Department Press Briefing – January 19, 2023
2:05 p.m. EST
MR PATEL: Good afternoon, everybody. Happy Thursday. So as you can see, we have a special guest joining us today to talk about our new Welcome Corps program that we launched this morning. So with me I have Assistant Secretary Julieta Noyes from our Bureau of Populations, Refugee, and Migration. She has some thoughts she’d like to share with you at the top and then has time for a couple of questions, and then we will continue on with the rest of the briefing.
So Assistant Secretary —
ASSISTANT SECRETARY NOYES: Thanks, Vedant.
MR PATEL: — the floor is yours.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY NOYES: Thanks, Vedant. Hey, everybody.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY NOYES: It’s great to be here. I am here today to share an exciting development in the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, through which the United States has long welcomed newcomers in search of safety and freedom.
We’re launching the Welcome Corps, a private sponsorship initiative that will create new opportunities for private Americans to directly sponsor refugees from around the world who are here fleeing conflict, fleeing persecution, and to help these refugees settle in their communities. The Welcome Corps invites Americans to do what we do best – welcoming newcomers, being good guides, neighbors, and friends.
Welcoming refugees reflects our values as a nation, and local communities have long been at the heart of our resettlement program. Just in the past year, individual Americans and community groups around the country have opened their arms to Afghans, Ukrainians, and refugees from around the world fleeing conflict and persecution.
The Welcome Corps is the boldest innovation in the U.S. refugee resettlement in four decades, and it reflects the Biden administration’s commitment to expand community engagement as we rebuild our refugee program. It’s designed to strengthen and expand our country’s capacity to resettle refugees by harnessing the energy of private sponsors from all walks of life – including community volunteers, faith and civic groups, veterans, diaspora communities, businesses, colleges, universities, and more.
Private sponsors will help refugees find housing and employment, enroll their kids in school, enroll the adults in English classes, and connect with other essential services, including those that are funded by federal programs.
The Welcome Corps is distinct from other sponsorship programs, like Uniting for Ukraine, in that private sponsors will support refugees who are being permanently resettled in the United States and help them integrate as thriving members of their new communities.
Private sponsors in the Welcome Corps will receive training and support from resettlement experts and become part of a nationwide community of people engaged in this work.
We’re launching the Welcome Corps in two phases. In the first phase, groups of five or more Americans or legal permanent residents can apply to form a private sponsor group. When certified, they will be matched with a refugee who is already approved for resettlement in the United States.
In the second phase, which will launch around the middle of this year, groups can identify and refer to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program the refugees they would like to sponsor. If approved and certified, they will then sponsor the resettlement of these specific refugees.
Our goal in 2023 is to mobilize 10,000 Americans to step forward as private sponsors, and help resettle at least 5,000 refugees. Time and again, we’ve seen the generosity and the welcoming spirit of the American people. If more than 10,000 sponsors join the Welcome Corps this year, we will make every effort to pair them with refugees in need.
We at the State Department are excited to launch the Welcome Corps as part of our broader effort to rebuild, expand, and modernize the refugee resettlement program. We look forward to engaging with individuals and communities around the world who wish to participate.
And I would just say something on a personal level. My own parents arrived in this country as refugees, before the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program was created. And the people who helped them were ordinary, everyday Americans., and they still tell stories about how they were welcomed to this country. So, I see this as an offshoot of the historic traditions in our countries of welcoming newcomers.
Anyway, for more information on the Welcome Corps, I invite Americans who wish to be involved in this fulfilling effort to visit our new website welcomecorps.org to learn more about how to join this program.
And with that, I am happy to answer any questions.
MR PATEL: Thanks. Matt, do you want to kick us off?
QUESTION: Great, thanks. Thank you, Assistant Secretary. I have two – one extremely brief. Why is it groups of five or more? I mean, why can’t an individual – and I can think of several off the top of my head who are fabulously wealthy – who might be able to do this just on their own. So why is it limited to groups of five or more?
And then secondly, much more broadly, this administration has tried to make up for the reduction in admissions from the previous administration, but it has not yet come even close. And the first – for the first quarter of this fiscal year, the numbers are quite low. Why is that?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY NOYES: Okay. So to go to your first question, why five or more, and you mentioned that wealthy people could do it.
QUESTION: Well, even moderately wealthy people can —
ASSISTANT SECRETARY NOYES: Because it’s not about money, Matt. It’s about commitment. It’s about the community. It’s about bringing people together and forming a group so that the refugees have more than one person that they can refer to and can work with. And it’s our view – it’s a lot of work involved in sponsoring a refugee – finding schools, helping them find affordable housing, getting their kids signed up for school, helping them find jobs, showing them where the pharmacy is, what bus to take. It’s a lot more than what the average American can do, and so we think that providing a group of five or more Americans is more likely to be successful, and it gives more resources to the incoming refugees – and creates greater connections with the community.
In terms of the numbers, you’re right; we are still working to build the numbers up in order to get to the President’s ambitious targets of 125,000 refugees admitted per year. We are doing that in a variety of ways. The launch of the Welcome Corps is one initiative, but we’re doing a lot of work with our traditional resettlement agency partners to try and speed up processing while maintaining the integrity and the security of the program and not in any way changing the requirements. Refugees are the most vetted individuals to enter this country.
So, we’re speeding up the processing. We are amplifying, expanding the ways that people can be referred for refugee resettlement in the United States – Welcome Corps and maybe the private individuals nominating refugees to come in this way, but we’re also expanding NGO referrals. We are asking our partners at the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to expand the number of referrals they send us.
We’re also looking to clear out our backlog of cases. We are doing hiring. Our resettlement agency partners are doing hiring. So, there’s a lot of work going on.
While the numbers of people admitted, of refugees admitted in the first quarter, were not where we could like them to be, admissions of refugees is actually a lagging indicator. In the first quarter of this fiscal year, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service conducted over 20,000 interviews of refugees overseas. We expect that those people should be hitting our country within the next few months, and we expect and I am confident that you will see an increase in the number of refugees arriving in the months ahead.
MR PATEL: And Said, you had your hand up.
QUESTION: Thank you, thank you for doing this. Along the same lines but particular to Syrian refugees. And can you give us the status of Syrian refugees, figures and numbers? It went from a high of 16,000 in 2016 to as low as 4,000 during the past administration. And in 2020, I think this – last year was maybe 4,000 refugees. How are they admitted? Do they have to go through a third country? Can they leave directly from Syria, from embattled areas in Syria and so on?
And related to it, you opposed the re-allowing of Syrian refugees now back into Syria, or the United States —
ASSISTANT SECRETARY NOYES: Oh, the involuntary return.
QUESTION: Yeah, did not agree to it because they say conditions are not – are not ripe for them to return. So give us your take on that. Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY NOYES: So it’s a great question and it’s one that’s close to my heart. In November I visited Za’atari Refugee Camp in Jordan that hosts tens of thousands of Syrians. Look, the situation in Syria is terrible, and we don’t believe that conditions are right in Syria for people to be able to return safely, voluntarily, with dignity, and sustainably. It’s just not – it’s just not safe for people to return, and people – Syrians who have left the country don’t want to return voluntarily to Syria.
So, we’re looking for new solutions for them and working with our partners around the world, because this isn’t an effort that just the United States is undertaking. Other countries also are resettling refugees. So we are looking for avenues to find more durable solutions for these refugees, whether it is helping them to integrate in the countries where they have fled in search of safety, providing programs and assistance to them where they currently are. But then for those people who are the most vulnerable and face the greatest danger if they were to return to their own country, we’re looking for solutions like resettlement.
And we are confident that with all of the changes and all of the growth that we’re making to the refugee admissions program – whether it’s the Welcome Corps or the other initiatives that I talked about, we will be creating the conditions to bring refugees from vulnerable situations all over the world, whether it’s Syrians or Rohingya who are currently in Bangladesh or other people who need to flee to safety and to find solutions for them – again, working with our partners around the world, because this isn’t a burden or a responsibility that the United States is taking on alone.
But thanks for that question.
MR PATEL: Camilla, go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you. You probably saw that the rates of irregular border crossing in Europe reached an all-time high since 2016 last year. The – is there other programs or is there coordination with the EU for any refugees who would want – who could come to a European country but who could come to America instead, particularly in countries in Europe that are inundated with refugees? Is there more coordination to get more of them to come to the States through this particular program? And I’m sure that you can talk about the other programs as well, but more specifically this one.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY NOYES: We talk regularly with our partners in Europe and around the world with like-minded countries around the world to try and coordinate to find solutions to work together. It’s our view and the view of our partners – and I do talk regularly with the EU and with partners over there – it’s our view that this is a responsibility that democracies and that countries that love freedom and uphold human rights need to all work together. I mean, we faced a terrible milestone this past year when the UN High Commissioner for Refugees announced that more than 100 million people are now forcibly displaced around the world. That’s over 1 percent of the world’s population. There has never been a higher number of forcibly displaced people.
So, we need to pursue all kinds of durable solutions, whether it is creating the conditions so that people can return to their home countries safely, voluntarily, with dignity – and that’s always the preferred solution, for people to be able to go home, but only when it’s safe – but also looking for initiatives and providing support and assistance to help people integrate where they happen to be. The resettlement solution is the most dramatic; it is also by far the smallest. Less than 1 percent of refugees around the world ultimately are resettled to third countries, and that – we really only use that solution for the most vulnerable: people who are fleeing religious persecution or human trafficking or who have been victims of torture.
So, it really is kind of the in extremis solution but it is one that that we take happily and voluntarily in the United States and that many of our partners do as well. So we’re working on all of those solutions at the same time, but I’m really happy that today we’re announcing the Welcome Corps as part of our solution for – and part of our means of bringing about resettlement here in the United States and tapping into Americans who have such a long, long history, as a nation of immigrants, of welcoming newcomers and making things better. And again, my own family history is proof of that.
MR PATEL: Thank you so much, Assistant Secretary. Appreciate it.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY NOYES: Thank you, Vedant. Thank you so much.
MR PATEL: We’ll work — I’ll get to you when we work the room. Thank you.
QUESTION: No, I want to know are there any protections for Americans? You are selling access to the United States.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY NOYES: We’re not selling access, and there are protections.
QUESTION: Yes, you are. The second – in the second aspect, you say private families —
MR PATEL: I will call on you when we work the room and I work through the briefing.
QUESTION: No, it won’t matter. You’re not going to have the answer. But I have what I need. Thank you.
MR PATEL: Matt, if you want to kick us off, you’re welcome anytime.
QUESTION: Yeah, so – yeah. Do you – just – I’m wondering if you’ve managed to find anything out about this report or this FSB claim that they’ve arrested an American citizen in Russia for espionage.
MR PATEL: So a couple of things, Matt. We have no higher priority than the safety and security of U.S. citizens overseas. We are aware of these unconfirmed reports of an investigation regarding a U.S. citizen – unconfirmed – unconfirmed reports of an investigation regarding a U.S. citizen in Russia.
Generally, the Russian Federation does not abide by its obligations to provide timely notification of the detention of U.S. citizens in Russia. Russian authorities also don’t regularly inform the embassy of the trials, sentencings, or movement of U.S. citizens. We’re looking into this matter and we’ll continue to monitor. The Embassy in Moscow continues to engage with Russian authorities to ensure timely consular notifications and access to all U.S. citizens.
QUESTION: Okay. Well, apart from whether or not there has been an espionage investigation, are you aware of any additional Americans having been detained for any reason in Russia by the Russians?
MR PATEL: I’m not —
QUESTION: Apart from this —
MR PATEL: I am not, but as you know, this is a number that fluctuates. And I will see if we have a more specific update for you. But I am not aware.
QUESTION: Can we stay on the subject of —
MR PATEL: Sure. Yeah, we can stay in the region. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you. It’s funny you should mention timely notifications. The Russian national Anatoly Legkodymov was arrested yesterday in Miami, and the Russian embassy is saying that you didn’t guys follow an appropriate consular notification in his case. Why is that?
MR PATEL: I’m not aware of that specific case. I would obviously refer you to local authorities in Miami as well on the specifics surrounding that, but I’m happy to check to see if there’s specific —
QUESTION: Okay. So you don’t have anything?
MR PATEL: I don’t have any updates for you on that right now, but I’m happy to check.
QUESTION: Okay. And one additional thing. Do you have any updates that you can publicly share on a potential swap, prisoner swap, between the United States and Russia? Anything new on that subject matter?
MR PATEL: Are you talking about as it relates to a specific case, or just generally?
QUESTION: No, no – I’m talking about – I’m referring to cases like that have been mentioned in the past. I’m not talking about Legkodymov or the case that Matt has referred to. I’m talking about past cases.
MR PATEL: Look, as it relates to wrongful detainees, wrongful detainee American citizens – not just in Russia, but in other countries also – this is a top priority for this Secretary and this President, and it’s something that this department continues to be deeply engaged on. Of course, we’re not going to offer specifics as it relates to those engagements, but this continues to be a top priority, and I don’t have any updates to offer.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR PATEL: Said, you’ve had your hand up.
QUESTION: Yes. Can I switch topics?
MR PATEL: Sure. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Okay. I want to go to the Palestinian issue.
MR PATEL: Sure.
QUESTION: Yedoith, the Israeli newspaper Yedoith, said that Ambassador Nides is going to announce or announced that the visa waiver for the Israelis is tied to how Israel treats and receives Palestinian Americans. Do you have any comment on that? Can you confirm that’s – what he’s saying, that’s what he’s telling the Israelis?
MR PATEL: Said, I don’t have any announcement to preview or to get ahead of. But what I would reiterate – and I think you saw the ambassador speak to this – is that we, of course, support steps in our bilateral relationship with Israel that would be beneficial for U.S. and Israeli citizens. One such step would be working together toward Israel fulfilling the requirements of the Visa Waiver Program. Secretary Mayorkas, the Secretary of Homeland Security, in consultation with Secretary Blinken, may designate countries for participation in the Visa Waiver Program if the country meets the established criteria.
At this time, Israel does not meet all of the Visa Waiver Program eligibility requirements. The U.S. Government is continuing to work with Israel towards fulfilling those requirements, such as, for example, extending reciprocal privileges to all U.S. citizens and nationals, including Palestinian Americans and Arab Americans to travel to and through Israel. And this includes Americans on the Palestinian population registry as well.
QUESTION: And related to that, so just to clarify, you’re saying that it is conditioned, really, to allowing Palestinian Americans to travel to the West Bank through Tel Aviv, for instance, through Ben Gurion Airport, right?
MR PATEL: The reciprocal issue that I mentioned continues to be one of the issues that still needs fulfillment, as it requires to – as it relates to the Visa Waiver Program eligibility.
QUESTION: Okay. Another thing. Palestinian Authority President Abbas told the National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan – so that’s what the Palestinians are saying – that he’s calling on the Biden administration to pressure Israel to quit its aggressive policies in the last few months – over the last couple of months, and so on. Have you received, like, an official request from the Palestinians that you ought to be doing that, or are you having that as part of your policy from here on forward?
MR PATEL: I don’t have any specific diplomatic engagements to read out to you, Said. But our colleagues at the White House and the NSC just put out a readout on National Security Advisor Sullivan’s travels, and just to reiterate some of the things they – that they underscored is that – underscoring the U.S. commitment to Israel’s security, as well as discussing the challenges and opportunities facing the region, including the threat posed by Iran, and progress and deepening normalization between Israel and other Arab countries. But I don’t have any other updates to offer.
QUESTION: Quick follow-up on this?
MR PATEL: Go ahead. Stay in the region?
QUESTION: Yeah, they also discussed Ukraine, and the increase in defense partnership between Russia and Iran and its implications for security in the Middle East. Can you explain the most implications that the U.S. fear it would impact the region in light of this increase in cooperation between Iran and Russia, please?
MR PATEL: Well, this is a position that we have long held, that Iran’s destabilizing actions – most recently we’ve seen those precipitate as the provision of UAVs and other kinds of security assistance to Russia for use in Ukraine – is deeply destabilizing. It’s troubling not just for the world but also has immediate impacts on Israel and Israel’s neighbors, as well as other countries in the region as well.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: On – on Iran. But go ahead.
MR PATEL: Oh, sorry. Let me go to Guita and then I’ll come to you, Michel. Sorry. Go ahead, Guita.
QUESTION: Thank you. Speaking of the – Iran’s destabilizing activities, I want to go back to yesterday’s subject. The EU Parliament yesterday approved and today issued a resolution for the – to sanction human rights abusers in Iran in general, and also the designation of the IRGC as a terrorist group – and I want to focus on this. Does the State Department think it’s a good idea for the EU to also designate the IRGC, just like the U.S. has?
MR PATEL: Let me say a couple of things to that, Guita. First, we are aware of the European Parliament’s resolution. The United States position on the IRGC has been quite clear. It is an entity that is subject to perhaps the most U.S. sanctions of any entity on the planet. We have also specifically sanctioned many IRGC leaders individually for their involvement in terrorism and human rights abuses. Ultimately though, Guita, it is up to each country – or in this case, up to the EU, EU blocs of countries – to determine what is applicable under their governing systems and their legal systems, and what is in their best interests.
As you know, we’ve applauded the EU’s recent designations of IRGC officials and entities for their involvement in the provision of drones to Russia, which are being used to fuel Russia’s infringement on Ukrainian sovereignty and used – being used to attack Ukraine’s critical infrastructure. But beyond that, I don’t have anything additional to offer.
QUESTION: Well, it’s clearly – it is – yes, it’s – it depends on their laws and regulations and everything. It’s their decision. But the NSC tells us that the White House supports the designation and even encourages the EU to use all the authorities that they may have to designate the IRGC. So, does the State Department think differently from the NSC?
MR PATEL: I would have to refer you to our White House and NSC colleagues to clarify any comment that they gave you. But I would reiterate just what I said, which is that the United States position on the IRGC is quite clear. We have taken a number of steps, and have – as I said, it is an organization that is subject to perhaps some of the most U.S. sanctions. And ultimately, it is up to the EU bloc of countries to determine what kind of apparatus is most applicable or makes the most sense for the system that they have and what is in their best interest.
QUESTION: Vedant, you continuously say that you consult with allies and partners on everything. It can’t be that this subject is an exception. What does the State Department, what has the State Department advised or talked about to the EU?
MR PATEL: We, of course, consult with our allies and partners on a number of issues, including – of course, our united approach when it comes to the Iranian regime’s malign and destabilizing activities. Of course, a lot of those discussions are private and will remain private, but again, the United States position on the IRGC is quite clear.
Michel, go ahead.
QUESTION: Just to follow up on this, how do you see the impact of this possible designation on reviving the nuclear deal given the role of the Europeans through the negotiations?
MR PATEL: We have been clear for quite some time that the JCPOA is not on the agenda, and it is not on the agenda largely because the Iranians killed any possibility of it being on the agenda.
QUESTION: He did ask my question, but I have another question on the Arab summit in Abu Dhabi.
MR PATEL: Okay, sure.
QUESTION: Do you have any comment on the summit, and do you know why Saudi Arabia and Kuwait didn’t attend?
MR PATEL: I would let other countries speak to their own multilateral and bilateral engagements and participation at any summit. We’re aware of the reports of a meeting in Abu Dhabi between several regional states, but obviously the United States was not a participant. But don’t have anything additional to offer beyond that.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR PATEL: In the back, go ahead.
QUESTION: On Venezuela, about – it is true that this administration is considering withdrawing the $15 million reward that was issued for the capture of Nicolas Maduro?
MR PATEL: I am not aware or am not here to offer any new change in policy. Our sanctions policy on Venezuela remains unchanged. We will continue to implement and enforce our Venezuela sanctions in support of a return to democracy in Venezuela.
QUESTION: On Colombia, really quick, on the extradition of the brother of Colombian Senator Piedad Cordoba to the United States. The senator says that neither she or – nor her brother have anything to do with drug trafficking, that this is just political persecution, she said. I would like to know, what do you think about these arguments?
MR PATEL: I am not aware of this specific request. I will let our Department of Justice colleagues speak specifically about any extradition requests that have come in specifically. But broadly speaking, of course we have an important working relationship with Colombia. The Secretary had the opportunity to visit the region – I believe it was in the late fall of last year – and we look forward to continuing engagements with them.
QUESTION: I have a last one on Cuba. Since United States is having contact with the Cuban regime, is this administration thinking in withdraw Cuba from the list of countries supporting terrorism?
MR PATEL: I have no change in policy to announce. I addressed this a little bit last week; the engagements that you’re referring to were specifically related to some security dialogues, regional security dialogues. I don’t have any other updates to offer beyond that.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR PATEL: Leon, go ahead.
QUESTION: Just to stay in the same region.
MR PATEL: Of course.
QUESTION: A little bit farther – Peru. I wonder if you have any concerns with the developments in Peru now with the demonstrations ongoing. There’s another big one for today. There were more deaths also this morning, two more. The situation doesn’t seem to be getting really any better. What is your position on that for the United States?
MR PATEL: Of course we remain concerned about the violent demonstrations. We also recognize the right of peaceful assembly, but most importantly we call for calm dialogue and for all parties to exercise restraint and nonviolence. We also welcome the Peruvian Government’s stated efforts to dialogue peacefully with the relevant actors and groups around the country. We also support the Peruvian Government’s efforts and commitment to investigate all deaths related to the protests.
Specifically. also, Leon, since you’ve asked the question, I want to also make sure that folks know that the U.S. embassy in Lima is in direct contact with a small number of U.S. citizens who do not wish to leave and are sheltering in place. And the Travel Advisory for Peru is at Level 3, which is “reconsider travel.” And we continue to recommend that U.S. citizens reconsider all travel to Peru at this time.
Go ahead. Actually, before I go to you, anything else in the region before we move around? Okay, go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you. If you remember, I asked you last week about the sanctions on the CAATSA against Türkiye, and if a country like Türkiye was under sanctions, I ask if this country can buy the F-16. Because if I remember well, you sanctioned them and you cancelled the contract for F-35. Correct? So what changed and you want to give to Türkiye the F-16s? And also, tell us if Türkiye is still under sanctions.
MR PATEL: Specifically, I believe I answered your question last week, but to reiterate —
QUESTION: No, no, you took my question and they sent me an answer from your office.
MR PATEL: Understood. So, specifically on – as it relates to CAATSA, of course we make those assessments and any provisions of sales are made on a case-by-case basis. I don’t have any other specifics to offer right now.
But on F-16s, President Biden said last June, as a general matter, that we should sell Türkiye F-16 jets and modernize their fleet as well. However, when it comes to specific arms transfers, we decline to comment until there is a formal notification process with Congress. Broadly speaking, though, the U.S. strongly values its partnerships with our NATO Ally Türkiye, and the U.S. and Türkiye have longstanding and deep bilateral defense ties, and Türkiye’s continued NATO interoperability remains a priority for this administration.
QUESTION: I – can I follow up, please?
MR PATEL: Sure.
QUESTION: Because your people sent me an answer, and I thank you for that; also, they sent an answer to my colleagues. In your answer, you say that the sale of F-16s to Türkiye is not prohibited by these CAATSA sanctions provided Türkiye’s Presidency of Defense – it’s a company called SSB – is not a party to the transaction. You need to explain to us what is going on, because I think the Turks, they will change the name of the company to buy the F-16s, and as you understand, this is a fraud.
MR PATEL: So I’m just not going to get ahead of the process or —
QUESTION: Can you take the question, at least, because it’s very serious?
MR PATEL: — get into hypotheticals. As I’ve said, I would reiterate what Ned, the Secretary, what President Biden have said previously, which is that we should sell Türkiye the F-16 jets and modernize their fleet as well. However, when it comes to specific arms transfers, I’m just not going to get ahead of that process until formal notifications have happened to Congress.
QUESTION: Just on this point, the foreign minister, the Turkish foreign minister, said – I think today or late last night – that the F-16 sale is completely independent of whatever plans they have for northern Syria; whether they invade or not invade northern Syria, it should be independent of any NATO admission to Sweden and Finland – and so on. Is that your understanding of this deal, or is this deal conditioned on, let’s say, Türkiye refraining from attacking Syria and going along with the admission of Sweden and Finland to NATO?
MR PATEL: Said, I’m not going to offer parallels or connections here. As it relates to the F-16s, we’ve been quite clear, but – and as it relates to incursions into Syria, we’ve also been quite clear. Ned spoke about this as recently as yesterday, in which – of course, we are very sensitive and want to make sure that any actions that happen in Syria do not degrade the important work that has happened over the recent years to degrade ISIS and their operability in the region.
I’m going to work the room a little bit because I already called on you. Dylan, in the back.
QUESTION: Yeah, a question about the Welcome Corps.
MR PATEL: Sure.
QUESTION: Hoping – I was hoping to ask the assistant secretary, but maybe you can answer as well. There’s a handful of organizations – about half a dozen – that the Welcome Corps is working with – NGOs and nonprofits that it’s working with to carry out the new policy and this new program. One of them is called the Church World Service. It’s a nonprofit that has advocated for things like abolishing ICE, it’s campaigned to defund the Border Patrol – various policies and priorities that the administration has said it stands against, it opposes. So, I’m just curious kind of what was the vetting process for the organizations that State is partnering with for this new program, and if you have any idea why this particular organization was chosen when there are others that were presumably available.
MR PATEL: Well, Dylan, the assessment on the – to take a little bit of a step back, the department is working with a consortium of nonprofit organizations with expertise in welcoming, resettling, and integrating refugees into U.S. communities to support the Welcome Corps program. This consortium that I just mentioned will manage and oversee a process for vetting and certifying these private sponsors that want to welcome refugees. And it is specifically that metric that I just offered – expertise in welcoming, resettling, and integrating refugees – that I’m sure the assessment was made of who would be part of that consortium. And specifically, it is a reflection of that metric alone, and not some sort of linkage to any policy position, the ones that you described or otherwise.
QUESTION: Thanks. Sorry, I just want to take another stab at the potential prisoner swap issue.
MR PATEL: I answered your question.
QUESTION: No, no, no, I know. It’s a bit different.
MR PATEL: Okay.
QUESTION: As you know, U.S. citizen Taylor Dudley was released by Russia several days ago. He returned here, as far as I understand, as a result of Bill Richardson – Bill Richardson’s effort, not as a result of a government-to-government negotiations. That’s my take; I might be wrong.
I wanted to know if this case changes – in any way, your thinking about the prisoner exchange issue. Do you think tri-actor, something like that, might be the preferable way to do this, judging by what Governor Richardson had been able to do, or not?
MR PATEL: So when it comes to the release of American citizens who are wrongfully detained, whether it be in the case of Trevor Reed, whether it be in the case of Brittney Griner, whether it be in the still-unresolved case that we continue to be fighting for regularly when it comes to Paul Whelan, there are channels that exist, there are channels that have been laid out by the two presidents, President Biden and President Putin, to have these discussions that are ongoing. And we continue to believe that those channels are the best avenues for these decisions and these things to come to a conclusion, as we have seen in the case of Trevor Reed and Brittney Griner as well.
QUESTION: Is that —
MR PATEL: Go ahead. I’m going to work the room a little bit. I called on you already. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you. You spoke somewhat generally earlier when you said that the U.S. embassy in Moscow is engaging with Russian authorities regarding all U.S. citizens. I just wondered if you could say any more about this specific alleged case, about what the embassy, what the State Department is doing. Has the embassy reached out to – officially to try to confirm details about this individual, to request access if they are indeed in custody?
MR PATEL: You’re talking about the case that Matt raised at the beginning?
QUESTION: Yes, yes, off the top.
MR PATEL: Yeah. Sure, sure.
QUESTION: And what other efforts are ongoing and what sort of reception has the State Department and the embassy gotten.
MR PATEL: So again, we are aware of these unconfirmed reports that an investigation regarding a U.S. citizen in Russia is taking place, but we continue to try and get as much information as we can. And I unfortunately don’t have additional specifics beyond that. But to reiterate, the U.S. embassy in Moscow is engaging with Russian authorities to ensure timely notifications, and to ensure access to all citizens – and broadly we are looking into this matter and will closely monitor the situation and get as much information as we can.
QUESTION: Have the Russian authorities responded at all at this point?
MR PATEL: I’m just not in a place to offer the specific tit-for-tat engagements, but this is something that we’re monitoring closely and we are engaging directly with the Russian authorities on this.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR PATEL: Camilla.
QUESTION: Just on Afghanistan, 78 people have been reported dead due to conditions, harsh winter conditions in Afghanistan. Do you have any update on the talks between this department and the Taliban at all, anything that’s – whether these talks are still ongoing? That’s my question.
MR PATEL: So, I hadn’t seen that report, but I will see if we have any updates to offer on that. I will note we have over the past – since the Taliban takeover in August of 2021 provided more than 1.1 billion in U.S. humanitarian assistance. I will see if there’s a specific breakout for that as it relates to weatherization or for things that could help with the extreme cold or anything like that.
But broadly speaking, Camilla, I don’t have any updates to offer, but you saw the Secretary speak to this not just in his end-of-the-year press conference, but also – I believe, earlier this week as well. The Taliban’s policies towards women and girls are an affront to human rights, and as long as the Taliban repress women and girls, the Taliban’s relations with the international community are going to suffer. We’ve been quite clear, the Secretary’s been quite clear, to earn legitimacy and credibility, actions are going to need to speak loudly and they will need to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms to all Afghans, not just occasionally.
Go ahead, in the back.
QUESTION: I want to ask about Vietnam.
MR PATEL: Ask about —
MR PATEL: Okay, go ahead.
QUESTION: Yes. A few days ago, Vietnam President Nguyen Xuan Phuc resigned in the middle of his term, which was reported to be surprising and unprecedented in its political history. Do you think it could have any diplomatic impact on U.S.-Vietnam bilateral relationship or Indo-Pacific region?
MR PATEL: Let me say a couple things on that. So we are aware of the reports of President Phuc’s resignation, and to state broadly, Vietnam is a valued partner of the United States and we look forward to celebrating the 10th anniversary of our comprehensive partnership later in 2023. We are confident that the positive momentum in our bilateral relationship will continue following a robust series of senior-level engagements in this past year, which included President Biden meeting with Prime Minister Minh Chinh at the U.S.-ASEAN Summit in D.C. in May, as well as at the summit in Phnom Penh in November.
I would reiterate again that the U.S.-Vietnam partnership has never been stronger, and we have moved from a history of conflict and division to comprehensive partnership that spans political, security, economic, and people-to-people ties as well.
QUESTION: Vedant, I just want to ask what the U.S. thinks about Medvedev’s rhetoric and comments, the latest being, “The defeat of a nuclear power in a conventional war may trigger a nuclear war.” And we’ve heard, like, this kind of really apocalyptic rhetoric from him repeatedly. Does the U.S. think he does speak for Putin, or, like, what is the U.S. assessment on —
MR PATEL: Well, I’m not going to parse who speaks for who in the Russian Federation. But to echo what you said, Humeyra, this is not the first time that we’ve seen such kind of rhetoric from Russia broadly. And candidly, we think provocative rhetoric regarding nuclear weapons is not only dangerous, it is reckless. It adds to the risk of miscalculation and, candidly, it should be avoided – and we will not indulge on it. A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.
Go ahead, Camilla.
QUESTION: In a similar vein, do you have – do you want to comment at all on the Iranian foreign minister’s comment that Iran does not see Crimea as a Russian territory, that they see Crimea and other annexed territories in Ukraine as Ukrainian? Do you welcome that comment from Iran?
MR PATEL: Well, this is another situation when it comes to the Iranian regime that actions should speak louder than words. We would agree that Crimea is Ukraine, and all the other annexed territories are Ukraine, also. But what we would not agree with is the deadly provision of UAVs that Iran has done to Russia so that Russia can carry out strikes on Ukrainian civilian and energy infrastructure in the middle of winter, all for their war that is illegal, unjust, and a clear violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR PATEL: Okay. Thanks, everybody.
(The briefing was concluded at 2:48 p.m.)