are being deported without adequate protection screening and that some have even been abused in the process. We are urging the Government of Kenya to accord UNHCR full access to those detainees so that UNHCR and the government can review refugee claims together. At the same time, we are funding programs to improve services for urban refugees in Nairobi, Kampala and elsewhere. Programs we are piloting in Egypt offer legal services, child protection, counseling, education, and opportunities for employment for African refugees.

We are also prioritizing the needs of especially vulnerable populations, such as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. In Uganda, for example, the recent passage of a strict anti-homosexuality law has made LGBT refugees and those defending the human rights of LGBT individuals even more vulnerable. We will continue to fund partners that address the legal, medical, and psychosocial needs of this population and others facing similar discrimination, and we are also working with our partners in neighboring countries to ensure that Ugandans that flee from persecution find support.

My bureau can provide humanitarian assistance in Africa and around the world because of the generous support we receive from Congress, on behalf of the American people. These funds have also allowed us to bolster resettlement programs. In 2010, as the economic crisis strained local governments and charities, PRM doubled per capita funding for receiving and placing refugees. We have provided modest but steady increases since then and hope to continue doing so. But it is the work of groups like ECDC that helps to turn our nation’s promise to welcome refugees into a reality. Meeting you keeps those of us who are often caught up in the policy details motivated and focused on the human face of the important work we all share. Thank you for the part you play in letting refugees turn their stories of tragedy into ones of triumph.