The first half of 2013 has been a busy time for the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration. In this letter I would like to report to you on two displacement crises: Syria and Colombia.
The conflict in Syria has been violent and cruel. As I write this, the UN’s estimate of those killed has surpassed 93,000 people. Many, many more people have been affected, including 1.6 million refugees and over 4 million displaced inside Syria.
Earlier this week, at the G-8 meetings, President Obama announced an additional $300 million in humanitarian assistance for the Syrian people. Since the start of the crisis, the United States has provided nearly $815 million in funding for emergency medical care, food, shelter, and household supplies to victims of the conflict.
In the past year, I have made four trips to countries neighboring Syria and will soon travel again. Many of the refugees I’ve met did not want to leave their homes, but the situation for civilians became too dangerous as they were threatened by fighting or bombs that kill indiscriminately. These are families whose chief concern is not for themselves, but instead for relatives left behind in Syria. In my visits, I have also met with government and UN officials and leaders of other aid agencies to discuss ways to protect and aid the refugees. I expressed gratitude to those countries that are keeping their borders open to refugees, raised concerns about the need to protect all those fleeing the violence in Syria, and discussed the challenges delivering aid in a rapidly evolving security environment.
Help for the people fleeing violence is being provided by international and non-governmental organizations that, in turn, depend on support from the United States. We are the world’s top donor of humanitarian aid to Syrians in need, and we stay in constant touch with a number of UN agencies, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and many other organizations to track the evolving situation on the ground and to ensure our funds reach areas of greatest need and are making a difference. U.S. government funding helps provide the essentials of life - clean water, food, shelter and medical care for millions in need. We also support programs to let children learn, play and recover from trauma and to keep women and girls safe from harm.
Meanwhile, across the globe in Ecuador, refugees continue to arrive from neighboring Colombia. They have short-term needs to feed and house their families, and longer-term needs such as schools for the children and jobs for the adults. While Ecuador has been generous in taking in so many refugees -- more than 55,000 -- and allowing them to stay in a safe place, some refugees suffer from discrimination and are suspected of criminality. Another concern is the refugee screening process has become much tougher to navigate due to recent, restrictive legislation. This is because they’ve fled an area plagued not just by violence from guerrillas, but also from criminal gangs and demobilized militias that have taken up illegal enterprises.
Inside Colombia, despite celebrated advances in caring for its 4-to-5.5 million internally displaced people (IDPs), the violence continues in areas far from the capital of Bogota and innocent people continue to flee for their lives. In cities like the ones we visited – Villavicencio in Meta department and Florencia in the south, near the border with Ecuador– one did not have to go far to meet victims. The Governor of Meta was once held hostage for 7 ½ years and the Mayor of Florencia has recovered from being shot six times in the legs.
In contrast to Syria, where civilians are being slaughtered by the Asad regime, the government of Colombian President Santos is trying to help its displaced citizens. The 2011 Victims and Land Restitution Law creates a victims registry, authorizes humanitarian aid, health care and education for victims, and helps and protects those who reclaim their land. The Colombian government is dedicating real resources to this law. Non-governmental organizations we support distribute aid and advise municipal authorities on how to implement the law. We visited one office set up at the train station in Florencia where displaced families could register and receive various types of assistance from a cross-section of city offices and charities, all of which had set up shop at different desks around a cavernous room. We also went with UN Refugee Agency officials to meet with a community of IDPs who, while living in impoverished circumstances on the outskirts of Villavicencio, were very well organized and had successfully advocated for improvements, such as a pump for clean water, a new school, and a community center.
Back in Washington, I routinely brief the media, Members of Congress, and various external audiences about the humanitarian dimensions of refugee and IDP crises. Some of our media briefings have been oriented to audiences inside Syria, so they will know that Americans care and are leading the world in providing humanitarian aid. After a May trip to Ecuador and Colombia, my aim in speaking to journalists was to remind people of the plight of the victims, even while giving a relatively positive report on the implementation of the Victims Law and hopes for peace. A statement we made at a Brookings Institution event makes clear that we support UNHCR’s efforts to help IDPs, in Colombia, Syria and around the world.
There are many other situations that demand the attention of my colleagues and me – from Mali to Sudan, Burma to Iraq – and we seize many different opportunities to speak up, from the Spring meeting of the UN Commission on Population and Development in New York to a recent conference in Kazakhstan on regional migration where we were represented by PRM’s new Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, career diplomat Simon Henshaw. With World Refugee Day approaching, we take this time to recognize refugees worldwide. Rest assured, PRM continues to respond to the full range of our responsibilities, even as the Syria crisis dominates the headlines.
Anne C. Richard
Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration