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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

Protecting the Persecuted: The Successes and Challenges of Safeguarding Refugees, Internally Displaced Persons and Stateless Persons.

October 26, 2011


Chairman McGovern, Chairman Wolf, and distinguished members of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, thank you for holding this hearing. It is a privilege to be here today as you mark the 60th anniversary of the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 50th anniversary of the 1961 Convention on Statelessness. These are two landmark documents. As Acting Assistant Secretary for the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, I welcome the opportunity to discuss accomplishments made possible by these international accords, and to discuss the challenges we face moving forward. My entire written testimony has been submitted for the record; I will summarize just a few key points this morning.

My work with the State Department’s PRM Bureau has taken me to some of the largest, most protracted refugee situations on the face of the earth: Afghan refugee sites in Pakistan; Burmese refugees in Thailand and Malaysia; the Dadaab refugee camps in Kenya where large numbers of newly arrived Somali refugees join others who have languished in the camps for years; and to countries that have produced huge refugee populations over the years, such as Iraq and Afghanistan. These situations can be disheartening, but there is progress as well. Early next month, I will head to the Balkans to take part in discussions aimed at resolving the remaining displacement issues from the conflict in the early 1990s. It is clear to me in all these travels that U.S. diplomatic engagement, our humanitarian assistance programs, and our support for international refugee law reflect who we are as a people and embody our values as a nation.

During the past six decades, tens of millions of people throughout the world have been forced to flee their countries in search of protection from persecution and conflict. The 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol are the cornerstone for international refugee protection. The Refugee Convention and Protocol created international agreement about the definition of the term “refugee,” and made clear the rights of refugees and the responsibilities of States to protect them. Some 147 countries, including the United States, have ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention or its Protocol.

Last year, the United States celebrated the 30th anniversary of our country’s groundbreaking 1980 Refugee Act, which is based on international refugee law. During the three decades since then, the United States has formally granted asylum to about a half million persons and resettled over 2.6 million refugees. During the past five years alone, we have provided nearly $8 billion in support of protection and assistance efforts worldwide. This represents thousands of lives saved and demonstrates the generosity of the American people and our commitment to the principles enshrined in the Refugee Convention and its Protocol.

At the same time, however, we need to work hard to maintain and strengthen the international system of shared responsibility for the well-being of refugees. A driving force behind the 1951 Refugee Convention was the realization that a single nation cannot shoulder the needs of the world’s refugees alone. It must be a collective responsibility shared by all nations of the world. Countries hosting large refugee populations, such as Pakistan and Chad, need to be confident that if they keep their borders open, the international community will step forward to support humanitarian assistance efforts and will help seek durable solutions for refugee populations. The State Department is aggressively encouraging more nations to contribute financial support to refugee assistance even if they have not made such contributions in the past. We are now working more closely with non-traditional donor nations and encourage them to take on greater responsibilities for refugee protection and assistance worldwide.

Among our greatest challenges is finding long-term solutions for some 8 million refugees and others who have been in limbo for a decade or more, including internally displaced populations who don't fit neatly into the traditional definition of a refugee. My trip to the Balkans next month is part of our focused efforts on this issue. I will be meeting with Foreign Ministers from Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, and Montenegro and with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and representatives of the European Commission to finalize a strategy for ending the refugee chapter in the Balkans.

But just as important as those efforts is what is happening here at home. One of the most visible and effective tools to provide a durable solution for long-term refugees is the U.S. refugee admissions program. We welcomed over 56,000 refugees for resettlement in local communities around the country last fiscal year. I recently had an opportunity to meet with newly resettled refugees in Des Moines, Iowa and Columbus, Ohio. It was inspiring to see these new arrivals reestablishing their lives in freedom and safety, and to witness the generosity of average Americans toward them, but also to recognize the challenges they and their host communities face.

Mr. Chairmen, my written testimony contains a more complete discussion of these and other challenges we face as we apply the 1951 Refugee Convention in today’s world. Before time expires, I would like to say a few words about the issue of statelessness, knowing that the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness is also a focus of your hearing today.

Statelessness is an issue that has not received the international attention it requires. As many as 12 million persons worldwide are believed to be stateless. Without any access to citizenship, stateless individuals typically are unable to register births and deaths, or register their marriages. They lack basic identity documentation and therefore often cannot work legally or travel freely. They cannot vote, cannot open a bank account or own property. In many locations stateless persons lack access to health care and their children cannot attend school. They are marginalized and neglected. Stateless populations include the Roma in Europe, persons of Haitian descent in the Dominican Republic, and denationalized Kurds in Syria, to name just three.

The State Department seeks to prevent and resolve statelessness by engaging with foreign governments and civil society organizations. U.S. diplomats are working to persuade governments to amend discriminatory nationality laws that cause statelessness. We urge governments around the world to provide legal documentation to stateless persons, protect stateless persons from abuse, and ensure they have access to basic services.

Although the United States has not ratified the 1961 Convention on Statelessness because several provisions conflict with U.S. law, we strongly support the objectives of the Statelessness Conventions of 1961 and 1954 and the domestic laws of the United States do not contribute to the problem of statelessness. In addition, the Administration has expressed its support for the general direction of the statelessness provisions contained in the Refugee Protection Act of 2010, introduced by Senator Leahy.

In conclusion, Mr. Chairmen, the United States remains an international leader on the issues of refugees, statelessness, and other populations in need of international humanitarian assistance and protection. We do it because we have legal responsibilities under international and domestic law. We do it because it is the right and humane thing to do and reflects our nation’s core values. And in so doing, we also advance our national interests. It is striking that some of the largest refugee and displaced populations in the world are in places such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Somalia – countries of strategic importance to the United States. Humanitarian assistance represents less than 1 percent of the federal budget. For this small investment, the United States helps protect and keep alive millions of people and helps to set the stage for a restoration of international stability that is in everyone’s best interests, including our own.

Mr. Chairmen, thank you again for your leadership of this Human Rights Commission, and for holding this hearing today.


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