U.S. Refugee and Migration Policy and Programs in Southeast Asia
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration
MODERATOR: We’re all here in Indonesia and overseas. As you know we have journalists on the call from KL and actually from around the world. The format will be as follows; we’ll start out with the Assistant Secretary who will deliver short remarks and then we’ll go to Mr. Tom Vargas from UNHCR for short remarks and then to Steve Hamilton, the DCM of IOM for short remarks and then we’ll open it to questions. We’ll bounce back and forth between journalists in the room and journalists on the call. All of this will be in English. If we do need ad-hoc interpretation just let us know. We have somebody available.
And with that, I’ll turn it over to the Assistant Secretary.
A/S RICHARD: Thank you, thank you all very much. I’m Anne Richard, Anne C. Richard, the Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration. And I left Washington on May 26th, spent a couple days in Thailand including the May 29th special meeting to look at this crisis situation and then have traveled onto Malaysia and here to Indonesia.
In both Malaysia and Indonesia I’ve been able to meet with some of the boat people who have been rescued and talked to them to find out a little bit more about their situation and also have been visiting them with staff from the International Organization for Migration and the UN High Commission from Refugees, which are two of the organizations that we fund year in and year out to help refugees and migrants around the world.
This is my second time visiting Indonesia. I’m very happy to be in this beautiful country but as you know what brought me here is a tragic situation mainly, the currently irregular migrant boat crisis in the Andaman Sea and Bay of Bengal. The US is committed to supporting this region’s leadership in mounting efforts to address the challenges of irregular migration.
The US looks forward to continuing to consult with governments in the region regarding their needs and I’ll be meeting with Indonesian government officials later today. And we want to find the best ways we can support them in providing humanitarian assistance to the vulnerable migrants. Yesterday I traveled to Kuala KangCoi, Aceh. I traveled to Aceh to visit the TPI Lapang Camp with US Ambassador Blake. And we were accompanied by the Wali Nanggroe and the Aceh Vice Governor and spent a good deal of time talking to them and also spoke with both Rohingya men and women there and learned of their harrowing journey at sea.
A very important piece of what I want to say today is to thank the government and people of Aceh for stepping forward and assisting the migrants that came to Indonesian shores. I would also like to thank the government of Indonesia for offering the migrants safe shelter and for conducting its own search and rescue operation.
I would particularly like to thank the local fishermen and I was able to do that in person which was sort of a rare moment for me. The local fishermen who played such a direct and critical role in rescuing the migrants who were stranded at sea for most of the time. So these gentlemen you know responded very quickly to people in distress and did the right thing and rescued them and brought them in and indeed it seems like a lot of people in the area are helping the migrants. We saw an outpouring of generous donations to help them with their current living situation and also a lot of local groups were helping to provide medical care and support. It was very touching.
So during this trip as I mentioned, I’ll also meet with the Office of Vice President and others to discuss the crisis. I’ll also meet with these leaders from UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration. It’s important that you know that the US is supporting this not just for the visit but also with real money and you’ll recall, perhaps, the May 29th meeting we announced a $3 million contribution to the IOM appeal to respond to the crisis. We’re taking a close look at UNHCR’s documents that they’ve submitted to us for what their needs are. And all of this complements the nearly $109 million in assistance that we already had been providing the past two years for helping vulnerable Burmese including the Rohingya in Burma and in the region.
So we intend to continue to provide assistance here and we also with UNHCR run a resettlement program for refugees to the United States. That program also benefits Burmese who have fled that country and some of them are Rohingya too. And that is an interesting program that’s been going on for a number of years. So if I take a moment and reflect back on the entire trip, I have to say I think I’ve seen some of the best and the worst of humanity. I’ve seen what happens when people are abandoned on the high seas after being exploited and recruited by smugglers and traffickers. I can see -- I talked to some women in a detention center in Malaysia who were in the depths of their despair in part because they had been abandoned at sea for so long that I think they had really been traumatized.
And I saw people yesterday who were benefiting from the best of mankind, humanity which were people who had been rescued quickly and while indeed having been mistreated by the smugglers, they had talked about being beaten on these over-crowded boats, seeing people die. At last now they were being given a safe place to recover and a great deal of assistance. Both groups though don’t really know what their future holds. And both groups were looking for a new start and a more successful life than they had been able to pursue in their home countries.
So to repeat what we said on May 29th we need to make a priority of saving lives, we need to make a priority of going against the criminal gangs, smugglers, the traffickers and then we really need to look at the root causes; what prompts people to flee their countries and take such a dangerous sea voyage? Can that be avoided in some way if there are better conditions for them at home?
Okay, that was my piece.
MODERATOR: Thank you, ma’am, before we move on to Mr. Vargas, I just want to note for the callers in the line that we also have Ambassador Robert O. Blake, the US Ambassador that is participating in this press conference as well. Mr. Vargas, please.
MR. THOMAS VARGAS: Good morning everyone. It’s a pleasure to be here with Assistant Secretary of State Richard and Ambassador Blake this morning as well as my colleague Steve Hamilton from IOM. To highlight what is an alarming crisis in the region, a crisis that involves a number of countries including Indonesia of course and I’m Tom Vargas, Thomas Vargas, from UNHCR’s office here in Indonesia and the UN High Commission on Refugees. UNHCR certainly welcomes Assistant Richard’s visit to Aceh and to Jakarta. I think that it’s very important that this showing of support and concern is indeed crucial and shows the international effort that’s needed in order to respond to this horrible situation that we have of people stranded on the high sea.
We hope that other countries will step in as well. Meanwhile here in Indonesia, UNHCR, IOM and other humanitarian partners are supporting the government in providing humanitarian assistance to the refugees and the migrants who have been brought to safety here in Indonesia. And here I’d like to join the Assistant Secretary of State in showing our gratitude to the government of Indonesia from the national level to the local level and particularly the local communities who have responded with an outpouring of really the most amazing humanitarian spirit that I think sets an example for all of us to follow in helping the refugees and migrants to safety.
After the urgent needs were addressed, UNHCR began and has now completed a registration of all the Rohingya asylum seekers. There’s around 1,000 that are here and these are all of course accommodated in about five sites in different locations in Aceh and in North Sumatra. In addition of course there are over 800 Bangladeshis who I understand wish to return home as soon as possible. And for the Rohingya, in coordination with the government and other humanitarian partners, UNHCR on the ground continues to assess their protection needs. The highest priority right now for us is the significant number of women and children that are included in the group. There are nearly 350 unaccompanied minors and separated children among the group and making sure that they’re safe, making sure that they continue to be provided for and that until we can find proper solutions for them, of course it’s paramount to us.
I was there a few days ago and in fact met with several of the refugees and one of the most striking conversations I had, short conversation as it was, was with a small boy of about 10 years old. And I asked him where his parents were and he told me that he had lost them on the boat. So you can imagine the trauma and the psychological stress that he’s going through now as we try to address the situation. So this just gives you an idea of what we have ahead in terms of helping these people and finding solutions for them.
You will note that our Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, Mr. Volkercher joined the Assistant Secretary of State as well as others at the meeting in Bangkok to discuss solutions to these problems that we’re facing and UNHCR, along with IOM and UNODC, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, provided a 10-point proposal that laid out ways that can be considered by the countries of the region to address the situation including of course the robust search and rescue operation that’s needed as well as allowing boats to disembark in the various countries affected. And in addition of course, as has already been highlighted by the Assistant Secretary of State, looking at root causes and why these people are forced to take such dangerous journeys in the first place.
So let me just close by highlighting that while we join countries of humanitarian partners in looking for solutions to this terrible situation, we can’t forget that there are still probably over 2,000 people that are still stranded at sea and in desperate need of help and being rescued and brought to safe land. The first priority needs to be saving their lives. And I’m hoping that governments in the region will come together and initiate the search and rescue operation that’s needed in this situation.
So once again I want to thank the government of the US for its continued support in addressing the refugee crises that we’re facing around the world and also the situation that we have here on hand in Indonesia. And the importance that’s placed on it by the US government, which is evidenced by the Assistant Secretary of State’s visit here today. We’re deeply grateful for the support as we face the crisis of irregular movements in the region and worldwide. So we very much count on that continued support. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Thank you, sir. Now with Mr. Hamilton, the Deputy Chief of Mission of IOM.
MR. STEVE HAMILTON: Thank you. As mentioned, I’m Steve Hamilton, the Deputy Chief of Mission for the Indonesia. I’d also like to thank the US government for what they’ve provided us. It’s essential. IOM usually mobilizes first and tries to find support later. So it’s always good when a country steps in and just know that we can keep continuing our work. As you all know, Indonesians have a very organized response. I mean, that was not surprising for us; they’ve been handling boats for years. These are a few hundreds of the boats they’ve had over the years. They’ve had over 10,000 high-seas rescues in the country. We saw the response not only at the local level but also the national level. Very senior level officials were quickly engaged and they were informing us they were going and clearly expectations that everyone would mobilize and everyone did.
So Indonesians should be not only thanking the level local but the national level but people like us in the core main industry where they engaged right away. The immediate help that they were going up, they wanted to apply it. They have a Vice President who in an effort called for support, quickly called us in, commanding alliance and it was nice to see that after all these years, the Indonesians are dealing with this problem as they were ready, they were engaged and they were in charge. And that was the most important thing for us is that they were in charge.
IOM was there to support, not to take the lead. Even with the local government, we see they’re not looking for us to take anything over. Just looking for a little bit of support and that’s what we’re all trying to provide them with a little bit of support. I think it was great to walk into camps where we all see IOM, UN, international NGO tents. We see a lot of Indonesian, local government tents, local NGO tents. This is what response is really about. This is an area that’s been the recipients of many groups over the years, it’s an area that were previously refugees themselves and they seem to have taken that whole experience and built a capacity to respond to this themselves at the rate along as much as we want to help people. As we do so many things, the Indonesians, given the proper support, can handle these types of issues.
With that being said, IOM was there to assist, we look after food, medical care, shelter, stability, as identified by the local government and national government. For us it was very important that everything go through the Indonesian government. Let’s talk about Bangladesh. Bangladeshis again were on the phone the next day after people arrived. The Ambassador quickly scheduled a trip up there. Everyone saw this was a need to respond. They saw the leadership the Indonesians were showing so even as these Embassies that might normally take a long time, the like the Bangladeshis that do a citizenship test and have committed to an expedited process. We’re looking at almost 800 signed up already to go home. We’ve had discussions both in Dhaka and with the embassy here repeatedly about how we can expedite their return. In many ways unprecedented by that, that they’ve really stepped up and I think it goes to the leadership they’ve seen that governments are all coming together, this humanitarian process needs to quickly resolve what we can.
We see in Aceh, as far the Bangladeshis, obviously we can take out that large group and reduce a lot of pressure on these host communities. I mean they’ve been generous, they’ve been supporting but still that’s a lot of people in the community they’ve been supporting. So we’re hopeful that over the next month or two that most of the Bangladeshis are being returned home. We’re hoping to start the travel docs within a month it is just a question of when they can go home. That being said, we’ve also identified some unaccompanied minors in the Bangladeshi group. It’s more difficult to return them (inaudible) that would create some of the complexity.
So some of the journalists here I know, I’m sure have some really good questions. So again I won’t keep it long. I’m sure that you have things you want to ask. Once again I’d like to thank the American government, not only for the money but also to see that these stories, they’re very big at first, the story might just fall to the back of the paper, so it’s good when there’s a visit at this time to remind everyone it’s not over. Its story might change on the front page but the drama is still here. The problems are still here. I’d just like to really remind everyone that it’s not done yet, there’s still a lot of work. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Thank you. With that we’ll open it up to the Q&A period. Cindy is on the line; I think you have instructions for those that are on the phone.
REPORTER: Hi there, this is Shalayla from the Guardian in Cambria, Australia. I have a question for; well I guess all of the people on the teleconference here, but particularly the Assistant Secretary Richard. As you’re probably aware, Australia, I guess you can say, pioneered the policy of boat-turn-backs. I wanted to find out from you what the consequences of other countries in the region, in the South Asia region, a document policy has been for some of these asylum seekers involved in this crisis now and if I may also what Australia’s hardline policies towards asylum takers, it’s really to resettle some of these Rohingya refugees, what that has meant for regional cooperation?
A/S RICHARD: Well thank you for your question. I did meet with Australian colleagues at the May 29th meeting in Bangkok including the Ambassador for People Smuggling -- or Against People Smuggling, I guess. The United States takes a different approach off our shores to people coming toward us in boats. You know our Coast Guard intercepts the boats and then conducts interviews on its decks to find out if the people, if the boat people in the Caribbean have a credible fear of persecution or not. And if it is judged that they are economic migrants they’re returned to places from which they’ve come. But if it’s judged that they may have a case for asylum then they are not returned and that they get follow-on interviews and they may end up being moved as refugees to a new country.
So the numbers we’re talking about in the Caribbean are quite small, but this, with this approach of ensuring that people get a chance to express their case is a part of what the US is doing that I think is needed throughout the region. I think that’s mostly on that issue.
MODERATOR: Thank you, next question, sir?
REPORTER: Off the coast of Myanmar, there’s a boat of about 700 migrants that has been intercepted five days ago but has not been disembarked. I was wondering if you could comment on that situation and also a follow-up question, is the US disappointed on the regional level at the lack of action on search and rescue.
A/S RICHARD: On the boat of 700, this is the second boat that the plan is to have them land and do we know where that might happen? Was that going to be this morning? Yes, and then of course the Burmese authorities would be then responsible for what happens to people on that boat and my understanding is that if they’re from Bangladesh there will be a quick arrangement with the government of Bangladesh to return their citizens to them. So we’re following this very closely because we want to make sure that any of the innocent people on the boat get proper treatment or are handled to mainland.
REPORTER: As far as the second question in regards to the regional governments, the lack of search and rescue actions?
A/S RICHARD: Oh right, I wrote lack. I think we have launched search and rescue in a pretty fast scramble. It may not be ideal but the planes are flying and we’re very appreciative to Indonesia for running its operation and the Malaysians have been cooperating very closely with the US military to get over Malaysian waters and international waters. And the one piece I’m not up to date on is where we stand in terms of having the Thais engaged, but I know we talked about that a lot over the past week, our government and the Thai government. So they were working towards that goal.
REPORTER: You’re not disappointed by the lack of action?
A/S RICHARD: I think that there’s been a real shift in the region from earlier in May when I think people were slow to do the right thing, to now where there does seem to be a coming together of the countries in the region since the end of May, well since May 20th. I think maybe we should point to that where Indonesia and Malaysia issued their statement and you know then proceeded on to visit in Burma. So I think since May 20th onward there’s been much more constructive conversations about that.
Yes, if we had to do it over again we’d want to reach this point faster, yes. But I’m pleased. I’m seeing a lot of the right things being done.
MODERATOR: We’re back to the line for the next call. I think it’s from The Times?
REPORTER: The first question is for Assistant Secretary Richard. What concrete action did the government of Burma take to address this problem in the long-term? That’s the first question. The second question really for anyone who can answer it, the gentleman from UNHCR spoke of 2,000 people still stranded at sea. Can you give us more detail about that, where they are, how many, what kind of boats they’re in and who they are as far as you know?
A/S RICHARD: Well thank you for your question. Brunei is not on my itinerary so there’s a good piece of news for me that there’s a country I’m not visiting as part of this trip. Sorry. I have had conversations with the government of Burma about what concrete steps they should take. I was part of a human rights dialog with Burma in January that was led by my colleague Tom, Assistant Secretary for the Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, Tom Malinowski. And even though those conversations were behind closed doors, I don’t think it’s a secret that among a list of things we were talking to them about like civilian control of the military and forming and shaping a true democracy and reaching out and hammering out peace with ethnic minorities who have been in the border area near Thailand and China. We’ve also talked to them about what should happen to the Rohingya in Rakhine state and Muslims in general living in Burma although most are in Rakhine.
And so one of the things we have told them is that in the United States if you’re born in the United States, you are automatically a citizen. And we also have people take our citizenship test and become citizens who are foreign-born. And so we talked about how being a country of immigrants and descendants of refugees and descendants of slaves and people coming from all walks of life has actually now in this modern era strengthened our country quite a bit. The diversity of our country is one of our strengths. And so all of this is background to say that the Rohingya need to be treated as citizens of Burma. They need to have the papers to show that. They need to have identity cards and passports that make clear that much of as anyone else (inaudible) they went out that they then can have the freedom that everybody in Burma should enjoy, freedoms of movement, freedom to get help if they need it, freedom of expression, not to live in fear.
Now we’ve talked a lot about the Rohingya and how they are persecuted but you know the Rakhine Buddhists are also living in a very fearful situation. They’re not particularly wealthy. The Rakhine Buddhist communities that I met with, the people I went and talked to, they’re not really thriving in their lives because of the atmosphere in Northern Rakhine state. And so this is a situation where I think both communities could benefit. It could be a win/win for both communities if they take steps such as making clear that everyone who lives there, who’s been born there, who’s grandparents were born there, are deserving of citizenship and if the government invests in their own people in that part of Burma. Thank you. Tom, you were going to talk about the people who may or may not be still missing.
MR. THOMAS VARGAS: Yes, thank you, Assistant Secretary. On that question we do estimate that there are over 2,000 that may be in the open seas, both in the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea. Now these of course are estimates at best. We have a monitoring unit in our regional office here UNHCR’s regional office in Bangkok that keeps a close eye on the situation and pieces together information that we get from media reporters as well as from contacts with the Rohingya community and others to try to put together what is basically clandestine movements and it’s difficult to track.
Nonetheless, our team there has found a way to add up the numbers as best as possible and that’s what we can come up with now. Most of them are either now just off the Bay of Bengal, or in the Bay of Bengal, in (inaudible) and Myanmar and then the other half possibly near Malaysia and Indonesia. But we don’t have any precise locations.
USG BRIEFER: You need to talk into a microphone.
MODERATOR: Where are you from?
REPORTER: From (inaudible). My question is related with (inaudible). You’re talking about to solve the (inaudible), I just want to know what your government will do to make sure to (inaudible) or the Myanmar government to at least to (inaudible) people as their citizen as far as contributing, there’s a different stage because it’s related also with their (inaudible). They’ve even got use of (inaudible). There used to be a man there to the (inaudible) and it will also be difficulties the competition of the Myanmar government (inaudible).
A/S RICHARD: The military, right.
REPORTER: What your government will do to make sure.
A/S RICHARD: Well you know I think it’s interesting the way you say what my government can do to make sure because in diplomacy we are trying to influence, convince, cajole, pressure, using all of our tools to encourage countries to do the right thing. And so I can’t 100 percent guarantee that my government can make sure that the Burmese government does the right thing. But I can tell you that we have been very clear with them during this period of transition that Burma is going through.
You know I think a lot of people who have followed Burma for years are very hopeful that they will make a successful transition to democracy and so we are engaged with them, we are talking to them, we receive them in Washington, we talk to the government, we talk to the opposition, we have a very active ambassador. And so I think it’s no secret what we want because we tell them what we want all the time. But it’s really up to the Burmese people to now engage in elections process, to hold elections and to build their democracy.
And so this is, I think, the outstanding question, is are they going to move towards a Burma that benefits all its citizens or are they going to have a Burma that resembles parts of the old regimes which would in my view would be a mistake.
REPORTER: I would cause (inaudible) to say something to Myanmar but traditionally the government --
A/S RICHARD: I’m not aware of a proposal for any sanctions right now but I’ve been out of Washington like I say, since May 26 so I’ll be finding out where things stand when I get back in a couple days. We really hope that we are working with a Burma that’s on a path of being more of a responsible member of the international community, not less. So we’ll have to talk about this in the future then. I can’t say anything about sanctions today.
REPORTER: But still that can be well obvious.
A/S RICHARD: Always, always in the diplomatic toolbox, sanctions is one of the options, yes. Sanctions are an option. That’s not part of my message as part of my trip, you understand?
MODERATOR: The next question is to Steve Herman from VOA on the line. Thank you and if you would like to ask a question, please press star then one.
STEVE HERMAN: Voice of America in Bangkok for the Assistant Secretary and perhaps also UNHCR, IOM, as far as the situation with the Rohingya in Myanmar, it’s obvious the most, that it’s at the very least state-sanctioned discrimination but there are others in the international community who would like you all to use more forceful language such as ethnic cleansing or even a slow genocide. I’m wondering how you would like to see the situation with the Rohingya characterized, whether ethnic cleansing is too strong of language or not.
A/S RICHARD: Yes, I’m going to refer you to the State Department lawyers about the category. I can tell you from having traveled in Northern Rakhine state it’s one of the most oppressive atmospheres I’ve ever traveled in and I met -- I went to one community where the people were afraid to talk to us. And it’s very strange to be surrounded by people looking at you who are too afraid to talk to you, especially when they’re children. That’s just not normal. I travel all over the world and I see kids playing in some of the filthiest, most difficult, most challenging environments around the world and in Northern Rakhine state even the children seem very, very frightened of doing something wrong.
So it’s not a good atmosphere, it’s not a good atmosphere for people to live in and one older gentleman was brave enough to walk up to me and say they just want to push us into the sea. And so that’s not my opinion. That’s not an official State Department or US government opinion but that is that brave person’s assessment of the situation. And what I’m trying to do is to tell the Burmese, you don’t want to do that. You really don’t want a society where you can’t benefit the people who are born in your country. Thank you.
REPORTER: When and where will be the next talk on the Rohingya? I mean the original talk.
A/S RICHARD: Oh that’s a good question. On May 29th there was a sense that we had to follow-up, we had to have more meetings. And so I am not aware that a meeting has been set. There are discussions going on about different ways to organize it. One is policy level and that may be something I’ll ask the Indonesian government officials this afternoon if they have a sense. It wouldn’t be for my government to set that up anyway. That’s a regional piece. I know Malaysia as the chair of ASEAN may feel a responsibility to take the next step. But then also the technical level, there are different forums to talk about ways to crack down on migrant smugglers. And also to talk about some of the more humanitarian-focused responses to these waves of migrants.
So we will seek to be actively engaged in all of those conversations at the appropriate levels. So does anybody here have a more specific answer from US government in terms of any dates or meetings? No, okay. It’s not there yet. But what I was heartened by was that everyone wanted to keep the momentum going. And I really personally I don’t want to see that stop. You know, we want to -- this is a massive tragedy. And it’s not the only one also the Mediterranean. There has been a massive tragedy of people drowning in the sea. So having so much attention on migrants this year is different. You know the experts in my bureau, Population, Refugees and Migration, they never have this much attention to migrant issues.
So let’s capitalize on that. Let’s have something good come out of that otherwise tragic situation by keeping the focus on and producing some good actions.
MODERATOR: Back on the line for the next question
REPORTER: Yes, we have a question from a reporter in Cambodia who’s having a hard time connecting so I will ask the question. To Assistant Secretary Richard, does the US government believe that developing countries like Cambodia should be more active in joining and cooperating with other regional countries to address the refugee crises and how would the US assist countries particularly Cambodia to be able to take part in a humanitarian crisis?
A/S RICHARD: You know one of the things that I’ve been very clear about in all my travels to all of the sort of hot spots I go to is that we need international cooperation to deal with these complex crises around the world. And so for example, I work a lot on the Syria refugee crisis and I am seeking new countries to come and be donors to respond to that appeal. I was heartened that on the May 29th meeting that even though they were quiet, there were a number of other regional countries there. They didn’t play a leading role but they were present and by their presence they showed an interest and they lent an importance to this issue that I think is very important and I think that the US deliberately chooses to work through some of the world’s best international organizations. And I am joined by two today, UN High Commission for Refugees and International Organization for Migration.
So other countries can do the same, other UN member states certainly and now IOM has a larger and larger membership, can do the same, can make more modest contributions by working through these organizations and that will add up to a much more powerful whole. So I’m convinced we need more contributions from many, many more governments and not less and I don’t think any, in this region, I don’t think any government should feel like they should be an innocent bystander. I think it’d be really good to contribute.
REPORTER: Hi there Secretary Richard, I’m Joe Cochran with International New York Times. At this point in the crises, how seriously is the US government considering (inaudible).
A/S RICHARD: I guess I have the papers, that’s all right. Can I borrow Zach’s paper?
REPORTER: How seriously is the US government at this point considering discussing resettlements of the Rohingya to the United States? And is there a possibility that Burma could see the light and accept (inaudible) citizenship for the Rohingya and some of these people who are Indonesia, Malaysia might end up going back to the (inaudible)?
A/S RICHARD: Well the last is our dream, you know? But I don’t know if that’s a far-away dream or a near-term dream. In terms of resettlement of refugees, you know the US every year is the world leader at resettling refugees and I would say in the last couple years, we’ve brought 70,000 refugees, each of those years, to the United States. And they came from around the world. And the number of refugees we brought was more than all the other countries in the world combined.
So a program to resettle Rohingya in the United States already exists. We resettle refugees from this area. In fact resettling refugees from Burma not necessarily Rohingya but Burmese, the Burmese have been one of the top three groups we’ve been resettling in the last several years and we resettled them out of Thailand, we’ve resettled them mostly out of Thailand and Malaysia.
So over the past eight months we’ve brought about 1,000 Rohingya refugees to the United States. Our process is slow. It’s deliberate, it’s careful, it balances. You know it seeks to balance I think the tradition of bringing people to the United States, refugees and immigrants to United States with our need to ensure our country’s security, that our borders are safe. So that’s partly why it’s very deliberately done. We do extensive background and security checks including medical checks on everybody before they come to the United States.
And so we will continue this program as a piece of what we can do as our contribution to the global refugee situation. But what I don’t want to do is announce any kind of new program. That’s not what we’ve done and that’s not what we’re contemplating. What we want is for people to be safe in their own countries and if they’re not we want them to find a safe haven nearby and for those who going home is just clearly never going to be an option, people who have been tortured, people who have severe medical conditions that are quite expensive or widows and orphans who have been traumatized as some of the people we just met, then they might be suitable candidates working with UNHCR for resettlement in the US because they have special needs, special vulnerabilities and that’s where we can make a particular contribution.
And that’s what we do every other day of the year, working with UNHCR and IOM.
MODERATOR: Tom, do you want to add anything else?
MR. THOMAS VARGAS: Well we certainly, from the UNHCR’s side are very grateful to the US government for (inaudible) in resettlement. It is a very important protection tool and it’s one of the solutions that we’re looking at and is available, as a range of solutions I think is what we need to look at as we’ve mentioned before for this particular group. That we have an option. Many of them have said they’d like to go to Malaysia and were intending to go to Malaysia and there are some cases that we’ve been looking at are family reunification.
So we want to take it step-by-step and look at a range of options and certainly resettlement of the most vulnerable being one of those options and ensuring that we find what is important here is the best solution, especially in the interest of these children that I’ve been mentioning who are alone. And they need to be helped desperately. They have their special needs and we have to look at each case individually and ensure that we have a range of options to depend on. So it’s very, very commendable that the US government continues this resettlement program and we have that option also available and the range of solutions that we need to look at.
REPORTER: The 250 unaccompanied minors that you mentioned, are they all here now or on the sea or something else?
MR. THOMAS VARGAS: The ones that I’ve mentioned up to 350, little over 340 actually are all Rohingya.
MODERATOR: Going back to the line, Street Times and in the back of the room after that.
REPORTER: Good morning Ms. Anne Richard, I’m (unintelligible - 47:33) from the Street Times. Now we’ve talked a lot about what is causing the Rohingya to leave Myanmar. In your opinion what is causing the exit of the Bangladeshi?
A/S RICHARD: In talking to the government of Bangladesh, there’s a general understanding that these are economic migrants. They’re looking to go to Malaysia to get jobs and the solution there I think is to have an expanded, stronger, improved legal migration system so that countries that have people who want to travel abroad to labor and to make some money can be matched up with countries that need a workforce. And the way to do it is to have it done above-board, legally, everybody have legal papers. Because when you don’t, you see what happens is there is exploitation of the workers. They are underpaid, they are fearful, they’re taken advantage of, they’re afraid they’ll get picked up by the police. They’re afraid they’ll be returned home, they’ll be separated from their families.
So my sense is a lot of people are coming to get jobs in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. But especially Malaysia and the problem is not that they want jobs. The problem is that they’re doing it in the shadows and as a result, they get paid less and they’re also taken advantage of. And that’s very bad. You know we think migration -- maybe it’s because we’re Americans. We think migration can be a very positive thing. It’s not a dirty word. Migrants are very enterprising, hard-working entrepreneurial people. So what we really encourage is a positive set of migration schemes. Not this horrible situation we’ve seen where even before the boat crisis that happened in May, people were exploited, mistreated, beaten, there’s reports now of women being raped and as all in an attempt to have -- to make contributions to their societies and to their families.
So no one should have to live like that.
MODERATOR: We have time for two more questions so back in the room, right now where you’re at so back of the room and then two more from the line.
A/S RICHARD: I talked with Aung San Suu Kyi when I was here in January and I talked to her about this. She sees this as a regional issue. But also I think that right now many of politicians in Naypitaw are focused on their November elections and that seems to be a lot of the conversations right now there, are focused on domestic political issues. I’m concerned about the people in the boats right now and what we can do for them right now. You know December might be a better time to have conversations about it and not be done but the boats are not going to wait until December. The people on the boats need help now. It’s an urgent situation. So it may not be the ideal time to be discussing these things in Burma but it is the situation.
MODERATOR: Back to the line, AP Australia.
USG BRIEFER: Lisa Martin, your line is open.
REPORTER: Lisa Martin from Australian Associated Press in Canberra. US Assistant Secretary Richard, is the US disappointed that Australia has emphatically ruled out taking any of the Rohingya refugees who have been stranded at sea, was Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s comment noted, were they damaging to the spirit of cooperation and just finally, should (inaudible) ASSK show more leadership on the issue of citizenship and human rights with the Rohingya?
A/S RICHARD: On the second one, you know we would love to see all Burmese leaders speak up on behalf of human rights and just to realize that they should help the Rohingya. On the Australia situation, you know, I’ve been in my job for three years and when I first started my job three years ago, I often was -- anytime I attended an international conference, I often was meeting with and talking to Australian counterparts and there was this really strong tradition among the US, Canada, Australia for being the governments that did the most for refugees. And that sense that Australia was in the forefront has deteriorated a bit in the last couple of years. So I’m not an expert on the situation in Australia. I do think though it’d be great if Australia could be with us again in really being leaders in humanitarian response to migrants and refugees in the region.
REPORTER: Yes, I wanted to address the resettlement issue as well. The Indonesian government -- sorry Sarah Shawn Hart from the Wall Street Journal. The Indonesian government said that they’ll take in refugees for up to a year if they’re resettled within that timeframe. Do you see that as a real deadline and have you come to talk with the government about it today? And then have you spoken with other countries in the region about taking them in within a timeframe?
A/S RICHARD: Both Malaysia and Indonesia -- that was their announcement. Our program takes 18 to 24 months to resettle refugees. So it’s not a realistic timeline for our program. But I think we can work together to help these people.
MODERATOR: Last question to Kyodo News on the line.
REPORTER: I have two questions. The first one is how do you evaluate Thai government’s actions towards the whole Rohingya issues and also is there any particular request from your side to the Thai government and do you find any difficulties working with them? Number two is about the US Air Force that will come to meet there, operation in Thailand until June 11, right? Will it be extended? Thank you.
A/S RICHARD: I didn’t understand every word you said but I -- and I think the question is for me, Anne, but my sense is we’re very pleased that the Thai government hosted that meeting, organized it, pulled it together rather quickly. Really that was quite a big meeting to have been pulled together so quickly. And my specific request to them that morning, no it was the day before, was that they allow us to -- the US military to do these flights over Thai waters to look for boats and as you know on the 29th, the next day, the Foreign Minister told me that we would have that permission. And I think they’re still trying to sort out the modalities on an urgent basis. It hasn’t stopped flights from happening because the flights with the Malaysian government are happening. Other thing we talked to the Thai government about was trying to ensure that these leading countries, Bangladesh, Burma, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia continued to come together and talk about these issues. And you know the Thai permanent secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was very much in favor of continuing these discussions in some form or another.
But I think that has yet to be quite settled on at that point.
USG BRIEFER: I’m afraid that’s all the time we have. The Ambassador, the Secretary, Mr. Hamilton for attending today. Thanks to everybody on the line and thanks everybody else.