As many of you know, last month marked the 30th
anniversary of the 1980 Refugee Act, a cornerstone of our international protection architecture. This landmark legislation is a testament to the dedication and passion of Senator Edward Kennedy, who insisted on an effective and impartial system to respond to the needs of the world’s most vulnerable citizens. The Refugee Act reflects our highest values and aspirations – of compassion, generosity and leadership in serving vulnerable populations. Moreover, reliance on the support of millions of Americans is a fundamental component of success that the Act has achieved. Congress legislated the Refugee Act, but it has ultimately been local communities that have helped to safeguard the resettlement program – by opening their hearts, homes, and communities to refugees from around the world.
On March 16, Human Rights First and Georgetown University Law School hosted a day-long symposium on renewing U.S. commitment to refugee protection on the anniversary of the Refugee Act, and I had the honor of the morning keynote. In my address, I sought to assess contemporary efforts to realize the Act’s objectives, and sought to identify new protection challenges that demand humanitarian action. In short, we must broaden our concept of protection and expand our efforts to vindicate this concept, even as civil conflict, increased intolerance among many governments for the rights of refugees and displaced persons, and concerns about terrorism have created a much more challenging environment. The full address, Advancing Protection in the 21st Century: Reflections on the 30th Anniversary of the U.S. Refugee Act, can be found at http://www.state.gov/j/prm/rls/rmks/2010/138425.htm.
Just after the Georgetown meeting, I traveled with our Undersecretary of State for Global Affairs, Maria Otero, to Denver and Phoenix, where Maria and I had the chance to visit with newly arrived refugees, State and local officials, and NGOs involved in resettlement issues. Maria and her family emigrated from Bolivia in her youth, and her profound understanding of the challenges of integrating into a new culture allowed her to connect immediately with both the refugees and program administrators with whom we met. We saw the full range of stakeholders in both cities, including state, county and local government officials; local voluntary agency resettlement staff; local police, public health, education, employment and transportation officials; and resettled refugees. We were so very gratified by the strong and unequivocal messages of support we received from local community members, who were enthusiastic about the State Department’s recent decision to double the level of initial assistance provided to newly arriving refugees. This “Resettlement and Placement” grant covers the first 30-90 days refugees are in the United States, and we were told the increase has made a great difference in the quality of services the resettlement agencies are now able to provide, and in the lives of the refugees themselves.
Throughout the visit I was struck by the extraordinary efforts of our partners in the field. They are working assiduously to meet the needs of the refugee populations they serve, and their personal commitment to the service of others was as inspiring as it was impressive. Equally impressive was the network of local service providers who are enthusiastic partners in the resettlement program. We met a high school principal in Phoenix who so appreciated the diversity refugee students bring to his school that he integrated their experience into the school’s international studies program. We met with members of the Denver Police Department who work in close cooperation with state refugee program staff to build trust among refugee populations who may have been resettled from countries where people have very difficult relations with law enforcement authorities. And we met with a landlord in Denver who runs a complex where approximately 35% of the units are rented to refugee families in a manner that allows for flexibility as the families adjust to life in the United States.
As always, the highlight of the trip was the opportunity to meet with resettled refugees themselves, including families from Burma, Eritrea, Iraq, Bhutan, Liberia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Though the economic downturn has increased the challenge of settling in to life in the United States, families continue to persevere and to succeed. I met one family in the Phoenix area whose spirit and determination was overwhelming. The Golo family arrived in Phoenix in 2005 after spending 15 years in a refugee camp in Ghana, having fled from Liberia. In 2007 James Golo, the family patriarch, participated in the New Roots Farm Program
run by the International Rescue Committee and learned organic farming techniques and business development, and he and his family are now the proprietors of the successful Golo Family Organic Farm, located outside Phoenix.
Even after 15 years in a refugee camp and tribulations one can only imagine, the continued closeness of the family members was clearly evident. As James and I spoke, his 19-year old son leaned against James, the bend of the son’s elbow casually resting on the father’s shoulder. The ease with which they moved and worked together reinforced for me that even after enduring years of seemingly unbearable hardship, individuals and families are just waiting for the opportunity to grow and thrive.
As a community we share a profound responsibility to make sure the refugee resettlement program works to its fullest potential. I work with an extraordinarily committed group of people in the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration and I assure you we will continue to do all in our power to meet our responsibilities to the populations we serve.
I am off to the Dominican Republic and Haiti next week, to consider and assess our efforts to address humanitarian and migration challenges some three months after the devastating earthquake, and to offer continued support and solidarity to the governments and people of both countries. I look forward to the opportunity to report upon my return.
Many thanks, and kind regards,
Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration