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Diplomacy in Action

Advancing Protection in the 21st Century: Reflections on the 30th Anniversary of the U.S. Refugee Act

Eric P. Schwartz
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration
Washington, DC
March 16, 2010


ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: I’ve never gotten an introduction like that before. I’m not sure what I can say now that will – thank you, Elisa.

I want to thank Human Rights First for the opportunity to speak with you this morning, for organizing this day-long conference, and for the group’s undying commitment to the rights and the interests of the world’s most vulnerable citizens. I also, before I get going, want to thank my colleagues at the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration for collaborating, and in particular Jeff Drumta, who is sitting in the back there, for collaborating with me on what we all understood to be an address of some importance. So, for better or worse, what you’re about to hear reflects a fair amount of thought and effort.

I’m proud to say that Elisa omitted one element of my background. She forgot to say that I’m a veteran, of sorts, of Human Rights First. When it was still – some of you may remember it as the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, but some of us who have been around a few more years remember it as the Lawyers Committee for International Human Rights. And some 27 years ago, I had the honor of serving as an intern at the Lawyers Committee for International Human Rights under the guidance of Diane Orenlicher, who is now my colleague at the State Department. I wrote a – I did a study on the international law of belligerent occupation on the West Bank. So – and nothing ever changes, I think, in this business. And of course, I’ve had over the years the absolute pleasure of working with Mike Posner and so many others connected with the organization. But I have to say there is no individual who I’ve had more pleasure in working with, a professional of just enormous integrity, commitment, effectiveness, and passion than Elisa Massimino, who leads this organization with such distinction.

We’ve come together today to mark the 30th anniversary of the 1980 Refugee Act, a real cornerstone in international protection structure. As you all know, it was Senator Kennedy who pressed so relentlessly for the enactment of this legislation. What some of you may not know is that he worked for more than a decade for the passage of this legislation after seeking his early efforts frustrated in what he termed a cycle of inaction.

By 1980, however, world events demanded a comprehensive approach to these issues as millions were being forced from their homes due to persecution and due to war. There was conflict in Asia. The rule of the Khmer Rouge and Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia had unleashed a flood of refugees. There was armed conflict in Central America, with vulnerable populations fleeing in great numbers. The Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan, with millions of Afghans pouring into Pakistan. Africa had also seen conflict in the Ogaden region of Ethiopia and Somalia, with large numbers of civilian casualties. And all this turmoil not only had grave humanitarian implications but also impacted America’s national security interest. Even then, officials may have begun to examine this notion that failed states actually matter in national security policymaking.

And in pressing for passage of the Refugee Act, Senator Kennedy understood a basic truth in humanitarian policymaking – and in all policymaking, for that matter – that capacity and commitment go hand-in-hand. While there is no substitute for political will, we must build the institutions that enable leaders to make the right choices when the choices come in front of them. And that’s just what Senator Kennedy did with the support of leaders like Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Carl Levin of Michigan, the junior senator from Delaware – what was his name again? Joe Biden. And, of course, Alan Simpson, the tough-minded senator from Wyoming who appreciated, nonetheless, the importance of this groundbreaking measure.

They and others recognized that our country had to replace a politicized and ad hoc and inconsistent set of processes with those that reflected our highest aspirations and our most noble values to endure effective and impartial implementation of our non-refoulement and other obligations under a 1967 protocol that incorporated the principles of the of the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees, and by developing an impartial and standardized system of asylum. And they recognized also the need for a fair and generous process of refugee admissions.

And there’s going to be a lot of discussion over the course of the day, as there should be, about what we all must do to better safeguard the rights and interests of refugees and displaced persons. But at the same time, we all ought to take a minute, as the film so beautifully did, to note that the United States has formally granted asylum to about half a million people since the enactment of the Refugee Act. And during the same period, we have resettled nearly two and a half million people.

So here we are 30 years later. And having just mourned the passing of this giant of protection, Senator Kennedy, it certainly is fitting to ask ourselves, how are we doing? Abroad and at home, we are doing everything possible to defend and promote the human rights, the well-being, and the empowerment of the world’s most vulnerable uprooted people. That is the critical question that should inform our work, because these goals – defending rights, promoting well-being, and empowerment – as far as I’m concerned, these are the essence of protection.

In the 20 minutes that I have left, so you can time yourselves, your level of tolerance and patience, I will offer five propositions that frame my own perspectives and inform how I think we must engage on these issues.

First, and much of the focus today, I guess, will be what are we doing here? And that’s some of this talk as well; what are we doing at home? But most of my time is spent looking outside our borders, and so much of what I tell you will be informed by the work I do every day. Ownership of the protection mandate has broadened. More humanitarian groups see protection as their responsibility. And the concept and the goals of protection have similarly expanded. And these are changes that we must embrace and manage effectively.

Whether or not protection has ever been the exclusive domain of the specially mandated agencies – the UNHCR, the ICRC – protection is now clearly a collective responsibility that involve vigilance and action by the full range of UN agencies, non-governmental organizations, international organizations, and of course donor governments. At the Department – at the State Department, we program our support with those objectives in mind. And frankly, I have little interest in having our bureau support aid providers that see themselves as contractors. We want partners who build empowerment and policy advocacy into their programs even when that advocacy can be uncomfortable for us to hear.

Where’s Mark Halperin? I’m not allowed to talk to Mark because I was on his board. But I said it hasn’t prevented him from continuing to be a pain in the butt. (Laughter.)

And while first asylum and non-refoulement must remain at the heart of international protection efforts, we must all rise to other protection challenges as well: combating gender-based violence and sexual exploitation and abuse, promoting freedom of movement, security land rights and rights related to personal status, and many others. Humanitarians must weave a protective approach more deeply into the design of the programs relating to food, relating to shelter, health, sanitation, among others – what some call the mainstreaming of protection. The challenge is to develop and further refine best practices that seek to empower local communities in such efforts.

So let me offer a second proposition: As we expand our concept of protection, we have to develop programs that achieve much, these more ambitious objectives matched by sustained and measureable efforts to monitor and evaluate the progress that we may be making. In other words, rhetoric about a broadened protection role must be matched by reality.

To illustrate the point, let me discuss a few areas where we and others are seeking to expand the concept of protection, beginning with the special needs of women and children in humanitarian response. The Secretary of State has stated that women and young girls are a core factor in U.S. foreign policy and has condemned systematic rape against civilian populations in the Democratic Republic of Congo as a crime against humanity. We will increase our already considerable funding for programs that combat gender-based violence, including the promotion of economic programs for conflict-affected women, because we realize that there is a clear link between women’s desperate struggle to support their families and their vulnerability to gender-based violence and exploitation. Within our bureau at the Department, we have also built into our strategic and our operational plans a multiyear effort to judge our own performance in responding to issues of violence against women.

More broadly, we at the State Department will continue to collaborate with USAID to monitor very closely the work of the UN Cluster System and its protection working groups that in recent years have begun to operate at both the field and global levels so that we can press for quicker and more effective responses and accountability among the growing number of humanitarian organizations that are seeking to deal with threats to protection. We’ll continue to support a surge protection program that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees can access for additional temporary protection experts. And we’re placing emphasis not only on the quantity of protection officers but on the quality of the work. We will sustain our support, for example, of the SPHERE program and other best practices that we seek to establish professional standards for all humanitarian work, including protection.

Managing relationships with others brings me to my third proposition, that rendering effective protection to the world’s most vulnerable citizens has become quite challenging – more challenging – and requires more effective collaborations among governments and between governments and international organizations and NGOs.

As we all know, modern-day conflicts commonly pit domestic ethnic groups, clans, religions, ideologies against one another with combatants and civilians dangerously intermingled. In the 30 years since the Refugee Act, we have witnessed genocide in Rwanda and Darfur, ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, and rape as a weapon of war in central Africa. The killing, the wounding, the maiming, and humiliation of civilians is not just collateral damage but often one of the goals of the conflict itself. This presents enormous protection challenges, particularly in situations where the international community lacks humanitarian access and lacks the security for its own staff.

And even when – if that weren’t hard enough – even when conditions on the ground might permit the kind of access that would safeguard rights, governments hosting refugees or displaced persons are often uneasy at best and hostile at worst toward the notion of advancing protection interests. And while it’s difficult to make sweeping assertions about the United States diplomacy on other governments when international humanitarian principles are at stake, it is very clear, sadly, that bilateral influence on these issues has its limits. On more occasions than I’d like to admit, but which I think many of you are aware of, we have been less than successful in prevailing upon governments to respect or strengthen protection of refugees or displaced persons on their territories.

So what do we do in these difficult operating environments? First, we should never assume that we are without influence. From Pakistan to Ecuador to Sri Lanka to Chad, our advocacy has impacted governments and enhanced the quality of protection efforts on the ground. Second, engagement of other donors expands our ability to influence situations on the ground. And third, and I think perhaps most importantly, our leadership within a multilateral framework on humanitarian and protection, human rights issues, leverages our efforts – there’s no question in my mind – leverages our efforts beyond what we can accomplish unilaterally. That’s precisely why the Department contributes – and my bureau, certainly – my bureau – the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration contributes the bulk of its support through multilateral organization. And that is precisely why we spend so much time, so much energy, so much effort to strengthen the international architecture for protection and humanitarian response – through, for example, our broad and deep relationship with UNHCR, the ICRC, and the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees. Many UN policies, best practices, and therefore international efforts endorsed by dozens of governments relating to refugee resettlement, combating gender-based violence, healthcare for vulnerable populations, and on and on, all have in some measure come out of our engagement with – between international organizations and our bureau and our UN partners and other donors. The world has benefited from these efforts, which we will certainly continue.

Now I turn inward for my fourth protection proposition, that we must – people for whom – who work for me are sick and tired of hearing this, I have to tell you, but my fourth protection proposition, that we must strive to practice at home what we preach abroad. That includes our policies on temporary protection, rescue at sea, treatment of asylum seekers on our territory, durable solutions for individuals interdicted at sea, and many other issues. I have already met and spoken on many occasions with Ali Mayorkas, the Department of Homeland Security’s Director of U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services, and he and I anticipate a very valuable – have already begun a very valuable collaboration on protection issues that impact both foreign and domestic policy.

In light of my convictions on this issue, I took special interest in the U.S. refugee admissions program which, as you know, resettled about 75,000 people last year, the highest number since 1999, after which the program was so significantly impacted by the events of 9/11 to which Elisa referred.

Our admissions program has to vindicate protection objectives that include, certainly, the interests of the persons that we are resettling. But our goals should also be broader. Indeed, through or in relation with our admissions program, we’ve sought to enhance the capacity of UNHCR to indentify vulnerable communities in need of resettlement, to develop innovative interim protection measures such as emergency transit centers in several parts of the world, and to use resettlement programs as a tool to encourage host governments to promote policies of greater tolerance. We’ve also been able to encourage other governments to do more on refugee resettlement. And we’ve sought to promote burden sharing. But again, we can best accomplish these objectives when our actions at home are a model of good behavior for others to emulate overseas.

And with that element in mind, and early in my tenure, I visited Chicago, Fort Wayne, and Minneapolis/St. Paul to learn more about our efforts to meet resettlement needs of newly arriving refugees: Bhutanese – you had the list up there – Bhutanese, Burmese, Burundians, Hmong, Iraqis, and so many others. In fact, this afternoon, I’m going off to Arizona and Colorado for the same purpose. What I saw was both heartening – very heartening, and also very dismaying. It was gratifying to witness the deep and the abiding commitment to refugees among overworked and underpaid agency personnel in the field. It was gratifying to see the determination of new arrivals and the welcoming spirit of the local school, healthcare, and government officials – a whole range of stakeholders in these communities. On the other hand, it was very sad to meet with refugees who had severe problems that go well beyond the challenges that any new arrival should have to confront. I learned that refugees had to sometimes choose between buying food or diapers for their children. And I spoke with agency field staff overburdened by the number of refugee families they serve and the complexity of resettlement service needs of recent arrivals.

Are you going to give me a five minute warning?

MS. MASSIMINO: (Inaudible.)


The Reception and Placement Program administered by the Department of State includes a one-time per capita grant for the initial weeks after arrival. But the grant had declined by more than 50 percent in real terms since its inception in 1975 when Julia Taft was resettling Indochinese refugees. They pulled the number 500 from out of her hat and it had climbed to over 30 years to 900, which is a 50 percent decline in real terms, at least. And this was clearly one of the problems we witnessed, which have been documented and publicized in a range of studies over the past year or two. In my own review of this issue, I heard repeatedly from stakeholders, agencies, congressional staff, my own PRM admissions office staff, that the amount we were providing for this short-term support needed to be augmented substantially.

In light of our critical obligations on these issues, and thanks, frankly, to the generous support of the Congress, whose support for our work is just extraordinary, we’ve now been able to increase the Reception and Placement per capita grant of voluntary agencies from – for new arrivals from $900 to $1,800, a huge increase in our budget which I think we even surprised the voluntary agencies with. And that was our goal. We wanted to have a wow factor. And it was made effective on January 1st, 2010. This is intended to address challenges refugees face in their first 30 to 90 days in the United States. And it will ensure, we hope, that in the first weeks after their arrival, refugees have a solid roof over their heads, that they have a clean bed in which to sleep and that they have basic assistance. This is also an expression of solidarity to the communities that have been so dramatically affected by the economic downturn, but also by their efforts to take care of these populations. And, in that respect, we’ve heard from a lot of communities about the value of this increase.

We well understand that more must be done. And we’ll be working very closely with the White House and the Department of Health and Human Services to secure additional job training, education, cash, and medical assistance in the months that follow initial reception and placement and, frankly, take a much broader look at the way in which the program is administered. But we’ve done, in the short term, what we can. And we’ll continue to try to more.

My fifth proposition springs from each of my four prior assertions this morning. In short, the humanitarian community must be relentless and aggressive advocates for promotion and assistance to the populations that we seek to serve. I offered a very similar – I try not to repeat my speeches, but I offered a very similar point at a talk I gave a few months ago at the Brookings Institution on the role of humanitarians in government, but it’s so related to the focus of this event that I think it bears repeating.

And for years, some experts have referred to a conflict between the imperative of human rights advocacy and the imperative of humanitarian access. The notion was groups like Human Rights First, Amnesty International, could criticize governments for denying their citizens rights, but humanitarian organizations, no matter what they may witness, needed to stay kind of quiet to preserve their ability to operate, to feed and clothe people, and to save lives.

In fact, the reality – it’s not uncomplicated. It’s not uncomplicated, but the reality is really not that simple. Silence by donor governments in the face of humanitarian deprivation not only risks implicating the donor abuses, but often represents a real missed opportunity to promote positive change. And, frankly, continued access isn’t always worth the cost of staying silent.

In short, if pressing the case with governments, the media, civil society can impact the situations of vulnerable populations, then I think we have an obligation to press. In Sri Lanka, for example, we’ve seen that strong advocacy was followed by large-scale releases of internally displaced persons who had been confined to camps. There is still so much to be done there to safeguard the rights and the well-being of those who remain in the camps as well as those who have departed them. But we can be encouraged by what we’ve seen which I am convinced has been influenced by the strong expressions of concern and the very strong humanitarian advocacy, not only by the United States, but by other governments.

Finally, it’s very important to realize – I was reminded about this yesterday in a meeting in my office with a humanitarian advocate from the Thai/Burma border – to remember that humanitarian advocacy keeps faith with the victims of these conflicts and keeps news of their suffering in the public eye.

Before closing, and I’m going to close pretty soon, I want to talk a bit about the relationship between the promotion of – between protection and national security, another issue to which I’ve alluded in the past, as well as the role of the Bureau of Populations, Refugees, and Migration in promoting protection principles in this context.

I believe that protection of the most vulnerable must be at the center of policymaking due to the moral imperative and the simple goal of saving lives; due to our government’s interest in sustaining U.S. leadership and building sustainable partnerships which enable us to drive the development of international humanitarian principles, international human practice, and policy like no other government in the world; and due to the importance of promoting reconciliation, security, and well-being in circumstances where despair and misery not only threaten stability, but also key security interests of the United States.

And as a component of the Department of State, our bureau is extraordinarily well-placed to promote the humanitarian imperative in policymaking through our continual and ongoing engagement with the Secretary of State and other principals at the Department. Through our role in representing the Secretary of State and the government in diplomatic encounters with presidents, with prime ministers, with defense ministers, and other senior foreign officials on key humanitarian issues, and through ensuring that at the working level, humanitarian considerations are embedded into the work of the State Department’s regional bureaus from Africa to East and South Asia to the Middle East to the Americas. As the principal humanitarian advisors at the Department, we owe it to the Secretary of State, to the President, and mainly to the world’s most vulnerable citizens, to aspire to a broad role in policy formulation and policy implementation, and especially on those complex crises which combine humanitarian, political, and security imperatives.

So some 30 years ago, during Senate discussion of the Refugee Act, Senator Kennedy said, and I quote, “Refugees are as old as human history. They have been, over the centuries, one of the world’s most enduring tragedies. They are one of the saddest commentaries on the human condition, clearly.” He said, “Refugees must be of concern to the American people.”

We all know that Senator Kennedy was a champion of all uprooted and disenfranchised populations, whether or not they were formally designated as refugees. We honor his legacy today by expanding our efforts to protect and empower vulnerable communities and to meet new challenges with energy, with enthusiasm, and with an eagerness to sustain the commitment reflected in a Refugee Act that has so valuably stood the test of time.

Thank you.

MS. MASSIMINO: Well, we knew that you wouldn’t disappoint. We needed someone to both thoughtfully analyze the current situation and issue a call to action and we got it. So I want to thank you, Eric, very much.

And Eric has generously agreed to stay and take a few questions from the audience. So I would like us to efficiently be able to use a little bit more of his time to get us started with our discussion. I think that there are microphones right here and we’ll bring it to you, actually, I think is probably the most efficient way. So if you want to raise your hand and I’ll call on you. Great. Over here. I’ll let you stand over here. And please identify yourself.

QUESTION: My name is Nugert Bubecom (ph). I’m from Arizona State University. I’m just new to the area.

My question is regarding the transitions of refugee to new area. I’ve witnessed the transition of the Sudanese in Tucson, Arizona for the last, maybe, seven years. Most of them, what they’ve really faced is getting the laws, such as crime, understanding what they should do and do not do. You do have repeat offenders, most of them don’t understand that what you’re doing, it is bad and this is not what you should do. Then there are cases in where you do a certain – some refugees have to be returned, because the U.S. status and they cannot become citizens after committing a certain crime.

What are you hoping to do in this situation? Because I do not think the 90 days transition is not enough. I moved in the state in ’97 and if I was not an educated person, I would not understand a lot of these things. To understand exactly a lot of things, it takes a lot of years. So I would say doing a one-year’s program in which law enforcement are also put in the system to work with refugees would be a good way for the office to go forward because these things – 90 days is not enough, especially with today’s economy. I really don’t think so.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: That’s a simple question, but it yields a very complicated set of answers. Let me do my best. I think there’s going to be a basic question as the White House continues its overall review of the Refugee Admissions Program. And that is, we can all step back and make judgments about if we were starting anew, what would this program look like and what would the ideal way to structure it be? And I think there’s already been a fair amount of discussion about that in the White House review, but ultimately, we’re going to have to make judgments about what kinds of reforms are going to be, frankly, politically feasible and what aren’t? And that’s the dilemma. But so that’s the chapeau (ph).

Now, in terms of your specific comments, I was struck by, I think, the voluntary agencies which take care of the refugees in the first couple few months. I think that they, generally speaking, have a concept of rather intensive case management. And it’s clear that these agencies that I spoke with felt a sense of obligation to these refugees well beyond the 30 days or the 60 days or the 90 days that they have responsibility for them. What was – and that’s precisely why I thought we had to double the R&P grant, because we had to figure out a way to give them a better capacity to exercise what they believe their responsibility is. But as a matter of law and process, after the first couple or few months, it does go to the HHS and the local assistance providers there. And what I was struck by was the – in many of the conversations I had – was the absence of that same model of intensive case management after the initial period. And I’m not an expert on this, but I did kind of test some of these observations against experts and they all seemed to agree that after this initial period, in many cases, the refugees are too much on their own, that the warm embrace that the volunteer agencies aer trying to provide for that initial period is not matched after the transition to the – essentially, to the longer-term assistance efforts. And I think we have to address that.

We have to address that in the context of the review. And I’ve been talking to members of Congress and others as much as I can, but we – and I think there needs to be a dialogue on this issue, because we can only do so much at the Department of State in terms of our resources and our funding, but that doesn’t prevent us from participating in the discussion which is what we’re trying to do.

MS. MASSIMINO: Thanks, Eric. Can we have one more question? Yes, Mark.

QUESTION: Thank you so much for the comments and thank you, in particular, for the reflection that policymaking should focus on those who are most vulnerable. And I’d like to ask a question in that context.

As you know, the State Department Human Rights Reports came out last week. And I think if you look at the reports this year, one of the overwhelming trends is extreme violence and discrimination directed at individuals based on their sexual orientation and gender identity. And the State Department is doing a really good job of starting to capture that violence. And that’s translating into refugee flows, as you well know.

And so I’d like to ask you a question about that. In many cases, as I’m sure you understand, when individuals flee their homes because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, they are often entering refugee communities or third countries that are not particularly safe, where they’re often exposed to just as much violence or discrimination. And as you said, certain refugee communities are so vulnerable, that over the years we’ve created special procedures, either expedited resettlement or interim protection measures that respond to that extreme vulnerability within certain refugee communities.

So I’m wondering what the thinking is in terms of protecting LGBT refugees who are fleeing, perhaps, places like Iraq where we’ve demonstrated such extreme sexualized violence, or East Africa, where we seem to be seeing a wave of homophobia spreading as part of this effort in Uganda to add a death penalty for homosexuality. So is there any thinking within your bureau about how to respond to the extreme needs of what is clearly a very vulnerable refugee community?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: The – I’ve got to answer it in three parts. There is a lot of thinking and a lot of work that is going on on that. And I’m going to have to ask folks in the bureau who are working on those issues to get back to you on it in detail. But I can tell you my perspective on it.

My perspective is that people in this category absolutely merit protection. And in circumstances where they are deemed to be of much greater vulnerability, we have an obligation to respond with much greater alacrity, much more quickly, and with a sensitivity that some of the traditional refugee – some of the traditional locations of asylum, which are normally hospitable to those who are seeking temporary protection, will not be hospitable to members of the LGBT community. And we have to be responsive to that as well. But in – and so – and I don’t think that’s very complicated. I mean, it may be complicated to implement, but in terms of our policy perspective, I think it’s simple. And – but I think I need to have folks in my bureau get back to you.

There’s a woman sitting right in front of you, named Liz Drew, and you should be in touch with her and she’ll come back to you with more information.

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