Remarks at the Brookings Migration Forum

Antony J. Blinken
Deputy Secretary of State
New York City
September 22, 2016

I am especially pleased to be here today with all of you. I want to thank you, Bruce, and thank the entire Brookings team, everyone who organized the forum today. I know it has been many weeks if not months in the making. It is particularly wonderful to be here at Hunter College, and also to recognize two friends and colleagues David Miliband and Antonio Guterres, who are truly giants of humanitarianism who barely stop to take a breath in their unrelenting fight to ensure that all of us in positions of responsibility live up to our obligations.

We have many distinguished guests with us today. Let me just cite a few, including Mayor Kaminis, Mayor Parker, and Assistant High Commissioner Turk. You know, more than most, that few global challenges today demand from us greater ingenuity or compassion than the refugee crisis.

The very first event we did in New York, before getting into all the meetings of the General Assembly, was at the 92Y. I had the opportunity meet two extraordinary young women, both refugees, who in their stories remind us what is really at stake—people, men, women, and children, mothers, daughters, sons, fathers. These women were exceptional, but also representative. One of them, Zaynab, was forced to flee from her native Somalia to Yemen, and then she was forced to flee from Yemen to Egypt. While she was in Egypt, she was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and spent a year dealing with that. And then, of course, conflict in Egypt forced her to flee to her final destination, which turned out to be the United States, in Minneapolis. She came without knowing a word of English.

Today she is a freshman at St. Catherine’s University in St. Paul—having graduated from high school with a 4.0 GPA as President of the Student Council and Captain of the girls’ soccer team.

Her story is just one—one of thousands, one of tens of thousands, one of millions. But one we know reflects so many others. From Eritrea to Syria, Afghanistan to Myanmar, more than 65 million people have been displaced by conflict and taken flight for their lives. In many cases, they follow the same footsteps that many of our own parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents took in search of sanctuary from war or persecution.

We throw around words like “historic” and “crisis” very easily, especially in Washington, but here we truly face what is a historic crisis. It is the largest wave of human displacement since World War II, and it is remaking the world we live in. It’s changing our labor markets. It’s putting pressure on local infrastructure and borders. It’s evolving the nature and makeup of our communities. It is affecting our sense of security. Most of all, I think it is challenging us to live up to our common humanity.

Two decades ago, the typical refugee crisis lasted nine years before refugees began returning home. Today, they last, on average, 26 years and counting. Twenty-six years of lost schooling, lost wages, lost livelihoods, lost knowledge, lost traditions. Twenty-six years of worry, insecurity, uncertainty. Twenty-six years of desperate prayers and hopes that somehow, someway a better future will be found.

A crisis of this magnitude—even for policymakers at a national or international level—can be difficult to fully imagine or understand, let alone comprehensively tackle. What I want to do today in putting this in context is to focus on one aspect of the crisis we are dealing with, and that’s Syria—but it is so important to remember that this is a global crisis. While the headlines are focused on Syria and Iraq and everything emanating from there, we have displacement crises on virtually every continent. And in Europe, as many refugees are coming from Afghanistan and Pakistan and that part of the world, as they are from Iraq and Syria. In Africa, a dozen countries are in crisis and forcing displacement. Here of course in our own hemisphere, we have Central America and the challenges that poses.

But just to focus on Syria—one of the ways we think about solutions is in terms of concentric circles, of which the inner most is Syria itself.

There is no way you can look at what is happening on the ground in Syria right now, especially this week, and not be overwhelmed with grief, horror, and shame.

We do have rules of behavior as a global community, hard as that may be to believe right now. The regard for the sanctity of life—for the safety of children, of medical personnel, of relief workers—remains one of the fundamental tenets of our basic humanity, and it is lost at our great and grave peril.

The fundamental answer is to end the civil war, which is the primary driver of the refugee crisis. My boss John Kerry is working basically eight weeks a day to do just that. We are also trying to put in place the cessation of hostilities and the provision of humanitarian assistance. Because of course, it is the violence itself and the absence of basic services and basic sustenance that is pushing people out of Syria. We won’t stop working towards the goal of an end to the civil war no matter how slow, how agonizing, how seemingly impossible the process. Because the alternative to diplomacy is only more violence, more suffering, and more pain.

Even as we keep at it, we know that if Syria is to have any future, the task of building it will also fall to the millions of Syrians who have fled to neighboring Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey—countries of first asylum and the second concentric circle in the refugee crisis.

This is not the first time these countries have had to provide sanctuary, but unlike in past crises, the vast majority of refugees are settling in cities and towns, not camps.

As a result, local communities have generously opened their doors, shared their public services, and welcomed children into their classrooms, but the level of need continues to vastly outstrip available resources. The humanitarian community, long accustomed to providing shelter, education, food, and medical care to displaced populations in fixed locations, is working overtime to try and adapt to this reality—to focus on scaling up existing services in urban areas rather than relying on handing out aid or creating parallel services.

On one of my visits to the region, to Beirut, I spent some time with one of the remarkable institutions that is helping refugees adjust, Caritas. They are truly extraordinary. So many of you, I know, have had this experience—going from room to room. Talking in one room to men. In another to women, wives, mothers. Finally in a third room, children. It really brings home the different facets of the crisis—and actually illuminates some of what we have to do. The men—I think the single word to describe the feeling in that room was depressed. These were men who had been productive members of their communities and societies who had been stripped of their dignity because they were unable to work and provide for their families. You could feel this extraordinary heaviness in the room from that loss of dignity. And then you move next door and talk to women and actually there, there was a frantic energy but it was almost all about their children. How am I going to keep them in school? Where can they go to school? How am I going to provide for them? And then finally you come to the children themselves, and there, it is that one small moment of hope and optimism, because, children 8, 9, 10 years old, they still have innate hope. They don’t fully understand their circumstances, and at the same time, they have this wonderful pure humanity.

Practically speaking, what this means is we have to get kids into local classrooms, adults into jobs, and families registered for services.

We know this is easier said than done—especially in the midst of crisis itself. Across the region more than three million children are out of school, and many their parents do not have access to legal employment—a reflection of how hard it is for local leaders to provide jobs for their new residents when their own nationals don’t have them.

In Lebanon, somewhere from 20 to 25 percent of the population are Syrian refugees—with as many Syrian children enrolled in public and private education as Lebanese children. Think about that. It’s the equivalent of the United States absorbing 70 or 80 million people in a matter of just a few years—and we know debates we have had over taking in ten thousand.

Despite the challenges, our country partners are making heroic efforts.

Turkey has already enrolled 325,000 refugee children in school and aims to top 450,000 during this school year. In January, Turkey passed legislation that grants Syrian refugees access to legal employment, and they have already issued thousands of work permits.

Jordan is expanding schools that have double shifts to accommodate 50,000 more Syrian children. They have already issued work permits to more than 28,000 Syrians and hope to scale that up for 200,000 Syrians over the next several years.

And in Lebanon, the government is leading a back-to-school campaign this fall that aims to enroll at least 45,000 more refugees and non-Lebanese children into formal education in the coming year.

The United States is doing everything we can to help—working to bridge the divide between emergency response and long-term development efforts, which can strengthen the resilience of refugees as well as the cities and communities that host them. Here is where we really have to enlarge our thinking—there has been a divide in how we approach these problems, between the humanitarian and development response. We have to collapse that divide in our own thinking, in our own approach, in our own financing. Access to jobs, to markets, to education and skills training are critical means of enabling refugees—no matter where they find shelter—to cover their cost of living. It’s not just the material aspect of this; it is the psychological aspect that is so important. It’s about restoring dignity to those who have been stripped of it.

Since the start of the crisis, we have provided over $5.6 billion in humanitarian aid to the response inside Syria and across the region, in addition to development assistance to Jordan and Lebanon, and we have worked with the World Bank to develop new types of affordable loans for middle-income countries grappling with protracted crises. These are countries that didn’t qualify for traditional forms of lending but who have been most affected by the crisis. So we have found new vehicles to make sure that they have access to resources in an affordable way.

This week, President Obama convened 52 countries and international organizations for a summit during the UN General Assembly. The President’s goal here was not to talk about the problem—the goal was to do something about the problem. Countries participating had to come with something to the table if they wanted a seat at the table. There were three areas we focused on: bringing more resources into the international humanitarian response, getting more countries to participate, and we succeeded significantly in getting more countries to put in more resources than they had in 2015. Second, countries around the world to overall double the number of refugees who resettled. That means everyone has to take part, including the United States. And we received commitments. And finally we asked countries to come pledge that collectively they would provide a million more seats in school for children and a million more legal employment slots for adults. We met our mark.

Because we know that the scale of this crisis so vastly exceeds the capacity of national governments, we have to reach out to different communities. We also had a rather remarkable session with fifty-one American businesses—large and small—answering the call to action, committing more than $650 million, educational opportunities for 80,000 refugees, employment opportunities for 220,000 refugees globally. And InterAction—the largest U.S. alliance of international NGOs—pledged $1.2 billion in private resources from 31 of its members over the next three years.

Galvanizing these resources is vital to helping shore up an international humanitarian response system that, for all its extraordinary efforts, is frankly overstretched, overburdened, overwhelmed.

So in these bright moments, we find a reflection of who we are, and what we have to do.

I say this in the context of a time when some in the United States and around the world seek to demonize refugees, but we know—we know—that inclusion and diversity are a source of strength, growth, and renewal for our communities and our cities.

Which brings me to the third concentric circle—the United States and Europe, where heated debates are taking place over how we should respond to this crisis. In Europe, the crisis is literally at the doorstep of cities, towns across the continent, and I think what we’ve seen exposed in part is a profound lack of self-confidence that’s precipitated a painful search for identity.

On both continents, some have reacted by stoking fear and demanding walls, while others have taken a firm stand against hate and bigotry. One of the brightest lights of all in Europe, Chancellor Merkel, has refused to cave to these undercurrents, despite the political cost. Instead, she has firmly upheld our common values of tolerance and openness—values that ushered in the unprecedented era of peace, prosperity, and progress that overall, overall our world enjoys.

On Tuesday, as many of you saw, Mayors de Blasio, Hidalgo, and Khan of New York, Paris, and London wrote together in the The New York Times championing diversity and sharing the work they have done to make every resident feel at home. They described municipal ID programs that have expanded access to services—giving residents a sense of belonging and recognition that gives them a stake in the success of their communities. More than most, these leading Mayors recognize that protecting cities means both maintaining robust security procedures and investing in the integration of refugees and immigrants—not one without or above the other.

So much of the innovation that is taking place in thinking about and acting on how to deal with the refugee crisis is taking place in cities, because as we heard, this is really where the rubber meets the road. It is this kind of experimentation, and action, and practical solution-making that ultimately is going to be the answer to this problem. In a sense, we have to think in terms that are more Athenian than Westphalian.

For those coming to the United States, refugees are subjected to the most intrusive, rigorous vetting and review process imaginable. Entering the U.S. as a refugee is the absolute worst strategy for someone to pursue who wants to do damage to the United States.

Since 1975, we have provided a new start to more than three million refugees—a number we are committed to growing. On Tuesday, President Obama announced that in the coming fiscal year, which starts next week, the United States will welcome and resettle 110,000 refugees from around the world—nearly a 60 percent increase over 2015. Faced with the scale, the magnitude of the crisis, I know that these numbers can seem small. It is extraordinarily challenging to work through the system in which we have to focus on our primary responsibility with our obligation to people in need. But we are working through it. We are raising the bar. In the time we have left, we’ll continue to do that.

The success of the U.S. resettlement program is a testament to the generosity of our cities and towns. The process is defined by continuous proactive consultations between authorities and organizations at the national and local level. Federal money comes into a local community to fund services for refugees, but it is local organizations, churches, and volunteers who determine how the funding will be balanced with private resources to serve new arrivals.

Today, refugees are welcomed by more than 300 local resettlement organizations in 175 communities across the United States. We see headlines in certain states, governors saying “no.” What you don’t see, what you don’t read about, is everyone who is saying “yes.” For every one rejection that we get, we get dozens, dozens saying, “How can we help? What can we do? Our arms are open.” That, despite what we see and feel every day, gives me a source of hope and optimism that our basic humanity, which is at question here, is standing up and flourishing.

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to visit a few of these organizations in Oakland, California, where I met two young brothers from Afghanistan, who had fled the Taliban and come to the United States by way of Russia.

These young men—Kamal and Jalal—were Muslim. I met them sitting in the office of the Catholic Charities of the East Bay. And they have been resettled by Jewish Family and Community Services.

Despite arriving without a word of English only a few months prior, they now converse comfortably in their new lives and new jobs.

Like Kamal and Jalal, the refugees who arrive on our shores bring energy, dynamism, a desire to work hard, and a deep appreciation for the blessings of freedom and democracy.

Just imagine—for one moment—what our country would look like without them… Without Sergey Brin, there is no Google. Without Albert Einstein, there are no world-changing theories on physics. Without Marc Chagall, our world would have less color. Without Madeleine Albright, our communities of democracies might be smaller.

Our cities prove that there is not only a humanitarian but also a business case to be made for diversity and inclusion. When we turn our backs on refugees and immigrants, we are walling off one of the single most creative, productive pools of talent we have. In fact, more than 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or by the children of immigrants. One of every four high-tech startups across America—and over half the high-tech startups in Silicon Valley—were co-founded by immigrants. Take that out of the picture, what does it look like?

The millions who have sought shelter on our shores have enriched and enlivened the diverse mosaic of our nation. And as President Obama has made clear, we will continue to meet our obligation to them no matter what.

Which brings me to my fourth and final concentric circle—all of us.

Today, our cities are navigating unchartered waters, forced to cope with the sub-national stresses and strains of transnational challenges. Violent extremism and climate change. Migration and refugees. Trafficking and corruption.

These challenges stubbornly resist unilateral solutions and require collaboration from national, state, and local governments, corporations and universities, faith-leaders and innovators.

In a few weeks, more than 30,000 people will meet in Quito at the Habitat III conference to discuss plans and develop ideas for the future of our cities—and I hope that many of you will carry today’s conversation there.

As we open our newspapers every day, as we get this intravenous feed of information, literally every second of the day, it is hard to look out there and see any source of hope, any sign of progress, any reason at all to engage in all this chaos.

But it is there, and it is real.

Some months ago in Jordan, sitting at a UNICEF refugee center, I got to talking to some young people about their futures. And it was extraordinary to me that despite their circumstances, they all had a vision. They all had something they wanted to be. One young woman wanted to be a fashion designer. Another a doctor. Some of the young men wanted to be in business and computers.

We got to talking about computers since that is so much the currency of this new world. I was curious about the extent to which they had access to computers, and virtually all of them did. Some of them had access to computers at the UNICEF-run community center, and most had at least one smartphone in the family.

As we were talking, I took out my own phone, and I asked them if they knew what it was. “Oh yeah, that’s an iphone.” I asked them if they knew who makes the iPhone. “Of course,” they said. “It’s Apple.” I asked them, “Do you know who founded Apple?” They paused, and one young person volunteered, “Oh yes, Steve Jobs.” I asked if they knew where Steve Jobs’ father came from.

And there was silence.

The answer, of course, is Syria.

Every single person in that room and all of these refugees in our own communities and around the world could be the next Steve Jobs.

Our job, our job, is to give them that chance.

Thank you very much.