Good morning, and welcome to the Benjamin Franklin Room here on the eighth floor of the State Department. And we’re delighted to be joined via video link from Syria by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Gutierrez. Welcome, Antonio. And we’re delighted that either by video or audio link, we’ll have a chance to hear from UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie, who is at a refugee camp in Ecuador. And we’ll hear also from refugees in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
I want to thank Eric for the work that he and the bureau are doing on the issue of refugees, and especially making refugees a symbol of all of the challenges that we face. As he said at the very end, there is no humanitarian answer to a lot of the refugee problems. It’s a question of better governance, more accountable governance, of political and diplomatic efforts, of reconciliation and peace, of the growth of democracies and economies. But that doesn't in any way undermine the importance of meeting the day-to-day needs of those who have been displaced by conflict, by terrorism, by natural disaster. And Eric, as all of you know, is so committed to doing his part and representing the United States and the Obama Administration.
I’m also delighted that we are joined by George Rupp, president of the International Rescue Committee and himself a tremendous leader on behalf of those who are in need – refugees across the globe; and Scott Pelley, thank you for serving as the emcee and for shining a bright light on a lot of these situations; and my friend and former colleague, Congresswoman Diane Watson from California; and all of you who represent the leaders and partners from NGOs, Capitol Hill, the media, other countries, the diplomatic corps.
This marks the 30th anniversary of the U.S. Refugee Act, and I want to thank each and every one of you who have been instrumental over these past 30 years, because the plight of the world’s refugees is an issue that transcends not just geography and ethnicity, but politics and partisanship as well. It reminds us that we are all vulnerable, no matter how comfortable our lives may appear to be, but we, too, around the world – those of us who enjoy the benefits of the life that we have built or inherited, we, too, are vulnerable to war and conflict, droughts and floods, environmental disasters, as we’ve seen even in our own country.
Helping refugees is a transnational challenge, but I want to speak for just a minute about what this issue means for Americans and the United States. The United States is the largest single source of support for assistance to refugees and victims of conflict. It’s true financially, where we’ve provided more than $1.7 billion to refugees and conflict victims last year, including $640 million in support for UNHCR. And it’s true diplomatically. We spend a lot of time and a lot of political capital on these issues.
Now, for the United States this has been an enduring commitment, but our work on behalf of refugees is not the result of some grand strategic calculus. We don’t help because it bolsters our ability to play power politics or advance our economic interests, although in the long run I believe it does make our nation stronger and allow us to promote reconciliation and stability in areas of desperation and despair. We help because it is the right thing to do. We happen to believe it’s also the smart thing to do, but even in cases where it doesn't appear all that smart, it’s still often right. And therefore, we proceed.
It goes to the core of who we are as a people and a country, because the United States is not only a nation of immigrants, we are also a nation of refugees. We know from our collective experience that most people want the same basic things in life: safe communities, food, water, lives free of political and religious and other persecution. And when these basic needs go unmet and families are forced to flee their homes in desperation, we should all be there with a helping hand.
Whenever possible, we work to return refugees to their homes in safety and dignity. In cooperation with our many partners from the NGO community, we promote the resolution of conflicts and provide assistance to communities recovering from disasters. And we’re seeing progress in places such as Liberia or South Sudan or Burundi and Nepal.
But when returning home is not an option, we are committed to helping resettle refugees who face the most difficult circumstances. Americans have done that time and time again, welcoming more than 2.5 million refugees into our communities since the Refugee Act became law. And two of the families that have come to the United States are here with us today. The Aradoms from Eritrea face severe persecution as a result of their religious beliefs. Some of their family members are still in prison and they came to the United States after spending years living as refugees in Ethiopia and Egypt. The Gautam family is from Bhutan. Raj spent 17 years living in refugee camps before coming to the United States in 2008. Now, along with his son and daughter, he’s been joined by six of his brothers.
These are just two of what could be countless examples, and the contributions that these refugees have made to our own country are really remarkable. I was very proud that in representing New York I saw the results of the resettlement of refugees throughout New York State and the quick adaptation that refugees from Bosnia or Kosovo or Burma or other places made. So our country has opened its arms to refugees. In fact, two of my predecessors, Madeleine Albright and Henry Kissinger, came to the United States as refugees. And a few steps from the front door of this building, there is a very large statue of another refugee, Albert Einstein.
Now, some of you may remember I wasn’t here last year at the event at National Geographic because I had broken my elbow, and I certainly don’t want any of us dislocating our shoulders from patting ourselves on the back about what we’ve done, but helping vulnerable people is a key element of our foreign policy and Americans should be proud of our country’s work on this issue. But we can’t rest on our laurels. We have to continue working as hard as we know to work to get results, not just to provide quick fixes or maintain an unacceptable status quo.
Last year, I visited a refugee camp in Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and I met and talked with the women and men who had been forced to flee their homes in the face of marauders, rebels, uncontrolled army soldiers – a mix, a witches’ brew of barbarism and horror. And like tens of thousands of people elsewhere, these men and women had lived through a nightmare, particularly the women. And the United States pledged $17 million to help combat sexual violence in Eastern DRC, and I appreciate greatly those working with UNHCR along with many other NGOs and international organizations who are doing extraordinary work at great personal risk. So long as the women of the DRC are threatened by just the most terrible kinds of violations, as long as the men of the DRC cannot raise their families and their crops in peace, then we cannot rest.
Today, I am pleased to announce the United States will be providing $60 million to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees. This contribution will provide critical services such as healthcare and improve life for 4.7 million Palestinians. But again, that is not an answer either. We have to continue working for peace, security, and reconciliation in the Middle East.
So let me thank all of you – the NGOs, the journalists, the development workers, the diplomats and activists – who are working to help the world’s refugees. I hope we can use this day to honor the courage and resilience of the millions of refugees around the world who push forward each and every day with the hope that tomorrow might bring a return home or the hope of a better life. I certainly intend to remain committed to making that hope a reality and I look forward to working with Eric and all of you in doing so.
Thank you very much. (Applause.)
# # #