MR. TONER: Good afternoon and welcome to the State Department. It’s my great pleasure to have with us here today to start off our briefing, in honor of World Refugee Day, to have Assistant Secretary Eric Schwartz here to talk to us a little bit about the day and about the Secretary’s announcement and about his recent trip. So without any further ado, he’ll take your questions.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: Good afternoon. Today, the Secretary hosted an event at the Department with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Gutierrez, in which we marked World Refugee Day, which is an international commemoration designed to highlight the needs of refugees and vulnerable people, as well as to promote sustained commitment to international humanitarian response.
It was quite an event. Scott Pelley of CBS hosted it and featured through video and audio hookup Angelina Jolie, who was in Ecuador, and UNHCR representatives in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Antonio Gutierrez was in Syria. And so I thought I would talk a little bit about our program, our refugee program, and answer any questions you might have about humanitarian response.
There are many reasons why the protection of the most vulnerable really needs to be and is at the center of policy making. First, it’s the moral imperative, the simple policy goal of saving lives. The people of the United States, and in particular the Congress, has demonstrated really remarkable support for efforts to alleviate human suffering. Even in this very difficult budget time that we face, consistently the Congress gives us more money than we ask for for these activities. And if you think about it, that’s a pretty significant statement. And we have a profound responsibility to make good use of the resources they provide.
Second, our leadership role on these issues helps us to influence the progressive development of international humanitarian law, international programs, and policy, so that the quality of the international community’s response continues to improve. And also it enables us as leaders to drive the development of these issues like no other government in the world.
Third, it helps us to build sustained partnerships around the world and communicates our support to our friends and to our adversaries and their populations. It communicates our support for responsible overseas engagement.
And finally, we really have a key goal in promoting reconciliation, promoting security, promoting well-being in circumstances where despair and misery not only threatens people’s lives but also threatens our interests. We all know that ultimately refugee crises and humanitarian crises more generally don’t have humanitarian solutions. I’ve just returned from a trip to Laos and to Thailand. I was at the Thai-Burma border, where the Government of Thailand is hosting hundreds of thousands of Burmese who have fled civil conflict.
Ultimately, the solution to this awfully difficult situation doesn't lie (inaudible). It lies with genuine democracy, peace, and reconciliation in Burma. That solution is not yet in sight, however. And until that time, in Thailand and in so many other places around the world, it’s really critical that we continue to provide life-sustaining support and protection to vulnerable displaced persons.
And we take these responsibilities very seriously. We are by far the largest country contributor to international organizations assisting refugees and displaced persons, including the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, to which we contributed probably about $640 million last year, the International Committee of the Red Cross and other organizations.
Our total assistance for humanitarian activities writ large, largely focused on refugees and displaced persons, probably amounts this year from the civilian agencies of government in the neighborhood of $5 billion. And on this World Refugee Day, I’m very happy to announce that we’ll be making two new contributions totaling $65 million, about $60 million which the Secretary also announced this morning to support the needs of Palestinian refugees through the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine, and $5 million to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Committee of the Red Cross for assistance and protection activities in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.
On the first, with respect to Palestinian refugees and Gaza in particular, the situation, as the Secretary has said, with respect to humanitarian access in Gaza isn’t sustainable – the current situation. And we’re seeking to promote expansion of such assistance. The United States remains the world’s largest country donor by far to Palestinian refugees and we will continue to play that role.
With respect to Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, currently our total assistance over the past several days has been over $30 million and we must, obviously, sustain and strengthen our efforts to respond to that crisis even as we, on the humanitarian side, even as we support diplomatic efforts to end the violence.
So with that, I’d be more than happy to take your questions about World Refugee Day, about my recent trip, about these issues. Yes.
QUESTION: Yes, thanks. I just wanted to ask you on the Kyrgyzstan money, so, in other words, this 5 million is in addition to the 30 million?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: I think this 5 million is part of the package of about 32 million and change. So – and it’s money that we have approved, it’s ready to go, and we’re waiting to get final numbers from ICRC and UNHCR.
QUESTION: And what is it used for in Kyrgyzstan? And it’s also been used on the border of Uzbekistan?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: Yeah, it would be used by – both agencies are operating and seek to operate on both sides of the border. ICRC has already begun distributions of – distribution of assistance in the south of Kyrgyzstan, operating under difficult conditions. They are not only distributing their own material, but they’re also distributing material provided by UNHCR. And so it would – between 2 and 3 million of this contribution will go to ICRC for their activities there, as well as assistance in Uzbekistan where there are camps, some 30 or more in Uzbekistan.
With respect to UNHCR, same thing. UNHCR hopes, I believe, to be flying in to the region as early as tomorrow to asses and assist, and they will be providing nonfood items as well as their own technical expertise and the like, because the camps in Uzbekistan right now are being managed by the Red Cross in Uzbekistan, but UNHCR would be in a position to help. And the Uzbek authorities – we’re very encouraged to learn that the Uzbek authorities have welcomed UNHCR engagement, which – and have also played a constructive role on this issue.
QUESTION: Yes, sir. Where do Iraqi refugees fit into this thing? I mean –
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: They fit in a big way.
QUESTION: Well, because you talked to Gutierrez and you spoke to the UNHCR representative from the Congo, you said. What about the UNHCR representative in Baghdad, Iraq, Mr. Daniel Endres?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: Well, I kind of think by having Antonio Gutierrez in Syria with an Iraqi refugee family with him, I think that was a reflection of I think how important both we and UNHCR see how important we regard the Iraq refugee issue. I think that was one of three remote transmissions at this morning event and it is a fair reflection of how important we regard this issue.
Let me just tell you – let me just throw some statistics out at you. With respect to – in Iraq, ultimately the solution to the refugee and displaced persons situation there, we’ve got some hundreds – a couple of hundred thousand or more Iraqis outside of Iraq as refugees and the estimates are 2 million – some 2 million or more internally displaced persons in Iraq if you include all of the people who have been displaced over the past man years. That’s a huge challenge, right?
The answer to that challenge is not going to be resettlement in the United States. The principal response to that challenge is going to be creating the conditions in Iraq that permit people to go back. And we are working very hard with the Government of Iraq and with UNHCR to help create the conditions for return.
But having said that, some people who are in Jordan, who are in Syria, and who remain in Iraq are in particularly vulnerable situations and for them resettlement, third-country resettlement, needs to be an option. It’s not going to be the option for the majority of Iraqi refugees in the region, nor is it the option for a majority of refugees around the world. It can’t be. With tens of millions of refugees around the world, they’re not going to all resettle in resettlement countries. But it has to be a solution for some number of people whose current status is particularly vulnerable.
So we’ve taken that responsibility very seriously. And in the last several years, by the end of this year, we will have resettled in the United States some 50,000 Iraqi refugees over the past three or four or five years. And this year, I don’t have the exact total, but I believe this year we will be at 17,000 or more resettled from Iraq. And that – and we will sustain that commitment, because we believe it is our responsibility to help promote the option of resettlement for those people who need it in particular. And other countries resettle Iraqi refugees as well, but the United States has resettled the bulk of the refugees.
QUESTION: A quick follow-up?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: Sure.
QUESTION: Could you give us some figures and money-wise how much (inaudible) towards helping Iraqi refugees (inaudible)?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: Sure, be happy to.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: Yes. On the assistance side, on the assistance side, and that’s not resettlement – resettlement is different because resettlement then, when you bring people into the United States that also is a financial commitment. And I can’t give you the numbers (inaudible) be at least tens of millions of dollars for resettlement each year. I can’t give you the exact number. But in terms of assistance, the (inaudible) where we provided help to UNHCR, both to assist Iraqis in Jordan and in Syria, and also to assist the Iraqi Government in reintegration of Iraqis who return or who come back from within Iraq to their homes – right, the internally displaced people who come back to their home areas – that amount of money, this year we will do in the neighborhood of $300 million from the State Department. In addition, USAID will provide additional funds. I don’t have the exact numbers, but we can get them for you. It’ll be in the tens of millions of dollars. But our commitment this year is about $300 million. And that is a significant and substantial commitment and it’s – and we will continue a substantial commitment to the process of return – because we think it’s critical to the overall goal of reconciliation.
QUESTION: What was the most important points Mr. Antonio Gutierrez made from Syria today?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: Good question. I think in fairness, you really should talk to Antonio, but I’ll tell you the points that I think – the two points that I remember him alluding to that we think are extremely important.
Number one, that dealing with migration issues is tough for governments because governments have law enforcement concerns, they have concerns about protecting their borders from uncontrolled migration. So with those pressures, which are completely understandable, you can kind of close up and be less sensitive and responsive to international protection imperatives and international protection principles, or you can figure out responsible ways to address your security and border control interests while also vindicating human rights and protection concerns. And I think one of his points are that governments are being less willing to meet protection obligations, and that’s an issue we take very, very seriously, that there doesn't have to be a conflict between controlling your borders and being responsible international citizens. And I think that was one point that he made.
The second point he made was the concern – a second point he made was the concern about what we call humanitarian space. What that means is, increasingly, it is civilian providers of assistance out in the field in these areas of conflict who are at greater and greater risk. They can’t deliver assistance effectively, they can’t deliver protection effectively, and that they are – and so that their room to maneuver, their room to operate in these environments, is becoming increasingly constricted. And that’s a great cause of concern as well. Those are concerns he raised, but they’re also concerns that we care about.
Let me – I’ll give you a follow-up.
QUESTION: Yes. The Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi issued a statement today complaining that on this occasion that some European countries – he didn’t mention by name – that are expelling the Iraqi refugees by force. What can you say about this issue?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: I think what they’re – well, I think the issue is – I would hope and expect that Iraqi who go through refugee determination processes and are deemed to merit protection from return under the requirements of the Refugee Convention are not being returned. I’d be surprised if those people are being returned. If they are, that’s unacceptable.
I think what you may be referring to is the return of people who are screened out, who are deemed not to merit protection. And I think that may be the concern that you’re referring to.
Our view on this issue – and different governments have different views. Our view on this issue is that for the time being, return to Iraq should be voluntary. That for the time being, return to Iraq should be voluntary. So that is our perspective. Other governments may have different perspectives.
QUESTION: Yeah, what’s the confessional breakdown of Iraqis who are deemed to be in such danger that they need to be relocated? Are these Christians? Chaldeans? Shiites?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: I can – we can get back to you with specifics. But by and large, there are people in need of protection from a wide variety of different ethnic and religious groupings. There aren’t – but we can get back to you with the specific breakdowns if we have them. I think we probably do.
QUESTION: On the money that was announced for the Palestinians today, I was just hoping you could put that into perspective a little bit. Can you say how much the U.S. was spending on similar programs prior to this announcement? Is this a doubling or is that a drop in the bucket compared to what we were already spending? And secondly, how does Gaza play into this? Does this go in partly to help internally displaced people within Gaza or how does it –
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: Well, the people in Gaza are, by – the people that we’re supporting through our assistance are, by definition, refugees. So they’re not internally displaced. They’re Palestinian refugees. And this is – most of this contribution, the overwhelming bulk of it, is to the general operations of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine – right, for Palestinian Refugees, UNRWA.
And this contribution is a new contribution, but it sustains our leadership in support of UNRWA. Last year – we have provided over the past couple or few years over – well over $200 million a year to support UNRWA through its general – for its general budget as well as for special appeals, emergency appeals, and the like. And that magnitude of – we will continue that magnitude of assistance and it keeps us, again, as the country that provides the greatest degree of assistance.
UNRWA has played a critical role in providing necessary services and support and protection for Palestinian refugees. If it didn’t exist, we’d have to invent it. And so this is very important. And it’s also, frankly, a symbol – a signal and a symbol of our support for Palestinians in need.
QUESTION: Despite whatever you aid you give, UNRWA has repeatedly big funding problems.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: Yes.
QUESTION: So how much are you concerned with the situation?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: Deeply. We are deeply concerned about adequate resources for UNRWA. They are experiencing steep and significant funding challenges. And we are working with UNRWA as well as other UN officials as well as other donors to try, frankly, to get other governments who express concern about the fate of Palestinian refugees to provide assistance more generously.
QUESTION: Are you (inaudible) any plans to go to the Middle East?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: I hope to go to the Middle East sometime in the fall, but I don’t have a specific plan. I was in Syria and Jordan and Iraq, for that matter, in October. And I’ll be going back for sure.
QUESTION: So are you worried about (inaudible) as the problem is getting exacerbated by droughts and local wars and all kinds of things?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: Well, that’s – I mean, I think the Secretary’s hosting of the event today is part of an effort on our part to sustain interest and support for this critical work. And there – I think that risk always exists, but humanitarian need is always going to be with us. It doesn’t mean that problems go on forever.
Let me tell you something. Do you know that 10 or 15 years ago, there were 6 million refugees in Africa? Today, there are less than 3 million. All right? Many, many hundreds and hundreds of thousands of African refugees over the past decade or so have returned home, largely with the support of the United States and international organizations promoting programs of return, reconciliation, and reintegration. So it’s not an unconditionally bad news story. But we have to realize that as long as there’s manmade conflict, there is going to be the need for effective humanitarian response.
QUESTION: Could I just – just checking – one last question.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: Last question. Sure.
QUESTION: Fifty thousand –
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- Iraqi refugees settled in the United States over three to five years, past three to five years –
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: We’ll get you the specifics on this, but go ahead.
QUESTION: And then 17,000 was part of that?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: Yeah, 17,000 would be part of it. We will approve at least 17,000 for resettlement this year. Let me give you the exact numbers because I have them in a chart here, nice and easy. Okay? From Fiscal Year 2007, which is October 2006 to – starting October 2006 – to today, to today, we’ve resettled 47,102 – how’s that for a precise number? And that’s why I said I think by the end of the year, we will have resettled at least 50,000.
QUESTION: Okay. Thank you.
MR. SCHWARTZ: Okay? Thank you very much. Okay.
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