MS. BENTON: Hello. I’m Cheryl Benton, Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of Public Affairs, and I’d like to welcome you to Conversations with America.
Today I’m joined by Anne Richard, Assistant Secretary of State of the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration. In recognition of World Refugee Day, which takes place June 20th each year, we will be discussing refugee assistance, U.S. refugee assistance policies, and the concept of humanitarian diplomacy. We have received questions and comments on today’s topic from around the world and around the country through our blog DipNote, through Facebook and Twitter, and we have selected several for this broadcast.
There are over 43 million refugees and internally displaced people around the world. The Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration is charged with providing protection, easing suffering, and resolving the plight of those persecuted and uprooted people around the world on behalf of the American people by providing life-sustaining assistance, working through multilateral systems to build global partnerships, promoting best practices in humanitarian response, and ensuring that humanitarian principles are thoroughly integrated into U.S. foreign and national security policy.
Anne, thank you so much for joining us today.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY RICHARD: Thank you for doing this this week, Cheryl, with the week of World Refugee Day.
MS. BENTON: Absolutely. So could you start us off by talking a little bit about your role as the Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Public – Population, Refugees, and Migration?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY RICHARD: The Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration has a leading role in the U.S. Government on humanitarian issues, working very closely with the U.S. Agency for International Development. We have four major partners that we fund: UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the International Organization for Migration, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and also the UN Relief Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees.
We also work with nongovernmental organizations all around the world. We work wherever there’s a crisis that forces people to flee for their lives, and we try to aid and protect the displaced.
MS. BENTON: Very good. So who determines when – that someone is a refugee?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY RICHARD: Well, someone’s a refugee if they have to flee because of their race, their religion, their nationality, political belief, or because membership of a particular social group. And we work very closely with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to determine the refugee status of refugees overseas. We work very closely with the Department of Homeland Security to provide a safe place to live for a fraction of the world’s refugees who come to the United States every year. When someone has been persecuted and they make it to the U.S. on their own and they then seek asylum, they work with the Department of Homeland Security.
MS. BENTON: Okay. I see. So where does PRM – which is Population, Refugee, Migration – where does the – do they provide the assistance?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY RICHARD: Well, the assistance is provided all around the world in every continent. And so in the little over a year that I’ve been the Assistant Secretary, I have traveled to the Middle East to meet with Syrian refugees; to Africa, both the Horn of Africa, Sudan, and then also to West Africa to meet with refugees from Mali. And then most recently I came back from Ecuador and Colombia where I was meeting with Colombians who were displaced.
MS. BENTON: So right now we’re hearing a lot about Syria and what’s going on there. Has that spiked a lot since you’ve been on the post?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY RICHARD: It’s been a shocking situation where the number of people fleeting has risen from week to week to week. And now there are 1.6 million refugees in the countries that neighbor Syria. And there’s many millions more who are affected inside Syria. So we are working with the rest of the international humanitarian community – the UN agencies, nongovernmental organizations, other governments – to respond and to do what we can to help the refugees who’ve fled across borders seeking safety.
MS. BENTON: Absolutely. So how do you monitor your programs?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY RICHARD: Well, the staff of the Population, Refugees, and Migration Bureau will go out and visit places where our partners are working, and they will proceed to monitor and evaluate whether the things being done are a good use of the U.S. taxpayer money. And so we are very proud of the way that we make sure that nothing is wasted, because we want all of the aid to help as much as possible.
MS. BENTON: Exactly. So how is the State Department responding to crises and deciding upon priorities? Because there are – there’s a lot of unrest going on across the globe. And how do you kind of line that up and figure out where to go first and what to do first?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY RICHARD: Well, we work very closely with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the UN’s Refugee Agency in Geneva. And so they will put out appeals seeking funding for what they consider the crises that need help.
MS. BENTON: Okay.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY RICHARD: But we also work on long-term crises, protracted refugee situations, and we have a strategy to do that, so that we don’t neglect other situations that maybe are off the headlines, but people still need help. And so we try to do a good job of both. We’re helped to a certain extent by having very talented people working in embassies abroad, paying attention. And in certain places, we have regional refugee coordinators, such as in Nairobi or in Kabul, who are looking at the situations happening there, are traveling to camps, traveling into the cities where refugees are living, working with our partner organizations to ensure that we know what the situation is and that we’re responding accordingly.
MS. BENTON: Very good. So this year, you’ve travelled to South America and to the Near East, attempting to respond to many complex crises. Would you share your main conclusions from these most recent field trips and others that you’ve taken?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY RICHARD: Well, what has made a big impression on me is that a little bit of money can make a big, big difference in the lives of people who are in danger and have been forced to flee. And so they’re not asking for a lot. They need just some clean water, a safe place to stay, some food to tide them over until they can get them back on their feet.
And I also know that it’s not something that can be predicted. People sometimes have to flee in the middle of the night, and it can be countries that are not just developing countries that are fragile, but also a country like Syria that was – had a functioning economy, a very modern capital city. So the people who are caught up in this are largely innocents, and they’re largely families. They’re largely women and children who have been caught in the crossfire. And so I’m always impressed by how resilient people are if they get a little bit of help that our partners provide.
MS. BENTON: Very good. So how can someone get involved in helping refugees when they arrive in America? Is there a central clearing house? Is there a focused organization? Just how would that occur?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY RICHARD: We have nine partner agencies that have networks across the U.S. that help resettle refugees in the United States in 300 places.
MS. BENTON: Oh, wow.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY RICHARD: And so we will put up contact information that viewers of this video can pursue if they want to volunteer, because this is a public-private partnership, bringing refugees to the United States. And so these nine groups help bring donations, bring volunteers to help the refugees after the government has arranged for them to fly in and be met at the airport by these private groups. And so it’s a very important relationship between the government and local communities.
MS. BENTON: Very good. So, Anne, we’ve received questions from DipNote, which is our State Department blog; Facebook; and Twitter on today’s topic, and I’d like to go to our first set of questions which have come in from DipNote.
Robert in Canada asks, “In the past, most refugees have been given a short period of orientation and then cut loose. Some don’t even get that. And it seems to me that a lot of the problems down the road grow from lack of knowledge and support after the refugees, and in particular their children, are in a safe position. Is the United States adapting its follow-up methods for tracking and assisting refugees and gathering data from that to enhance means and methods for future refugees and their families?” (Inaudible) question.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY RICHARD: Well, we don’t cut refugees loose, so let me make that clear. Well, we do provide assistance for one to three months when they first get here for the initial reception and placement by our partners, these voluntary organizations. And then the Department of Health and Human Services works with state governments to ensure that additional help, if needed, is provided. And that could be something more sophisticated, like skills training programs, or people getting certified; if they’ve been a nurse before in their home country, perhaps they can be certified to be a nurse in the United States.
And then – I’m not saying that it’s easy for the refugees. I think it’s quite challenging, especially in the early days. But what we have seen time and time again is that it works. This program works. Refugees succeed, and they embrace life in America, and they get jobs, and – if they’re able-bodied – and they support themselves. And then their children are enrolled in school, and that second generation often becomes model citizens.
MS. BENTON: Oh, I’m sure, I’m sure. Lisa in Virginia asks this question: “Are there any special considerations you take in terms of policy and programs when it comes to women and children who are particularly vulnerable during conflict and crises?”
ASSISTANT SECRETARY RICHARD: This is a particular interest of mine, is making sure that our programs protect and aid women and children. And we’re particularly worried about violence against women and girls, gender-based violence as it’s called. And so our sense is that a lot has been done, especially since about the year 2000, in terms of putting together programs and in recent years, it’s totaled about $73 million over a number years of our funding to respond to violence against women and girls and give them the help that they need, which can be medical, it can be psychosocial, it can be a safe place, getting them out of a dangerous situation.
What I would like to do in the coming months, and what we’re looking very closely at right now, are ways to invest in the early onset of emergencies to prevent bad things happening in the first place. And that will be focus in the coming months, is to strengthen a lot of the operations of aid agencies around the world so that it’s a safer place for all refugees, particularly women and girls.
MS. BENTON: Do we get a lot of refugees into America, or is it a lot just focused across the globe?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY RICHARD: Well, it’s – we take more refugees than all other countries and all other countries combined. We are the top country that accepts refugees who are very vulnerable. Now, we are hoping to bring in to the United States about 70,000 refugees this year. That’s a small fraction of 1 percent, though, of the world’s displaced population.
MS. BENTON: Exactly.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY RICHARD: So the people who could – would want to come to America far outnumber the number we’re taking --
MS. BENTON: Sure, that you can bring in.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY RICHARD: -- so what we do is we focus on those refugees for whom going home is just impossible, who really can’t – either can’t go home again or who have special needs that the U.S. will be able to meet that they might not be able to get in a refugee camp or overseas in another country.
MS. BENTON: Okay, got it. So we have another question from Jason in California: Obviously, refugee resettlement takes a lot of coordination. How do you work with NGOs and state governments here in the United States to manage resettlement programs?
That’s a good question.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY RICHARD: Each state has a state coordinator, actually, who is working then at the state level to ensure that these nongovernmental organizations that help resettle refugees – other refugee advocacy groups and service providers and state government agencies are all playing their part and that these are, in fact, coordinated.
One of the things we’re trying to do more and more of is to meet with community leaders and to encourage our nongovernmental organization partners to meet with the head of the school board, to meet with the mayor, to meet with all the service providers in a town that refugees are going to so that they’re not surprised, so that the schools are ready for the children, they understand that the children might be uncomfortable the first time the school bell rings, that they’re not expecting that.
And so just to understand that when they put down a deposit on an apartment, they may not have a lot of people to put down as references. They may not have a track record of loans in the United States because they – of coming to the U.S. in the special program. So that’s something that we encourage our partners to do and we’re doing more of.
MS. BENTON: So that they get a better integration into the communities.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY RICHARD: A better reception to the United States.
MS. BENTON: Yeah, yeah, exactly. So Nora in Virginia asks: The situation in Syria has resulted in many refugees fleeing to neighboring countries. How does the State Department help support those countries with that burden?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY RICHARD: We work very closely with these neighboring countries, and I have traveled four times to the Middle East just in the little over a year that I’ve been in the job, and going to Jordan, to Lebanon, to Turkey – my Deputy Assistant Secretary was in Iraq just last week and also traveling to these other countries that I’ve visited before – to talk to the governments, to talk to UN agencies working there, to talk to these partner organizations that we fund.
And we encourage the governments to keep their borders open to allow the refugees to come across. We listen to the concerns they have. We work together with all of these organizations to find ways to provide refugees the help they need, and also to provide assistance to communities that are hosting the refugees so that they don’t feel that they’ve taken on too big a burden. We want them to remain welcoming to the refugees. It’s a very concerning situation right now. The numbers coming across are so many, the needs are so great, but the fact that the borders have been open and that the refugees have been allowed to come across is definitely a very good thing.
MS. BENTON: Sure. I mean, you just look at the border conversations in our country. I can only imagine what it must be like in some other country where you have tens of thousands pouring over the border.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY RICHARD: If you look at a country like Jordan, it’s been hosting Palestinian refugees for decades. It opened its doors to Iraqi refugees. So this is actually the third wave of refugees coming across to Jordan with the Syrian refugees coming, now fleeing the violence inside Syria. So we are, most of all, grateful that they continue to accept the refugees. And because of that, we also want to help provide assistance to the Government of Jordan so that they can, in turn, help the refugees.
MS. BENTON: Right. Our next question comes from Twitter. @Sidnow (ph) asks: Palestinians are on the – are the largest refugee population in the world. What will the U.S. do to ensure their right of return?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY RICHARD: Well, issues concerning the right of return are tied up in Middle East peace negotiations, and so I defer to our Secretary of State John Kerry on that one.
MS. BENTON: Quite able. (Laughter.)
ASSISTANT SECRETARY RICHARD: But my responsibilities are to work with the UN Relief Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East. And we fund them every year, and they in turn provide education and healthcare and other aid to many, many Palestinians who are living in five areas: West Bank, Gaza, Syria – where the violence is – Lebanon, and Jordan.
And so we are a top funder of that organization to ensure that while these important peace talks happen, also the Palestinian children get what they need to grow up and be prepared for that day of peace when it comes.
MS. BENTON: Very good. So we have a final question from Facebook. Timothy asks: The American Government is doing great on this aspect, but I would like to know, where does the financial aid for refugees come from?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY RICHARD: Well, like all parts of the U.S. Government, the President puts forward a budget request to Congress, and then Congress decides how much funding we get. They authorize and appropriate our budget. And so we are very grateful that Congress has provided us with funding in the Migration and Refugee Assistance account to do all the things we do around the world. And so we have a good relationship with the key committees in Congress, and we also get bipartisan support --
MS. BENTON: Right, which is great.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY RICHARD: -- which is very, very valuable. It’s not a Democratic issue or a Republican issue; this is an American enterprise to support refugees and to be a world leader in humanitarian response.
MS. BENTON: Oh, that’s terrific. Now, we’re just about ready to close out, but I know that World Refugee Day is June 20th. Are there any big plans for you at the Department?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY RICHARD: Absolutely. Secretary Kerry will be joining us for a ceremony in the Ben Franklin Room. And we’re hoping to have a video link with the High Commissioner for Refugees, who will be in Jordan. And we may even have some celebrities on hand to speak up on behalf of refugees. And then that afternoon, there will also be an event on Capitol Hill, which we’re very happy about.
And there’ll be a number of other things happening around town here in Washington, but also around the United States, a lot of our partners will do something to honor refugees and commemorate the day.
MS. BENTON: Good. Well, this is my least favorite part of the program, and it’s time to conclude this session of Conversations with America. And I’d like to ask you, Anne, if you would share some final thoughts with our audience today.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY RICHARD: Well, here at the State Department, we’re so grateful when people follow our work. And that’s one reason we have our own Twitter feed, @StatePRM, and we try to keep your informed questioners and – who are from the United States but also from around the world – we try to share what we’re doing and take on board their suggestions and viewpoints.
So I’m very happy to participate today, because we really – I know it’s – the program is called Conversations with America, but this effort that we do to help refugees is really an American effort. And so we’re so happy to participate in a conversation with Americans about this, not just today but throughout the rest of the year too.
MS. BENTON: Good. Well, thank you so much, and I just really want to sincerely thank you for joining us today. I believe that the people have gained a great deal of insight into how the Department is working to provide aid and sustainable solutions for refugees, victims of conflict, and stateless people around the world.
And I’d also like to thank each of you for joining us today. We hope that Conversations with America will continue to inform citizens about the Administration’s efforts to address the challenges of the 21st century. We look forward to engaging with you again soon. Thank you.