Examining the Syrian Refugee Crisis

Anne C. Richard
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration
As Delivered Opening Remarks Before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa
Washington, DC
September 19, 2013

Link to As-Prepared Remarks»

Thank you very much, Madam Chair, Ranking Member Deutch, and Members of this Subcommittee. And also I think we're privileged to have other chairs of the other subcommittees here, which shows the seriousness, I think, with which you are taking this crisis, for which we are very, very grateful. We're very grateful you are calling attention to this enormous crisis. I want to thank you for holding this hearing and also express our appreciation for the resources authorized and appropriated by the Congress. These funds are saving lives and easing the suffering of millions of people.

Please accept my longer testimony for the record. What I'd like to do is speak very quickly and briefly about the main points. This crisis is vastly different than a year ago—and alarmingly so. Last September we were concerned about a refugee population of about 230,000. Today it stands at two million – so nearly 10 times that earlier number. Combined with four or five million people now displaced inside Syria, as you've said, nearly one third of Syria’s population has left their homes. This is now the largest displacement crisis in the world.

To put that in perspective: Imagine the entire population of Washington D.C. being forced from their homes – and then double that number. More people have fled the country than either of the crises in Rwanda or Bosnia. Two-thirds of the refugees are women and children.

The numbers above are shocking by themselves, but behind them are millions of individual tragedies. I have met families blown apart by the violence -- fathers killed or missing, the elderly suffering from lack of medical care, children traumatized by what they’ve witnessed. We have seen a widow struggling to find food for her five children and toddlers horribly disfigured by bombings. Families live in shanty towns with open sewage – prey to disease and exploitation.

The point of these images is to stress that -- amid the discussion of the Syrian regime’s atrocities, and the political debates about the best way forward – our efforts, as leaders among nations, should continue – and even intensify – to assist the innocent Syrian civilians.

The United States is not taking on this challenge alone. Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq, and Egypt have allowed the vast majority of the two million refugees to cross into their territory. Other donors have provided important assistance.

What We Are Doing

In the midst of this tragedy, U.S. assistance is saving lives and making a real difference. The United States has provided $1 billion in aid since the crisis began.

Our aid – channeled through United Nations organizations and reputable, international non-governmental organizations – helps get the widow with five children linked to one of our partner non-governmental organizations that provides food and medical assistance. UNICEF efforts help ensure the horribly wounded three-year old I mentioned got medical attention. The toys UNICEF brought made him smile for the first time in months.

Beyond food, medical care and other traditional assistance, along with USAID we are using innovative methods to address the urban population—providing food vouchers and debit cards for use in local markets, and cash assistance to help refugees pay rent. We support programs to keep children protected and to prevent and respond to sexual and gender-based violence.

Overall, we are helping millions of people. But this assistance is spread thin, many remain very difficult to reach, and we have many concerns. We need to help not only refugees in camps, but also those living on their own or with relatives in villages or cities, where hundreds of thousands of destitute families are trying to survive.

Increased assistance by other donors is critical to get help to more people. Development funding from international leaders like the World Bank is needed in addition to humanitarian assistance to help the countries that neighbor Syria. Lebanon, Jordan and northern Iraq in particular need support for their economies, infrastructure, and public services.

I remain concerned about safety in refugee camps, about the spread of disease in camps and overcrowded neighborhoods, and the many Syrian children who are not in school, and we support programs to tackle each of these challenges.

Michael Klosson of Save the Children met with refugees in Amman on Monday. He sent me an email and told me that one 10-year old girl he met whose father, a taxi driver, had been missing in Syria for a year and now lives in East Amman with her family, said she wants to grow up and be a doctor because “if something happens to you or someone dear to you, you can help them”. I was so touched by that. This girl who has lost so much wants to help other people. That’s the future orientation we all need to nurture in these children.

Our greatest concern, of course, is for those still inside Syria, who remain vulnerable to attack and whom aid agencies often cannot reach. What good is getting aid inside Syria if the aid recipient is caught in the crossfire, bombed, or gassed by his or her own government?

It is well known that war is not ended by more and better aid deliveries. Peace must be negotiated, and we salute our colleagues – American diplomats and their counterparts from other countries - striving to do so. Until then, we will urgently need to continue our work, and need your support and the support of the American people in our efforts. I look forward to your questions.