Bangladesh + 12 more

Refugee Issues: Eric P. Schwartz, Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration

MR. KELLY: Okay, welcome. We're very pleased to have with us today Eric Schwartz who's just recently confirmed, as you know, by the Senate as Assistant Secretary for Population, Refugees and Migration. Mr. Schwartz has had a long and distinguished career working on some of the issues that he has taken the lead for us here at the State Department on. He's served at the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. He's also worked as a senior director at the National Security Council in the Clinton Administration, and in addition to a number of other important roles. So I'd like to turn it over to Mr. Schwartz who will make some remarks and, of course, will be pleased to take your questions.

Mr. Schwartz.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: Thanks, Ian. Thank you. I thought I'd talk for about ten minutes, and then maybe take questions if that works. It's a pleasure for me to be here on what is World Humanitarian Day. The General Assembly at the end of last year adopted this day first to underscore the critical importance of international humanitarian assistance, including protection of the most vulnerable populations around the world, but also to note the contributions of the individuals and the organizations engaged in the provision of international relief and humanitarian assistance, and also to honor the victims of those who have lost their lives in the effort to provide humanitarian assistance. So this day, August 19th, also commemorates the lives of the 22 individuals who were killed in the tragic Canal bombing in Baghdad in 2003. The group included, as you all know, Sergio Vieria de Mello, one of our generation's great humanitarians.

This day also happens to have personal meaning for me. I had just gone to work for Sergio. Sergio was seconded to Baghdad from his position as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and he had asked me to serve as his chief of staff in the human rights job. I had just begun that job when this tragic event occurred.

Ours, unfortunately, is a growth industry. There are the indicators that we use to determine the challenge show that international humanitarian crises are sustaining or even increasing their level of severity. Some 42 million people around the world have been uprooted by conflict and persecution and 16 million of whom are refugees outside of their countries, and that number has probably increased by about 25 percent over the past seven or eight years. It also includes about 26 million internally displaced people. And in this year, as you all know, we have seen substantial displacements in Somalia, in Sri Lanka, and in Pakistan.

Unhappily, we see some of the trends relating to disasters that are caused by natural hazards. Last year more than 235,000 people were killed, some-214 million people were affected, and economic costs were estimated at about $190 billion, and the death toll and the costs for last year were far higher than the average for the six, seven, or eight years before.

So for me in this new job, I guess the starting point for me are the words of the Secretary of State. Secretary Clinton said at her confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that she will do her very best to elevate the attention of the U.S. Government to refugee issues and to develop comprehensive strategies to address humanitarian crises. And there are many reasons why protection of the most vulnerable populations should be at the center of policymaking.

First, there's the moral imperative, the imperative of saving lives. And I have to tell you it's remarkable how consistent and generous has been the support of the American people and the U.S. Congress for very large levels of assistance, and that is a - that imposes upon us in the Administration, I think, a very profound responsibility to do the job right.

Second, it's critical that we sustain United States leadership on these issues, the policy benefits of which are enabling us to drive the development of principles, policy, and programs. It's essential that we strengthen partnerships with key friends and allies and their populations and the populations of our adversaries where our efforts not only help to break down negative images and stereotypes, but also communicate to the world at large our commitment to principles of responsible U.S. engagement overseas.

And finally, we have the key goal of promoting conditions of reconciliation, of security, of well-being in circumstances where - in circumstances where despair, desperation, and misery not only impact prospects for stability, but also can dramatically affect the interests of the United States.

And we have a special role to play, as the breadth of all humanitarian engagement really is quite remarkable. In short, if there's an international humanitarian crisis anywhere in the world, the resources of the United States, of the Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development, the civilian resources of the United States, in one way or another, is likely to be there in support of protection of victims.

Last year - or this year, we estimate that that, in terms of magnitude of support, will be about $4.5 billion on the civilian side. Today, on World Humanitarian Day, it's my distinct honor to tell you that we are planning now to provide an additional $160 million in support of critical international and nongovernmental efforts to provide humanitarian assistance and protection and to help create the conditions for sustainable recovery. In this case, the money will include, for example, some $58 million for assistance in Africa, with a particular focus on Somalia displaced, the Congo, Sudan, and Chad; $29 million for Afghan refugees and conflict victims; and some $71 million to address critical crises in many of the other major refugee-producing regions of the world.

Now, before I close and open up for questions, let me turn to some of the areas of the world to which these funds and our prior commitments are going and have gone. And I suppose I should probably start with South Asia, because in my first week or two in the job, I traveled to South Asia, first with Ambassador Holbrooke to Pakistan, and then on my own to Sri Lanka. In Pakistan, the encouraging news is that - and estimates vary - but perhaps 1.3 or 1.4 million of the 2.2 million who have been displaced have returned to their homes. And that's encouraging news, but it is still very much a work in progress.

The United States has provided assistance this year, since early this year, of about $320 million, about half of the - on the humanitarian side, about half of what the world has provided, and we're pressing others to do more. And now we're turning our attention to promoting and to encouraging the process of return through assistance efforts that will make it easier for people in the areas which they have fled.

In Sri Lanka, where our efforts this year have amounted to over $50 million in humanitarian assistance, I visited there last month. It's a very difficult situation. Some 280,000 people, at the time of my visit, were remaining in camps, the vast majority of whom were in the Manik Farm complex which I visited.

QUESTION: Which complex?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: Manik - M-a-n-i-k - Farm. And in the period of my visit and thereafter, we learned that the government had reported - had told us that as many as 75,000 people would be leaving the camps during the month of August. That was - I guess, on some level, it was encouraging news, but the basic principle of freedom of movement is at play in Sri Lanka. Everywhere around the world, displaced persons make their own judgments about when it is right to go back. And people, we have found, are pretty good judges of their own best interests.

In Sri Lanka, the continued confinement against - involuntary confinement is especially a source of concern given the recent rains and given the coming of the monsoon season, and it makes it all the more important that release from confinement be an issue that friends of Sri Lanka continue to raise. This - I had told my counterparts in Sri Lanka that I would be returning to continue our engagement with the government and others in Sri Lanka on these issues. I very much welcome the fact that they welcomed my coming back, and I certainly intend to do that in the near future.

Moving to Africa, while millions of refugees and displaced remain in crises in many parts of the continent, we have played an important role in promoting critical processes of reconciliation and return home for half a million Burundians over the past several years, for nearly 200,000 Burundians not returning home, but rather being locally integrated into Tanzania, to the return of 300,000 refugees to Sudan. But this remains a - the crisis - refugee crises in Africa remain a critically important issue for us.

In Iraq, we're working hard to assist the government there to more effectively manage the reintegration of a displaced population whose estimates have varied, but we think it's probably around 2 million people, as well as the return of refugees. And we have substantially augmented our efforts at resettlement in the United States, which will not be the answer to this problem but can play a role in helping to assist those who are in greatest need. We will - by the end of this fiscal year, we will probably have resettled over 30,000 Iraqis in the United States.

Before I close, let me emphasize one other thing. We don't only deal with the headline crises. That's not what humanitarians are supposed to do and it's not what we do. We try to keep our attention focused anywhere in the world where large numbers of people are suffering and the dimensions of the crisis requires some degree of international engagement. For instance, we've been deeply concerned by very recent reports of large-scale displacement, perhaps as many or more than 10,000 civilians, although we're still running down reports, as a result of increased military activity in northeastern Burma, which follows reports in June of large-scale displacement of up to 5,000 civilians from Karen State in Burma and the ongoing flight of stateless Rohingya refugees from Burma.

The U.S. Government is assisting these unfortunate victims and providing aid, for example, to up to 150,000 refugees in Thailand and to Rohingya communities in Bangladesh and Indonesia. That's one example of a place that, at least the press here hasn't focused on in great depth but where the work of the Bureau that I lead goes on.

With that, I'd very much welcome your questions, and I think we'll let Ian do that.

MR. KELLY: Yeah. Sue, go ahead.

QUESTION: Can you talk about the couple of euphemisms, really - the freedom of movement is at play, as you said in Sri Lanka, and then you spoke of the continued confinement. Could you speak a little bit more about your trip? There was some rather confusing reporting that emerged after your trip as to what you had or hadn't said to the Sri Lankans in terms of people's confinement. Maybe if you could just --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: Well, I mean, I don't think - I don't think there's anything ambiguous about the word of "confinement against their will." That phrase - I'm not sure what other meaning you can draw from the phrase "confinement against their will," and that's what I said, in Sri Lanka. I spoke about three minutes ago - I used the phrase "release from confinement." I'm not quite - and I spoke about freedom of movement, and I said that displaced persons everywhere around the world make their own decisions and choices about when they feel they want to go home. So I think all of those sentences and phrases, you know, are pretty unambiguous. You know, so our position is that people who are displaced should be agents of their own destiny. If I could think of another way to say it, I would.

QUESTION: So how many people are you talking about? What are the figures that you have? And are people being - I mean, maybe if - did you go to that area, have a look and see the conditions the people who were being confined in?


QUESTION: Being held against their will in?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: Well, I went to this very large facility in Vavuniya, and it's a very large displaced person camp and it looks like displaced person camps in many other parts of the world. And conditions were not great. People were getting basic services. The camp administrators and the nongovernmental organization partners and the international organizations that are on the ground were doing, I think, everything within their power to make life as livable for these people as possible.

But nobody wants to be in such a place. And there were a number of issues that I identified that I felt, if acted upon, could make the conditions of that situation better. And those included providing more access to information for people. In my limited encounters with people in the camp, I was struck by the fact that they really had no sense of - or little sense of what was going to happen to them, what the plans were for them. And I think people, generally speaking, who are in difficult circumstances, can deal with those circumstances more effectively emotionally and psychologically if they have some sense of what the future brings.

Secondly, I felt that while there are some international organizations that are present in these camps and are doing great work, I felt that access to these camps should be easier for international providers of assistance and protection, and the government should make it, as I say, easier for outsiders to get in, both to conduct their assistance and protection activities. And I made those points very clearly in my meetings in Sri Lanka.

QUESTION: So when you say conditions were not great, I mean, were there communicable diseases? Do people have enough food? When you said there were basic services, that doesn't really - could you just explain? What do you mean by conditions were not great? They're not great for most IDP camps.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: Well, what I mean is that - well, for a couple - well, what I mean are a few things. Number one, there has been some survey of camp populations which indicates - which had indicated higher than - relatively high levels of malnutrition, wasting among children. Now, there was some belief that some of that may have been caused by the conflict itself and the surveying that took place shortly after people got into the camps, but I think that is, by definition, a source of concern.

There is concern about communicable diseases, especially when you're in a temporary facility. And on one level, we want that facility - those facilities to be temporary because we don't want them to take on the character of permanence. But if they are temporary, when things like rain happen, the latrines get washed away and the potential for communicable diseases get much greater, which is all the more reason to give people choices about what they should or should not be doing, can or cannot be doing.

QUESTION: The 30,000 figure you mentioned for Iraq by the end of the fiscal year, that is since the war began, correct? Are you going to bring 30,000 in this year?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: No, no, no. I think the numbers for fiscal year 2008 and 2009 probably get us around 30,000, but the overwhelming numbers who have come in through our resettlement program will have come in during that period. So if you take since the war began, we're going to be, I think, over 30,000. How much higher than 30,000 I can't tell you. We could come back to you on that.

QUESTION: Well, how about -

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: The numbers - let me - I think I may answer your next question. The numbers for fiscal year 2008, I think are on the order of about 13,000. I'm looking to my team here. And the numbers for fiscal year 2009 will get us - will probably be up to about 20,000. So you do the math. And that's for those two years. In terms of prior years, the numbers are much, much lower, but I don't have the specifics.

QUESTION: Sorry, do you have more?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: No, no, I'll just say if what I've told you --

QUESTION: I think that's right. I mean, last - the - last year, they were looking at - I think the number was about 17 for this - for the fiscal year that ends on September 30th.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: That's right. We don't have a final number, but we're going to be at - we'll be in that neighborhood and probably - I'm pretty confident we'll be higher than 17. I don't know whether we'll be at 20, but we'll be in that neighborhood.

QUESTION: Just to follow up - just - thanks. Just to follow up on Iraq, I think one of the complaints about - from refugee advocates and groups is that there hasn't been enough done. I mean, it's nice that you've resettled 30,000, but there's still, you know, upwards of hundreds of thousands of displaced.


QUESTION: And I'm wondering why, when you give this extra 160 million in support for humanitarian assistance, why there is no extra assistance for Iraq, and if you could talk about the scope of your programs that are going on right now.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: Sure. First of all, I'll have to get back to you to see whether any of this new announcement includes Iraq. But what I will say is in this fiscal year, we will have done by the end of this year over $350 million of support from - again, I'm going to have to double-check those numbers. If those numbers are very different than what I've just told you, we'll get back to you. But I think that is the number, and it is a huge amount of support. And it's both on - the vast majority of that is not directed toward resettlement, but rather assistance in place, because as I said before, resettlement in a large-scale displacement crisis, third-country resettlement will never be the answer for the majority of those who are suffering. So it has to be focused on assistance. And what we've done, oh, about a week or so ago, we announced the appointment of Samantha Power at the White House, who is going to coordinate - serve as a coordinator for our assistance to Iraq and our resettlement programs. And part of the reason that announcement was made was as a communication to the Government of Iraq how critically important this issue is to us.

QUESTION: You mean to resettle them in country?


QUESTION: To let them go back home?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: To promote return, reintegration. Ultimately, there are three choices that a refugee has: It's either third-country resettlement; it's integration in place in the place where they're getting refuge; or return. And we hope and believe that the answer for the vast majority of Iraqis who are outside their country of origin will be returned. But the numbers in terms of these populations are much greater with respect to internally displaced Iraqis. There are probably about 2 million of those. And so our assistance is very much directed for programs of reintegration and support of Iraqis who can return to their homes from within Iraq.

QUESTION: Kirit Radia with ABC News. Can I ask you about Pakistan and the roughly two million people, I think, that have been displaced by the fighting in Swat? Can you tell us - a couple months ago, people were raising some red flags about the social structures that could break down as these people have remain in their displaced, you know, areas for a long time. Can you tell us if there's any red flags that are being raised now as they continue to stay there, and not many of them returned?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: Well, I think that for all the reasons that were identified some months ago, those reasons still exist. People don't want to stay in displaced persons camps. There are -- long-term residence in such camps creates feelings of despair and desperation and distrust of the authorities, and it's just not a good situation under any circumstances.

We - what I will say is, of the 2.2 million who were displaced as of mid-July -- right now, our best estimates are probably 1.3 or 1.4 million have returned. So there has been some progress on this issue. At the same time, we've got to be careful, because as important as it is to get people home so that they can restart their lives, it's probably more important to ensure that they're not going home in circumstances where they will very quickly be displaced secondarily; in other words, have to flee again.

So we believe that there will be a continuing responsibility to assist people who remain displaced for some period of time and are unable to go back. There's this tension. But I think the signs are that there has been some significant progress if 1.3 million people are going back. And you have to also appreciate that the vast majority of those people who are going back are going back from - not from camps, but from homes where they were hosted by families. So you have to think that the vast majority of them are going back because they very much want to go back.

MR. KELLY: We have time for a couple more questions, because Mr. Schwartz has a meeting. Let's go back in the fourth row.

QUESTION: Hi. I'm Laura Heaton with the Center for American Progress, and I was wondering if you could talk - you touched on the situation in Somalia, and I wondered if you might talk specifically about Dadaab camp. The UNHCR chief said back on international refugee day that this was the single area in the world that he was most concerned about, and then there were reports yesterday that UNHCR is now transferring people to Kakuma in -


QUESTION: In northwestern Kenya.


QUESTION: And I wondered if you could talk about how your office is engaged on that, specifically since you are announcing this $58 million for Africa.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: We are very engaged. And this is an extremely important issue for all kinds of reasons. The humanitarian dimension is absolutely critical; the moral issue of making life livable for these - I think the number is also -- I was thinking 280,000 for Sri Lanka, but I think the number in Dadaab that I've seen is also 280,000. I don't know if that's some psychological proactive interference or whether I got it right, but I think -

QUESTION: (Inaudible) this morning (inaudible).

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: Yeah, okay. The numbers -- and - but I don't think that we - first of all, the Secretary of State discussed the Dadaab issue with her counterpart, her current counterparts in Kenya, which was as clear a reflection of the importance of this issue to us as I can express to you. Following the Secretary of State's visit, the U.N. High Commissioner visited Kenya to discuss the Dadaab issue, and I am very hopeful that we're going to get - that the Kenyan authorities are will work with the international community to create conditions to make that facility much more livable, even as this transfer that you referred to has taken place.

I expect to be traveling to Africa over the next month or two, and certainly, the issue of Dadaab will be very high on my agenda.

QUESTION: Could I ask a quick follow up, then? What effect do you think this will have on Kakuma camp, as well, because I know that the idea is to transfer into other existing refugee camps in -

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: I don't really know the answer to that question.

QUESTION: Okay. Okay, thanks.

MR. KELLY: I have to call last question. Let's go back to the first row.

QUESTION: Sure. Just Sam Witten (ph) had gone relatively recently to Thailand, addressing the issue with the border with Laos. There have been some reports that there still are some repatriations, perhaps not with their will, of the Hmong refugees going to Laos. Is that a concern for the Administration, and what of - what were - how is the issue going to be raised?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: Well, it's certainly an important concern. Let me also say that it must have been nearly 20 years ago I traveled to the border area with - I don't know if any of you remember Congressman Tom Foglietta of Pennsylvania. And this was precisely the issue that we looked at, and he actually issued a report. So it's an issue that I've known for many, many years.

And the answer to your question is, yes, it's important. The principle - first of all, we want to do everything. What do we want to achieve first? I'll talk about what we want to achieve and then I'll talk about what - the kinds of things we've been doing.

What we want to achieve is very simple, that people who do go - first, people who do go back to Laos can go with a - their return can be - they can go with the expectation that they won't have any problems when they go back. Better yet, if the international organizations that do this kind of work can monitor the return process, that would be great. And our, I think, with the Laotian authorities have been very useful on these issues.

Secondly, we believe that people who are outside their country of origin don't - while they don't have an automatic right to resettlement, if they have well founded fears of persecution, they should not be subjected to involuntary return. Those are our principles, and those are the principles that we express. But we also are confident that the return process for people who are not refugees is a workable process and is one that should be very much encouraged. And we have made all of these points in discussions with both the Government of Thailand and the Government of Laos. The points have not only been made by Sam Witten (ph), but they have been made at levels even more senior in the U.S. Government than Sam Witten (ph). But Sam's recent trip was extremely valuable in encouraging discussion with - good and fruitful discussions with both the Thai authorities and the Laotian authorities.

QUESTION: Can I just quickly follow up? I mean, do you think that there are forced repatriations taking place?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: I'm searching my memory right now. I - our effort has been to encourage the - to make very clear that those who have well founded fears of persecution should not be forced back. Because I don't have all of the details in my head to give you a definitive answer to that question, I'm not going to give you one. But what I will say is that I think the officials in Thailand understand and appreciate our concerns very well, and our discussions with them have been very encouraging.

MR. KELLY: Okay, thanks very much.