Preview of President Obama's Leaders' Summit and UNGA High-Level Summit on Refugees

Special Briefing
Anne C. Richard
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration
via teleconference hosted by The Brussels Hub
September 16, 2016

Moderator: Good morning. Greetings to everyone from the U.S. Department of State. I would like to welcome our participants dialing in from across Europe and to thank all of you for joining us for this discussion.


Today we are pleased to be joined from Washington by Assistant Secretary Anne Richard. Assistant Secretary Richard looks forward to discussing the upcoming Leaders Summit on Refugees hosted by President Obama, as well as the UN General Assembly High Level Summit on Refugees and Migrants. She will also discuss the humanitarian aspects of the U.S. response to the Syrian refugee crisis. We thank you, Assistant Secretary Richard, for taking the time to join us today.


We will begin today’s call with opening remarks from Assistant Secretary Richard, and then we will turn to your questions. We will try to get in as many of them as we can during the time that we have, which is about 45 minutes.


As a reminder, today’s call is on the record. And with that, I will turn it over to Assistant Secretary Richard.


Assistant Secretary Richard: Hi, good morning. Or good afternoon where you are. Thank you for joining the call on this topic that’s very important to us and to many people around the world.

The world is facing the largest mass displacement on record since World War II. More than 65 million people have been displaced. More than 21 million of those are refugees, meaning that they have crossed an international border as they have fled their home countries.


Refugees are people just like you and me -- mothers, fathers, doctors, teachers, students -- who have been driven from their homes and across these international borders by violence and persecution. More than half are children.

Fleeing from countries around the world, refugees carry with them a common hope for leading a safe life with dignity.

One of the points I want to emphasize is that this is a global crisis. Refugees and displaced people come from all corners of the world. From the Americas, Africa, Afghanistan, Burma, Syria and many more places. Countries on the front lines of war zones, many developing countries, poor countries, shelter millions of these people. Others are contributing by supporting UN appeals and humanitarian agencies and creating opportunities for the most vulnerable refugees to be resettled within their borders.


But the current crisis has stretched traditional aid systems beyond their capacity. In 2015 the problem was that the world funded just a little over half of the UN’s consolidated humanitarian appeal, and filled just one-tenth of the refugee resettlement slots that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, believes are needed.


So what we’re proposing to do in response to this dilemma is that on September 20th President Obama will host a Leaders Summit on Refugees in New York during UN High-Level Week. The summit will bring together the leaders of member states that are stepping up to make new, significant commitments in three areas.

First, to increase funding to UN humanitarian agencies, to their appeals and other international organizations that work in the humanitarian area.


Second, countries will step forward to agree to admit more refugees through resettlement or other legal pathways.

And third, they will do things to make refugees more able to rely on themselves in the countries to which they’ve fled, and that means increasing the number of children, refugee children going to school and the number of adults who can work legally in their countries [inaudible].


While governments can and must do more to support refugees, solutions to the significant challenges that refugees face will require contributions from all sectors of our societies. American businesses are already stepping up to creatively leverage their resources and ingenuity.


Over 35 companies have responded to President Obama’s call to action asking U.S. businesses to make new, measurable and significant commitments that will have a durable impact on refugees, both in the United States and around the world. And these companies span the U.S. private sector. There are long-established Fortune 500 companies like Johnson & Johnson, but also recently established tech companies like Air BnB, small businesses like Newton Supply Company.


On September 20th, just a few hours ahead of the Leaders Summit on Refugees, President Obama and U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker will convene a group of these companies to talk about the refugee situation and to highlight their actions.


On that you can go to Partnership for Refugees, all one word. to find out what various companies are doing to help. Individuals can also get involved. is the web site that was set up to help ordinary citizens to find out how they can help. And also we use the hashtag #AidRefugees on Twitter.


The world is confronting this very, very large-scale problem, but together, we believe we can help refugees to rebuild their lives and live with dignity once again.


So now I’ll take your questions.


Moderator: Assistant Secretary Richard, thank you for those remarks.

We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call.


As we wait for those questions to come in from the reporters, I’ll ask a question that was submitted in advance from our reporter Adam Bihari from in Hungary.


He asks, with what framework does the U.S. plan to help IDPs in war-torn regions? And will that be a priority instead of refugees outside the borders of their homeland? How is it possible to get humanitarian aid to those in need in a hostile environment? Are there new, innovative plans for this?


Assistant Secretary Richard: The events next week during UN High-Level Week, will focus on September 19th on refugees and migrants; and then the President’s Leaders Summit will focus on refugees.


So the questioner is right in focusing on yet a third group who are not at the top of the list for next week, which are internally displaced persons. In many ways, IDPs, internally displaced persons, have many of the same problems that refugees have. It’s just that they haven’t crossed an international border. They’re still in their home country and the responsibility to help them is that of their own government. As we look around the world, we see that some governments have very enlightened policies to help displaced people in their own countries, and I’m thinking of Colombia where the government is trying to make sure that people who have been displaced by narco-terrorists and drug traffickers get the help that they need. To the other extreme, where in Syria the government is bombing its own people and killing innocent civilians.


So is it possible to get help into war-torn regions? Yes it is, but it’s very very challenging and very very difficult. This is part of what’s going on right now in the negotiations in Geneva, trying to get access to people who need help inside Syria. We are trying to get aid workers in to have direct contact with people who need help, and we’re trying to get aid deliveries made. And yes, it’s possible to do that, but it’s very very hard.


Are there new, innovative plans for that? We are constantly striving to find ways, and we work very much alongside and in support of the leading humanitarian agencies. So these are the UN agencies, but also when they have issues getting in, we’ll work and fund non-governmental organizations who sometimes can be a little more nimble in the field, and we’re doing this around the world.


Moderator: Thank you very much.

Our next question will come to us form Steven Geyer who is with DuMont News Pool in Berlin.


Question: Hello. Thank you.

I just wanted to hear again why are there two summits on refugees necessary next week? Couldn’t it have been done in one, all at once? Or why was it important for the President to host a second one by the U.S.?


Assistant Secretary Richard: I think it’s a very good and understandable question, and I think we have a very solid answer which is that there was a great desire months ago for us all to do more to address the situation that we see unfolding around the world. And so these two meetings are not identical, but they are complementary.


The meeting on the 19th that the UN was putting together will involve all member states that wish to step forward, and it is a day-long event. It will involve a lot of addresses from member states. It will involve panels to look at issues. So there will be a lot of learning about the issue. And at the end there will be an adoption of a New York Declaration to resolve to do more, and they will put forward two compacts. One on refugees, one on migration, that everyone will agree to work on in the coming months.


The President’s event, on the other hand, will produce instant results and has already produced results. That is looking for governments to step forward to say they will do more. Not just to talk about the issues but to actually deliver tangible results.


So the invitations to this event were not automatic. Countries had to express a desire to do more, a willingness to do more, and explain what commitments they’d be making before they received an invitation to attend. And there has been a diplomatic discussion going on for months and months with countries, talking about -- we’ve been talking to wealthy countries about providing more assistance, and also taking more refugees in, like I say, through the formal UNHCR resettlement programs or through other pathways. By that I mean scholarships for young, promising refugees; or humanitarian visas; or temporary sanctuary that might not be as permanent as what the U.S. offers when we resettle refugees, but it would get people out of harm’s way into a safe place for the coming duration of the Syria crisis and other crises.


So for countries that already host refugees we have asked them to adopt policies that will benefit refugee children who want to go to school and to adopt policies that will allow refugees to support their families and themselves.


This has been, you know, for some countries that have done a lot for refugees over the years and decades, asking them to do more is a bit hmm, it’s a bit of a push. So part of that conversation has involved discussing how these wealthier countries can support the countries hosting refugees, if they agree to do more will the world step forward to support them? Will the world step forward to help them build additional schools and train additional teachers and get the transportation for children to get to school? That’s been part of the discussion over the last few months, so this will all culminate on September 20th at the Leaders Summit and we will be able to judge at that point did we succeed, and I suspect we will, in raising more money, getting more people to safety and improving the situation for refugees in the places to which they have fled.


Question: Can I as a follow-up? Short?


Moderator: Actually we need to turn to the next reporter, so if you can get back in the queue we will look for another question from you after others have had a chance.


Okay, our next question will be from Pieter Stockmans from MO* magazine in Belgium.


Question: Thank you very much.

The UN Summit of September 19th has been considered by some leading NGOs like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, to have already failed because they refuse to commit to responsibility sharing. Are you personally, as Assistant Secretary of State of the United States, angry about some European countries’ attitudes?


Assistant Secretary Richard: I am propelled to try to convince everyone to try to do more. And so I have pushed everyone from poor countries that can’t believe I’m asking them, to wealthier countries who, you know, want to know what we’re going to be doing too, to my neighbors here in the United States, all to do more. And I think that the scale of the crisis requires this. 65 million people displaced; 21 million refugees. We all have to step forward and do more.

My main emotion is fatigue, I would say. But I am challenged in some ways because I have a President who refuses to be a lame duck president, but wants to use the valuable few months he has left in office to really make a mark on this issue. And I have a Secretary of State who is rarely in Washington, is constantly on the go trying to bring peace to these very, very difficult situations of conflict around the world.


And so this means that we have to get up every day and go out and try to convince everyone to do more.


Moderator: Okay, thank you.

Our next question will go to Majid Sattar from FAZ.


Question: Hi, thank you.

My question is, the U.S.-led summit used to be labeled a U.S.-German summit since originally Chancellor Merkel was planning on attending the summit in New York. How does her absence affect the summit?


Assistant Secretary Richard: Well, the Foreign Minister will come and Germany is one of six co-hosts. The co-hosts are Canada and Mexico, Germany and Sweden, Ethiopia and Jordan, and the United Nations itself.


The most important job that the co-hosts have already fulfilled, and this was something that I really appreciated, was they shouldered some of the list of things, and lists of people to call, countries to contact, to try to encourage them to make commitments and to show up and to seek to be invited to the summit. The Germans have been incredibly helpful in doing this.


So I would say that that involvement, that energetic engagement to contribute ahead of time toward making the summit a success was the most important German contribution. More so than the Chancellor herself – somebody I admire very much – more so than her being in the room.


Moderator: Okay, our next question will go to Steven Geyer from DuMont News.


Question: It would be on the same topic. What reason have you been given that Chancellor Merkel won’t participate?


Assistant Secretary Richard: I haven’t been given a reason, but I haven’t been worried about that. We can try to get an answer for you from our German desk, but I’m more concerned about the number of countries stepping forward to make commitments.


We expect now over 40 countries to be present. I’m pleasantly surprised, because at the outset it seemed a daunting task to convince so many countries to do more than they were currently doing.


Moderator: Okay, our next question was submitted in advance by Adam Bihari from Hungarian News,

The question is, the Hungarian government occasionally claims that the U.S. itself does not accept a huge amount of refugees, especially if comparing the size of the country to Hungary.

Will the U.S. increase the number of refugees admitted to the country?


Assistant Secretary Richard: Well let’s look at the U.S. record. We have brought more than three million refugees to our shores since the mid-1970s. And for the last three years we have said we would bring 70,000 refugees, and we did, from all around the world. And this year the Obama administration said let’s bring more, and so we increased that to 85,000 and we will in a few weeks bring our 85,000th refugee.


We also said we would greatly increase the number of Syrian refugees we’re bringing. We’ve been criticized for not bringing more, and we set out to bring 10,000. We’ll end up bringing about 13,000 by the end of the month. And now as of Tuesday evening, we alerted Congress that we intend to increase the number of refugees we bring further to 110,000.

So I agree with those who think that the United States can bring increased numbers of refugees to the United States.


We’re a big country, we have a strong economy, we are a country with a tradition of bringing in immigrants and refugees. So from a cultural, economic, societal point of view, we can certainly bring more people in.


The issue that keeps us from bringing more in is the need to screen everyone before they arrive, and to assure those in the United States who are concerned about who we’re bringing in that the people we’re bringing will not cause any – be any kind of a threat to the United States. And so we run a very rigorous and careful vetting program, and we have taken a lot of steps to ensure that only legitimate, peaceful refugees are brought in. And we are investing a lot more in that process so that it can handle larger numbers of refugees coming in. But we haven’t been able to do that overnight. That is taking a great deal of effort.


We have to acknowledge that resettlement of refugees is an important part of our response to refugee crises, but it’s only one discreet part. Our primary goal is to get peace to return to these war zones and then in the meantime to provide humanitarian assistance and protection to refugees in the places to which they have fled. This is one reason why we’ve made such a large commitment to humanitarian assistance in all of the crisis zones, and in particular in response to the Syria crisis, we have provided nearly $5.6 billion so far to help the internally displaced inside the country – conflict victims inside Syria and also to help people in the neighboring countries. This is why we’re committed to broader international leadership on the issue; this is why the President’s hosting the Leaders Summit; and we’re working across many streams, leading in humanitarian assistance, leading in the formal UNHCR refugee program, and leading in diplomatic efforts to solve some of these crises.


Moderator: Our next question will come to us from Carmen Gavrila from Radio Romania.


Question: Hello. I believe you have talked to a lot of governments in preparation for the summit organized by President Obama. Have you talked to the Romanian government? And what was the response you received? Thank you.


Assistant Secretary Richard: I don’t have a record of specific responses country by country. I can tell you that we sent out a request to all of our embassies to talk to governments, so nearly every country was approached and I think you can anticipate that there will be involvement from Europe that will be very strong.


Moderator: Okay. Thank you.

Our next question comes to us from Pieter Stockmans from MO* magazine.


Question: Thank you.

My question is related to Russia. Russia is one of the countries heavily involved in the military conflict in Syria. They are part of different military campaigns in the north of Syria producing large refugee flows into Turkey, eventually as well into Europe. But they themselves do not host that many refugees. As a matter of fact, they are one of the countries hosting the least refugees.


So is the United States ready to push Russia and is it realistic to push Russia into accepting more Syrian refugees? How will you approach Russia in this summit? Thank you.


Assistant Secretary Richard: As you know, there’s a lot of contact with Russia right now. My Secretary meets with Foreign Minister Lavrov regularly, and I personally think that countries that are members of the G8, countries that are member of the Permanent 5, the UN Security Council, have a greater responsibility to take steps to respond to crises around the world. We’d like to see all of them be humanitarian leaders.


One of the frustrations I have as I travel, I try to meet with my counterparts in foreign governments, and the hardest countries to visit are those that don’t have a counterpart, that don’t have an office that cares about refugees, that cares about humanitarian assistance, that participates in the governance of UN humanitarian agencies.


So while my Secretary has a great deal of conversations with Foreign Minister Lavrov and the Russians play a very out-sized role in the discussion around trying to find a solution in Syria, we don’t have much collaboration in terms of humanitarian response to crises.


Moderator: Okay, thank you very much.

Our next question will be from Adam Bihari from in Hungary.


Question: Hello. My next question would be, the largest number of Syrian refugees live in Turkey in refugee camps. What kind of cooperation is needed, and if possible given the frosty relations actually between the U.S. and Turkey?


Thank you.


Assistant Secretary Richard: Well, I’ve traveled a number of times to Turkey in the four and a half years I’ve been in my job. I attended the World Humanitarian Summit in Turkey. I traveled to Turkey for the Global Forum on Migration and Development. There is a close working relationship with the mid-to-senior level managers of humanitarian response in Turkey. So I’m talking about AFAD, which is a group that was originally involved in the domestic response to natural disasters, and now has done more and more to help Turkey host nearly three million refugees.


I also have met with people from Kizilay, which is the Turkish Red Crescent. They have led successful fundraising efforts among the Turkish population also to help refugees from Syria.


Turkey was hosting refugees from all around the world before the Syria crisis because they were a crossroads. I met refugees from Afghanistan, from South Sudan, from Somalia, in Turkey. And so Turkey has a very large role to play as it hosts all these refugees, and it is a G20 country. And so there are expectations about Turkey doing more.


Now in recent weeks Turkey has definitely been in the news for other issues and they do sometimes present a challenge to the relationship, but our conversations about the humanitarian situation that is right on Turkey’s doorstep continue.


Moderator: Okay. Thank you very much.

Our next question will be from Konstantin Kladivko from APA, Austria Press Agency.


Question: Hello. My question is, many U.S. citizens are obviously afraid of refugees who are coming from the Middle East because they think that they are a security risk. Do you think that resettling refugees in the U.S. is a security risk?


Assistant Secretary Richard: Well I personally believe, strongly believe, and I’m one of the most informed people in the United States about this process, that we can resettle refugees in the United States in a way that is responsible and that does everything humanly possible to screen out security risks.


Now what Americans are reading about in their newspapers is that there are terrorist attacks happening around the world, and they involve ISIL, and they’re concerned that refugees could be adherents to ISIL or Boko Haram or al-Qaida, and that frightens them. And so what we have tried to do is to explain that refugees are the victims of terrorists. The innocent victims of terrorists who have fled crisis situations, who are concerned about their safety, the safety of their families, and are looking for a place to live where they can live and end up thriving.


And so some Americans get that automatically, and some are really afraid. One of the concerns I have is there’s a lot of misinformation in the United States now, not from the mainstream press but from sort of the blogosphere, if you will. People who are getting a lot of bad, misinformation out, suggesting all sorts of nutty proposals from the Obama administration and spreading bad information about who the refugees are and what their intentions are. And so responsible politicians, responsible journalists, are very easy to talk to about this, but there is a strain right now in the U.S. of bad information that keeps getting kicked around, and so that makes, I think, our work harder.

What I find is, when Americans meet refugees, they are instantly impressed that they’ve been able to survive so much. There is an identification usually, even if the person showing up is from South Sudan and has fled violence there, the person whose family has been in the U.S. longer will summon up a story from their own family’s history and make a connection.


The more we can put a human face, the human face that exists, on the refugee story, I find the easier it is to explain to Americans what we’re trying to do and the more support we get from ordinary Americans to bring more refugees to the U.S.


Moderator: We have time for one more question, and it will go to Pieter Stockmans from MO* Magazine.


Question: Thank you.


How will you avoid that countries see the Obama Summit as merely a platform to show what they already did without committing to anything new that would reflect the size of the crisis, the fact that countries will agree to a global approach? What would the U.S. consider to be a real game-changer and when could the journalists such as me consider the Obama Summit a success? Thank you.


Assistant Secretary Richard: Well, what we did to ensure that there were new commitments being made was we said only commitments made in 2016 will count towards the Summit. And we did not want to compete against the other efforts of countries like the UK and Germany and Sweden in putting together, I think Jordan too, in putting together the London Summit, for example, last February. So anything committed during the first eight months of 2016 counts towards doing more in getting an invitation to the President’s Summit.


The President’s Summit put out very ambitious but measurable goals. Thirty percent increase in overall humanitarian assistance. A big increase, doubling I think, of the resettlement of refugees around the world. A million more places for children going to school. A million more refugees working legally.

There’s two things to tell you about this. One, these things are very hard to measure, especially in the short term. Usually on funding, for example, the books are closed much later. But two, we’re fairly confident we’re going to achieve all those goals.


Part of it is that education of children has been a real banner issue for many countries. We have former Prime Minister Gordon Brown leading as the UN Special Envoy on Education, an Education Cannot Wait platform created this year. I know the Norwegians have been leading and giving more and more funding to education. We have commitments from my friend Christos Stylianides who is the EU Commissioner for Humanitarian Assistance to provide more for education of children caught up in emergencies.


So my hope is that that will be successful. And I think some countries are comfortable taking refugees in. Some are less so. But you have a country like Canada that says between last fall and now, we’re going to take 25,000 Syrian refugees and we’ll continue doing that, and that’s a real contribution.


And like I say, we’ve done a lot of the diplomatic conversations around the world with countries that host refugees to see if they would do more. And that was mostly inspired by Turkey and Jordan taking steps to allow refugees to work in Jordan, in certain circumstances in enterprise zones. But it’s still a big step forward from a few years ago.


So I’m hoping that we will have fact sheets for you by the end of the summit on the 20th that will allow journalist like you to assess independently that this will have been a successful meeting. And I’m hoping to have good data for you to report about.


Moderator: Thank you.


Unfortunately, that was the last question that we have time for. Assistant Secretary Richard, did you have any closing words that you would like to offer?


Assistant Secretary Richard: Sure.

I want to reiterate that the U.S. is proud that we’re one of the world’s leading donors. We’re the largest single country donor to humanitarian efforts in response to the Syrian crisis. We’re the larger donor to the humanitarian agencies, to UNHCR, to the World Food Program, to UNICEF. We have a long history of accepting the world’s most vulnerable refugees. We will be resettling 85,000 refugees from around the world this year. It was – it’s a one-year-old commitment that we’re delivering on. It’s more than a 20 percent increase. We intend to do more in the future.

The President is hosting the Leaders Summit. The Summit will bring together member states that have already committed, that have agreed in writing to make new significant commitments in three areas. For wealthy countries that’s increasing funding and admitting additional refugees to their countries, and then thirdly, that countries that host a lot of refugees increase the number of refugee children going to school and the number of refugee adults who can work legally.


I want to just mention that the European Union is one of the leading humanitarian donors in the world, and we commend the commitment that the EU has demonstrated in seeking a comprehensive and coordinated response to the current influx of migrants and refugees from Syria and also from other nations.

We have talked a little bit about Turkey today. I want to commend Turkey’s immense humanitarian efforts in response to the crisis in Syria, including hosting nearly 3 million refugees. The needs are enormous, and we’re all going to have to keep working on that.


I wasn’t able to tell you the list of countries that will be attending the summit, but I can tell you it’s more than 40 countries will be present, and that Sweden, Germany, Canada, Mexico, Ethiopia and Jordan in addition to the United Nations are our co-hosts, and that they have already done much to contribute to the summit.


So I’ll be in New York all next week, and in between way too many meetings I’ll also be available to answer questions from you all in the run-up to and the aftermath of these important meetings.

Thank you for your attention to this today.


Moderator: I want to thank you, Assistant Secretary Richard, for joining us and to thank all of you for participating and for your questions.