This is a lengthy report reflecting a number of consequential meetings on humanitarian issues at the United Nations in New York and Geneva in late September and early October, and on my recent trip to Pakistan and Afghanistan. Frankly, I didn’t plan such a long letter, but a lot has transpired over the past month – and I wanted to fill you in.
First, I want to emphasize how much we in the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM) appreciate the reactions we are receiving to these update notes. For example, Refugee Council USA (RCUSA) recently sent us a letter commenting on the note following my September visit to Salt Lake City and Portland, two communities hosting resettled refugees. Using the note as a point of departure, the RCUSA letter offered a range of recommendations on how we might better implement the resettlement program. I’m pleased that the updates are spurring this kind of exchange, which I value deeply – as it can only serve to improve our assistance to vulnerable communities here and overseas.
Meeting with elders from the IDP community in Jalozai camp, Pakistan. Photo courtesy of the State Department, October 9, 2010.
From September 19-23, I was in New York for the opening of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) and shortly thereafter, from October 4-6, I traveled to Geneva to participate in the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Executive Committee meeting (EXCOM). On both trips, I was ably assisted by PRM Washington and Geneva staff, as well as by colleagues from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) who work on humanitarian issues in New York and Geneva. Our effort was greatly strengthened by the two NGO members of our delegation, Bob Carey of the International Rescue Committee (representing RCUSA), and Mary Pack of International Medical Corps (representing InterAction). You may have already seen our EXCOM plenary statement, at http://www.state.gov/j/prm/ra/admissions/index.htm, and our protection statement, which outline our broad humanitarian policy and protection concerns, but I wanted to provide you with a sense of how we have tried to use these New York and Geneva sessions to advance more specific objectives with bilateral and multilateral partners. Without turning this note into a monograph, let me describe some highlights.
Our major focus was on Burmese refugees in Thailand, and I spoke in New York and Geneva, respectively, with Kasit Piromya, the Thai Foreign Minister, and Tawin Pleansri, Secretary General of the National Security Council. In each meeting, I expressed our concern that the upcoming Burma elections were unlikely to improve the situation for displaced Burmese on either side of the border, and might in fact result in increased conflict. Thus, while expressing our appreciation to the Thai authorities for providing continued refuge for Burmese, we also emphasized our strong view that they should continue to receive protection – and that decisions on return of refugees to Burma should not be based on whether elections have taken place, but rather on a fair assessment of internal conditions. Our interlocutors told us they understood our concerns and indicated they would avoid precipitous action on refugee returns. We will continue our engagement with them on this important question.
At the UN in New York, I saw Sri Lankan Minister of External Affairs G. L. Pieris. Our session followed a meeting earlier this year between Secretary Clinton and Minister Pieris, at which humanitarian issues had also been on the agenda. We welcome the substantial returns of internally displaced persons to the north of Sri Lanka that have taken place; some 300,000 have now left camps and have either gone back to their areas of origin or are living with host families. I expressed our continued intention to provide support for assistance to both the displaced and those who have returned. But I also raised concerns about consistency of access for humanitarian groups to areas of return, and emphasized that greater access for these partners – as well as a decentralization of decision-making to allow local authorities more latitude to coordinate humanitarian response – would improve the quality of life for vulnerable people and enhance international confidence about government policies toward the north.
I also saw Nepal’s Home Minister Bhim Rawal in New York, and thanked him for his government’s willingness to host the Bhutanese refugee population, which currently stands at 75,000, down from the 2007 peak of 108,000. I told him that the United States will continue its support of this population through resettlement – already over 30,000 have arrived to the United States since 2007– and that we will continue to work toward other durable solutions. Frankly, we’ve been very disappointed by the failure of the Government of Bhutan to accept members of this group who wish to return and have legitimate citizenship claims, but we will of course continue our efforts to encourage Bhutanese officials to act responsibly on this issue. Minister Rawal and I also discussed Tibetan refugees, and the U.S. government's concerns for both the long-staying Tibetan population in Nepal as well as the importance of maintaining protection for new Tibetan arrivals that transit Nepal en route to India.
Finally, in both New York and Geneva, I met with senior officials of the governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan; in my trip reports, below, I will brief on our policy and program engagement with each government on humanitarian issues.
Both in New York and Geneva, I focused on Palestinian refugees and displaced Iraqis. In New York, I saw Filippo Grandi, Commissioner General of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), and we discussed funding shortfalls that will impact UNRWA's work in the months to come. With over $238 million in funding in Fiscal Year 2010, the United States is the largest country donor to UNRWA, and we are urging other governments – both traditional funders and governments in the Arab world – to do more. We compared notes on this issue, and considered the most effective way ahead in garnering more financial support. I promised that we would do what we could to encourage others. For example, in Geneva, I met with the Canadians to request they resume core support for UNRWA’s General Fund that they suspended in 2009. Finally, I discussed with the Commissioner General progress in expanding the provision of humanitarian supplies to Gaza, an issue which is high on the agenda of our dialogue with the Government of Israel.
On Iraq, I met with Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari in New York to discuss ways to assist the 1.6 million Iraqis who have been displaced internally since the sectarian violence sparked by the February 2006 Samarra Mosque bombing, as well as the hundreds of thousands of refugees who remain outside the country. The Government of Iraq recently increased the budget for its Ministry of Displacement and Migration to $200 million, increased grants to returnees by fifty percent, and forgave utility bills for some returnees. Moreover, Prime Minister Order 54, issued in July 2009, authorized the government of Iraq to allocate $32 million in compensation to displaced persons in Diyala governorate, $41 million for improved services, and 10,000 six-month contract jobs to Diyala residents, mainly returnees. However, substantial challenges remain, and require far greater resources and level of effort by the Government of Iraq. Foreign Minister Zebari and I discussed these requirements at some length, and the Administration will continue our engagement with senior officials in the months to come. The United States contributed $405.8 million in humanitarian aid to vulnerable Iraqis in the 2010 fiscal year, and we will sustain our efforts and urge other donors to do so as well.
At UNGA, President Obama and Secretary Clinton emphasized the critical importance of progress on the referendum in Sudan, and many of my efforts in New York and Geneva reflected these concerns. In New York, I met with Sudanese Foreign Minister Ali Ahmed Karti and Southern Sudanese Minister of Regional Cooperation Deng Alor Kuol; in Geneva, I spoke with State Minister of the Interior Kwong Danhier Gatlunk Nyakand and Commissioner for Refugees Mohammed Ahmed Elaghbash. In all of the meetings, we pressed the authorities to reach understandings, in particular, on nationality rights for southerners in the north and northerners in the south – which of course will be critical if the referendum results in majority support for independence. We also addressed many other humanitarian issues, as Sudan is host to refugee populations from Eritrea, Ethiopia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I expressed our continuing concern about conditions in Darfur, and, in particular, urged the government to ensure unrestricted access for UNHCR. Foreign Minister Karti and the Minister Kuol invited me to visit Khartoum and Juba respectively, and I am hoping to undertake this visit in mid-November.
In Geneva I had a worthwhile discussion with Chad’s Minister of Interior and Public Security, Bâchir Ahmat Mahamat. With the ongoing withdrawal of the UN peacekeeping mission Chad (MINURCAT), the Minister and I considered ways to enhance the capacity of the government of Chad to provide protection for Sudanese and other refugees, as well as internally displaced Chadians, in the eastern part of the country. This is an issue of serious concern, and I will be traveling to Eastern Chad next month to see what progress is possible. Finally, I met in Geneva with Kenyan Commissioner for Refugees Peter Kusimba, to discuss ongoing assistance and protection efforts in Kenya for some 400,000 refugees, most of whom are from Somalia.
In New York and Geneva I met with the leadership of many of our humanitarian partner organizations, including Antonio Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees; Valerie Amos, the new Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator; and Bill Swing, the Director General of the International Organization for Migration. Although topics varied from one session to another, there were a few key themes: the capacity of the international humanitarian system to respond coherently and effectively to large-scale disasters such as in Haiti and Pakistan; the increasing security threats faced by humanitarian groups seeking to provide relief; and the need to ensure adequate funding for humanitarian response at a time when donor budgets are coming under great pressure. In light of this final concern, it is a source of great comfort to me that the Administration and the Congress continue to generously support U.S. humanitarian accounts and mandates.
The flooding: I was in Pakistan between October 8th and 10th. While much of my visit related to Afghan refugees, the response to this summer’s devastating flooding was also a major concern – as two months of heavy rainfall and flooding have affected nearly 20.3 million people, with more than 12 million requiring humanitarian assistance.
At a Strategic Dialogue with Pakistani officials in Washington last week, Secretary Clinton reaffirmed our commitment to assist the relief and recovery effort, when she said, “I want to send a special message to the people of Pakistan: We have stood with you, and we will keep standing with you to help you not just cope with the aftermath of the floods, but to get back on the path to prosperity.” In fact, the Administration has provided over $400 million worth of flood relief over the past several months, with some $350 million coming from the U.S. Agency for International Development and about $50 million from the PRM Bureau. In addition, the Departments of Defense and State have provided nearly $80 million in air support and other commodities.
The international and national aid effort has helped to prevent this disaster from becoming an even larger humanitarian crisis, but there is no question that the floods outstripped capacity to meet urgent needs. I met with Lieutenant General Nadeem Ahmed, Chairman of Pakistan’s National Disaster Management Authority, and also consulted at length with the UN’s new Special Envoy for Assistance to Pakistan Rauf Engin Soysal about how he intends to structure his operation. Special Envoy Soysal, who has long experience in Pakistan and is highly regarded, told me he is likely to devote a great deal of time and attention to flood relief and early recovery in the months to come. We welcome his intention to exercise strong leadership of UN organizations on the ground.
I discussed with Interior Minister Rehman Malik issues relating to Afghan refugees, some 1.6 million of whom are registered in Pakistan. Although Pakistani officials believe that Afghan refugees should return home and receive support from their government to do so, officials in Islamabad also recognize that Afghan returns should be voluntary. In that spirit, the government of Pakistan has recently renewed registration (and residence permits) for registered Afghan refugees. I expressed our appreciation for Pakistan’s tolerance toward this community. I also announced an additional $1 million contribution to the Refugee Affected and Hosting Areas (RAHA) initiative, a joint Pakistan government/UN program that provides support both to the refugees and the Pakistani communities that host them. This new contribution is in addition to nearly $150 million in overall U.S. civilian humanitarian assistance for Afghans in the region in 2010, and I thought it sent a useful signal of our ongoing solidarity with both the Afghans and their Pakistani hosts. I also visited the Chamkani voluntary repatriation center in Peshawar, from which more than 100,000 Afghans have returned to their country of origin in 2010, and to the flood-destroyed Afghan village of Azakhel outside Peshawar. The Government of Pakistan is considering options for the restoration of this community (which numbered more than 22,000 at the time of the flooding), and we have encouraged authorities to consult closely with the affected population before reaching final decisions.
Finally, I visited the Jalozai camp near Peshawar, which hosts approximately 97,000 Pakistanis who have been displaced by conflict. Although 2.1 million of the 3.6 million Pakistanis who fled fighting in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas have returned to their homes, some 1.1 million remain displaced (and most of these are living with host families). The United States has provided over $280 million in assistance to this group of vulnerable Pakistanis in 2010. In light of all the efforts on behalf of flood victims, I thought it important to visit Jalozai to underscore our continued commitments to those displaced by conflict.
Even as we encourage and welcome Pakistani policies of tolerance toward Afghan refugees, it is incumbent upon the government of Afghanistan to promote greater opportunity in Afghanistan for those Afghans who are ready and eager to return to their country of origin. To be sure, the decision to return is a difficult one and the uncertainty regarding conditions in Afghanistan means that decisions to go back must be voluntary. At the same time, more than five million Afghans have returned since 2002, and more than 106,000 have returned this year alone. Working with UNHCR and the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, the United States has supported efforts to assist returnees, and I visited several sites to examine our initiatives. In Kabul province, I visited a rural village comprised primarily of returnees, where U.S. funds have supported a healthcare facility that will now be run by the Afghan Ministry of Public Health. In Mazar-e-Sharif, I visited a government-provided land allocation site for returnees, as well as a center for Afghan women returnees focused on literacy training, heath education, rights awareness and cultural studies.
While important work to support those who have returned has been completed, much more is needed. For example, the government-provided land allocation sites host many thousands of returnees, but the services they provide are often inadequate. People have great difficulty in accessing healthcare, education, job training and other basic requirements. I discussed this issue at length with the Afghan Minister of Refugees and Repatriation, Jamahir Anwari, as well as with our Ambassador in Kabul, Karl Eikenberry, other officials at the U.S. Embassy and UNHCR personnel. We all agreed that the Ministry must do much more to link returnees with the social services that may be available – whether those come from the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development, Public Health, Education, or Urban Development and Housing. As Secretary Clinton said in Kabul last July, the challenges are formidable, as there are no shortcuts to improving governance. Nonetheless, in the months to come, we will be very aggressive in efforts to promote official capacity to assist returnees, as well to ensure that our aid to NGOs and international organizations is best targeted to meet basic needs. We will also work with our USAID colleagues to promote a smoother transition from relief to development for returnees.
As we work to protect and empower both refugees who remain displaced and those who are returning to Afghanistan, the Secretary of State and those of us who work on these issues in the Administration are particularly focused on the needs of women and girls, who must be fully empowered through programs designed to promote literacy and health, as well as prevent and respond to gender based violence. We will do everything we can to ensure that all refugees returning to Afghanistan have the opportunity to contribute to building their country’s economy, government and society.
I realize this was a lot of material, but I hope it was worth your review.
We look forward to working with the humanitarian community on these critical issues in the weeks and months to come.
Assistant Secretary of State
Population, Refugees and Migration