Keynote Address for ECDC Plenary Session
Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration
Thank you so much for that kind introduction. And thank you for the work you do every day to resettle refugees in this country.
This year’s conference theme is an important one. It underscores the need to speak and act on behalf of the innocent men, women and children everywhere who fall victim to persecution and violence. To help them, we have to work together, listen to their voices and find our own.
Federal state and local governments, resettlement agencies, churches, schools, the private sector, and committed volunteers all have crucial roles to play. You are there on the ground, every day, making one of our nation’s most hallowed ideals a reality.
The United States prides itself on being a beacon of hope and opportunity for those who are oppressed and cast adrift. But you are the ones who know what it takes to start over again in a strange place. You extend a kind and steady hand to those who are taking the first steps into a new life. Your dedication, expertise, and compassion make all the difference.
We at the Bureau of Population Refugees and Migration know what being resettled here means to refugees, because we have seen where they have come from and what they have endured.
We know the perilous routes they take, through desolate and war ravaged lands, the borders they cross with nothing but what they can carry in their arms, and the places where they seek refuge – the sprawling, dusty camps and teaming slums not sure whether they will ever be able pick up the pieces of their lives, their careers, their education, their families, and everything else that has been swept away. And not knowing when or how it will end.
Less than 1% of the millions who become refugees get accepted for resettlement in a third country. Some refugees eventually return home, but many remain in exile for years – in fact an average of over 17 years.
Refugees and displaced people need safety, sustenance, and hope – in the chaos of war, and the panic of flight, and the tedious years that can follow. Regardless of where they are and where they are headed, PRM works to safeguard their lives and their dignity.
Diplomacy is one tool we use. Within the State Department, in bilateral talks and global conferences, we call attention to the plight of civilians in harm’s way. We galvanize international support for relief efforts and work with other governments to keep borders open and aid flowing.
The United States also provides more humanitarian assistance around the world than any other nation. PRM funds aid groups that respond to emergencies and protracted conflicts including UNHCR, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the International Organization for Migration and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, and a host of leading non-governmental organizations.
The task of protecting and assisting displaced people has grown ever more complicated and challenging. I will talk today about this changing landscape and how we are adjusting to it.
The first problem is volume. The sheer number and scale of the crises raging around the world is almost surreal. According to UNHCR, more people are now scattered by war, persecution, and violence than at any time since World War II.
More conflicts are chronic. New catastrophes erupt, while old fights often simmer on for years with periodic flare ups.
Solutions are proving elusive. Even when the international organizations and diplomats reach a consensus on how to stop the fighting, we often can’t. Too many politicians and combatants seem impervious to diplomatic pressure, and indifferent to the suffering of their people.
Today’s conflicts are also shockingly brutal. Civilians aren’t just getting caught in the crossfire. They are being deliberately and indiscriminately killed, as warring parties lay siege to neighborhoods, burn villages, and even target hospitals and schools.
And saving lives has become more dangerous. Barrel bombs, bullets, and machetes have killed humanitarian workers too. Some have even been beheaded.
International humanitarian principles are being trampled. Boundaries, once honored even in wartime, have been crossed.
This is certainly happening in Syria. That calamity, the worst in a generation, has now driven half of the Syrian people from their homes, spawning murderous extremism and suffering that seems never to end.
Right now we are facing a particular emergency in Yarmouk, where Palestinian refugees are trapped between ISIS and government troops, cut off from food and water and in grave danger.
Meanwhile, Iraqi troops are battling ISIS, Libya and Yemen have descended into chaos, and terrorism has metastasized in these countries too. ISIS’s promotional videos – the pride it takes in slaughtering innocent civilians like the Ethiopians and Eritreans recently murdered in Libya – raise chilling questions about human beings’ capacity for evil.
Nigeria’s successful election may portend more success in fighting terrorism, but Boko Haram has spent years ravaging northern Nigeria and emptying out villages and the humanitarian needs there and in neighboring countries are vast and will remain so for some time to come. Al Shabaab is committing mass murder in Kenya, religious minorities are fleeing persecution in Burma, and separatists are still trying to dismember Ukraine.
In the Central African Republic, there has been some progress, but it’s fragile. Brutal attacks by both Seleka and anti-balaka militias forced hundreds of thousands to flee the country. Villages were torched and civilians traumatized and killed. Supporting recovery and reconciliation will take time and attention and we cannot lose focus.
While PRM is responding to all of these crises and more around the world, my primary responsibility is for our Africa programs. I recently traveled to Ethiopia, the country that helped give ECDC its start and its name.
In fact, I first traveled to Ethiopia 17 years ago as a young aid worker. It was a formative experience for me. Visiting refugee camps for the first time, learning about the work of the United Nations, and equally unforgettable, taking a weekend trip to Lalibela and Gondar.
Today, Ethiopia hosts nearly 700,000 refugees -- more than any other African nation. And what I saw there and discussed with the government, refugees, and aid agencies, provides some concrete examples of the dilemmas policymakers, donors, and humanitarians are facing today.
In the past year and a half, more than 250,000 refugees have poured into Ethiopia. Some have come from Eritrea, Somalia and Sudan. But the vast majority, 80 percent, came from South Sudan .
What has happened in South Sudan shows how quickly something people worked so hard to build can fall apart – how brittle peace, democracy, and even civility can be.
At the camps most of the refugees were women and children. Aid agencies were working hard, to find enough suitable land – to provide food, and pipe in enough water, to provide classrooms for children, treatment for the sick, and to help refugees recreate community. The fighting has made it so dangerous to plant and harvest their crops that many have had to flee or face starvation. One of the places I visited was a feeding center for malnourished children, that is, thankfully, finally admitting fewer cases.
The politicians whose feud started this war do not seem to be particularly alarmed.
Emissaries, even Secretary Kerry, have gone to implore them to negotiate in earnest and uphold the peace agreements they have signed. But the fighting continues, and combatants are not just killing one another. They have blocked aid shipments, menaced relief workers, and even stormed into a United Nations compound to murder terrified civilians hiding there.
In the camps in Ethiopia, and wherever uprooted people flee, we and the agencies strive to adapt, to identify the greatest threats and needs, and devise new ways to protect the most vulnerable refugees. This includes women and children.
In the Ethiopia’s Gambella camps, South Sudanese women and girls told us the threat of rape hangs over them every day. They fear it when they walk out into the scrub land for many hours each day to collect firewood, and even inside the boundaries of the camp, when they need to venture out after dark.
To confront gender based violence, in conflicts, disasters, and their aftermath, PRM and Secretary Kerry launched an initiative in 2013 called Safe from the Start. It is providing innovative programs and training for relief workers around the world to identify risks, deter attacks, and help survivors.
At some camps Safe from the Start is paying for solar lights to make streets and paths safer at night and training outreach workers, who go door to door to tell women about their legal rights and how to seek help.
Outreach workers at the Gambella camps tell women that what has happened to them is not their fault. And they say it is making a difference. Just recently a group of women heard a rape in progress and came running. They identified the perpetrators, who are now in jail. Counselors say more women are also daring to speak out when husbands beat them, take their food rations, or refuse to let their daughters go to school.
On the day we visited, one of the camps opened a new women’s center and a group of women were there celebrating. They danced in a circle and sang songs together – songs about being the women of South Sudan, and about being strong and telling the truth.
Of course, gender based violence is just one of many perils faced by refugees and displaced people. Another dire humanitarian challenge that also manifests in Ethiopia is human smuggling. Recent weeks have delivered graphic and heartbreaking evidence – flimsy and overcrowded boats capsizing and sinking in the Mediterranean, drowning hundreds upon hundreds of desperate migrants and refugees. Every year, it seems, more and more trips begun in hope end in death. There are no easy solutions to this gathering crisis but our moral duty is surely first and foremost to save lives.
This means understanding what is driving such dangerous journeys and what can stop so many from undertaking them.
This was another reason I traveled to Ethiopia. I visited refugee camps near Shire that were full of Eritreans – especially teenagers and children. They come to Ethiopia to escape hopeless poverty and mandatory conscription. Thousands have been risking their lives to cross the border every month.
And many hope Ethiopia will just be a way station. They plan to continue on to more prosperous countries to the north where they can find jobs and start new lives. Many of these refugees were just children. Many had come without their parents – without even telling their parents – and without knowing much about geography.
Fifteen-year-old Etbaret explained, “We came to support our families. We all thought we would be able to leave here immediately, that if we walk just a few days more we will reach Europe, or maybe make it to the United States.” No one had told them there were oceans in the way.
At the camps, aid workers warn them against setting off through the desert with smugglers. They explain that these people may extort money from their families, abandon them, enslave them, sell them, even kill them. They also talk about the risk of drowning in the sea.
But refugees need more than warnings. They need alternatives and they need reasons to stay. We are working on this with aid groups and the Ethiopian government.
For refugee children, we fund schools and recreation centers. I watched children chasing each other, playing ping pong and basketball, plunking out songs on keyboards, and a troop of teenagers performing traditional Eritrean folk dances. Instead of being lured away by smugglers – risking their lives – these teenagers were circling, shimmying and grinning proudly.
Livelihoods and Urban Refugees
Today, protecting refugees can also mean teaching refugees the skills they need to support themselves. In Ethiopia I visited training centers where young people in chef hats learned to make bread and rows of young men and women used foot pedals to power sewing machines, and stitch up skirts.
Job placement is important too. Government and camp officials in Ethiopia are working on plans to create jobs for the graduates, staffing nearby eateries and making school uniforms. There and elsewhere, our aim is to shape programs to fit identified, market-based needs.
Using vocational training to improve livelihoods may sound more like development assistance than humanitarian relief. But today, the line between relief and development is blurring. This is necessary and inevitable, because the paradigm of what it means to be a refugee and what it means to assist refugees is shifting.
Refugees do not just need food and water, blankets and tents, a safe place to stay until fighting subsides and they can go home. Refugees who may spend years or decades in exile don’t want to stay in limbo or keep relying on handouts.
Furthermore, most refugees now live in cities and towns and are trying to fend for themselves. They have flocked to cities from Cairo to Bangkok to Istanbul, hoping for the chance to work, to be self-reliant, and move about freely, and to get on with their lives.
We are trying to help them, funding urban refugee centers and services ranging from legal and job counseling, to help enrolling children in school or finding medical care. Some of our programs offer cash for work, or small loans to aid refugees who want to start a small business.
Urban refugee populations usually don’t need parallel or stand-alone assistance. They need to be linked with existing services. UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations we traditionally fund need to build a whole new set of partnerships with government agencies, and other organizations that serve these communities.
And while promoting formal local integration for refugees may not always be feasible, I think maybe there is room for more common ground if we shift the narrative to be about helping refugees become less dependent on aid and more self-reliant. And if we focus on the potential economic and social benefits for all when new schools and clinics are built to serve refugees and host communities alike.
Assisting Host Communities
With the right opportunities and support, refugees can become a boon to the local economy – not a burden. A 2014 study in Uganda shows that refugees – particularly those living in urban areas – actually create jobs for Ugandans. In Kampala, nearly all refugees surveyed purchase goods and services from Ugandans, and 40% of refugee business owners said they hire Ugandan employees.
A 2010 study found that the Dadaab refugee camps in Kenya provided roughly $14 million in economic benefits to the surrounding community annually.
Of course, massive influxes of refugees can also strain host communities, and helping them cope is one of PRM’s priorities. By taking in Syrian refugees, for instance, neighboring countries have helped save millions of lives. For years, they kept their borders open even as wave upon wave of Syrian refugees arrived, and it became more and more clear they were not going home.
Think of Lebanon – a country that was poor and politically volatile even before Syrian refugees began flooding in. Today refugees make up nearly a quarter of its population. Rents have soared, wages have fallen. Lebanon’s schools are overcrowded, its hospitals are too. Water is in short supply, sewer systems overwhelmed, social services are stretched, and patience is wearing thin.
In Lebanon and elsewhere in the region, PRM is working with USAID to fund projects that benefit host communities and refugees alike. We are investing in infrastructure, schools, clinics, cisterns and pumping stations. And in other host countries too, we fund projects designed to serve everyone.
This kind of assistance can ease frictions that may arise, especially when host populations are enduring conditions just as bad or even worse than those faced by refugees. We think more should be done to link and coordinate humanitarian relief, transitional assistance, and longer term development aid. United Nations agencies, the World Bank, and other donors are already moving in this direction. And we envision international financial institutions playing a greater role in the future, when host countries need help steadying their economies, shoring up their finances and meeting extraordinary needs.
Addresing Root Causes
Of course the best solution to mass displacement isn’t local integration or resettlement. It is not more humanitarian aid. It is addressing the root causes of the violence that drive so many people from their homes.
And we are working with our colleagues at the State Department to try to address the problems that have uprooted so many people around the world. Later during the conference, you will hear from State Department’s Assistant Secretary for Africa, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, about efforts to resolve conflicts, build democratic and just societies, and promote development in Africa. PRM, together with USAID, support these efforts in Africa and around the world.
My colleague, Larry Bartlett will also be speaking in much more detail today about resettlement as a key part of our humanitarian response to the plight of refugees. Before I conclude,
I will tell you one final story from our trip to Ethiopia. At the Adi-Harush Camp, we stopped outside a row of cinderblock shelters for unaccompanied children and the foster parents who had volunteered to care for them. They described what it was like to cross from Eritrea, to hide from soldiers and hyenas. Some were homesick, some were frustrated. Some had been there for years. They were also gracious and playful and curious. Behind shy smiles there was a palpable sense of longing.
As we walked toward our cars to leave, a little girl ran to catch up with us. She could not take her eyes off my colleague’s big purse. We asked if there was something she wanted. She asked if we couldn’t please just put her in that bag and carry her back to America.
These children were willing to risk everything for even a glimpse of what children here in the United States take for granted – for freedom and the chance to make something of their lives. For many it is still just a dream.
None of us can help everyone who needs and deserves this chance. But you at ECDC are part of something wonderful. You do help make some refugees dreams come true.
I want to thank you once again - for organizing this event, for inviting me to speak, and for the work that you do every day.