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Worldwide Refugee Programs

Worldwide Refugee Programs

Samuel Witten, Acting Assistant Secretary for Population, Refugees & Migration
Remarks to the Press

Geneva, Switzerland

October 10, 2008

Assistant Secretary Witten: Thank you very much, and thank you all for coming this afternoon.

I’m very pleased to have come here to Geneva to attend the Executive Committee of UNHCR. We’ve had a very very productive set of meetings throughout the week. In addition to the general sessions, we’ve had the opportunity to meet somewhat intensively with the High Commissioner, the Deputy High Commissioner, and regional bureau heads, to talk about worldwide programs. In addition to that, I’ve taken the opportunity to meet bilaterally with quite a few delegations from around the world including many African refugee hosting countries, other donors, and other nations from around the world.

UNHCR is undergoing numerous reform efforts that the U.S. strongly supports including such issues as outposting, regionalization and decentralization, budget restructuring, and a new global needs assessment initiative. The U.S. believes that the High Commissioner and his team are doing an excellent job providing great leadership on these reform initiatives and we’re confident they’ll implement the reforms in a way that will make UNHCR even stronger in providing lifesaving protection and assistance to millions of refugees. I’d like to talk for a few minutes about the activities of the United States in the last year relating to UNHCR and more generally humanitarian assistance to refugees and other conflict victims.

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For the United States, our fiscal year ends September 30th, so the figures that I will give you reflect our fiscal year which is October 1, 2007 through September 30, 2008. You’ve received a number of handouts and I would refer you to them for more details and to be sure that you reflect them accurately in any reporting of my comments, but I’ll give you the highlights and then take some questions. First of all, the overall funding levels. In the last year ending September 30th, the U.S. contributed a total of $1.44 billion to help refugees, conflict victims, stateless persons and vulnerable migrants around the world. We funded both international organizations and non-governmental organizations, working to improve the lives of these populations of concern.

With respect to the resettlement of refugees in the United States, we ended the year having resettled over 60,000 refugees in total. This is by far our highest level in recent years. We’re looking forward to an even higher number in the coming year. The largest number of refugees coming into the United States originated in Burma and Iraq. This year we initiated an additional large program for Bhutanese refugees in Nepal. We admitted over 5,000 and look forward to an even greater number in 2009. These are the long term Bhutanese refugees living in camps in Nepal since the early ‘90s. Turning to Iraq activities, which I know is a subject of great interest, the U.S. humanitarian assistance for Iraqi refugees in the fiscal year that just ended as reflected through the chart that we put out, was $398.27 million, most of which, $287 million, came from the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration. The balance came from the U.S. Agency for International Development.

The U.S. funded about $175 million for UNHCR’s regional programs for Iraqis. The balance of our contributions went to other international organizations and to 15 different non-governmental organizations operating in the region. With respect to resettlement of Iraqis in the United States, the administration a year ago had set a target in this first year of resettling 12,000 Iraqis. We met and exceeded that target, admitting 13,823 Iraqis during that time period. At this point we don’t know what our number will be for 2009, but our estimation, based on the fact that we now have developed processing capacity throughout the region, that it will be at least 17,000 and perhaps substantially more. I should emphasize that this isn’t a ceiling. This is our best guess of a minimum that we would be able to process into the United States, 17,000, and it could be substantially more.

I would mention at this point that although the Special Immigrant Visa Program is not a part of my part of the State Department, it’s a special visa program for Iraqis affiliated with the United States. That’s an additional potentially large number of Iraqis who might immigrate to the United States pursuant to U.S. law. I’m glad to take a few questions, but this is my overview. We had a very successful year, thanks to help from the U.S. Congress and very good partnerships around the world with UNHCR, other international organizations, and a terrific network of non-governmental organizations,. Obviously we’re not in a position to be certain about the coming year, and I’m happy to talk about that, but I can tell you that we’re very happy with the developments at UNHCR. We will look forward to that continued partnership and welcome the excellent leadership of High Commissioner Guterres and his good team.

I’m happy to take some questions.

Question: [Inaudible] .

If we add the total of this year to the projected total of next year which is over 30,000, isn’t this a drop in the ocean compared to the two million refugees in neighboring countries? Iraqirefugees?

My second question is, what is the projected number of immigrants expected, or the ceiling you are putting for the visa for immigration for Iraqis?

Assistant Secretary Witten: I’ll answer each of your two questions, both of which are very pertinent.

The Iraqis whom we’re resettling are a part of a much bigger picture. The U.S. is providing and expects to provide assistance in three different ways to Iraqi refugees. The greatest number of refugees will be helped through our assistance through the UN, through other organizations and NGOs, for those Iraqis who are in the neighboring countries hoping to return to Iraq. The second category of assistance is resettlement and the numbers, you’re correct, projected minimum of 30,000, potentially substantially more. And finally, we’ll be providing assistance for returns to Iraq. We look to the government of Iraq to bear the primary responsibility for returns, and it’s beginning to take steps in that direction.

The U.S. and other countries do not expect that resettlement in third countries will be the primary way the international community assists Iraqi refugees. For most of the refugees the goal is a return with dignity to a safe Iraq, but we do intend to continue providing for those individuals who want to be resettled. The United States has over the last year developed significant refugee processing capacity in the five countries outside of Iraq that have hosted and are hosting the greatest number of refugees – Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt.

At the beginning of last year we did not have significant capacity to process in all of these locations, and now we are in position, including in Damascus, where the greatest number of refugees are located. In Syria, we have a substantial processing operation now that we did not have a year ago and certainly longer. We have succeeded in establishing a presence so that Iraqis in Syria will have the possibility of seeking resettlement into the United States directly from that country.

In addition, I should mention, and I haven’t mentioned it thus far but I think it’s significant, that as of this year, as of this summer, we have established processing for Iraqi refugees inside Iraq Typically the U.S. refugee admissions program processes people outside of their country of nationality. For several countries around the world we do process internally and we now have a processing operation in Baghdad. We don’t have the numbers obviously at this point, but it is open and we are receiving many applications. I don’t have a solid estimate as to the way we will wind up, but that will be a platform for processing that will grow, I expect, substantially over the next year.

With respect to your question about immigrant visas this is, as I say, a separate program and I will give you my best information on it. The U.S. Congress has created a special category for immigrant visas into the United States. The acronym is SIV, or Special Immigrant Visa. Under that program the United States has a limit of 5,000 visas a year plus dependent family members of the principal applicants. These are individuals typically who have had some association, have worked with the United States. We are also processing SIV applications inside of Iraq at our embassy in Baghdad.

The way this program works is that we had an allocation of 5,000 plus dependent family members in fiscal ’08 which ended September 30th. We didn’t use all 5,000 of those numbers because the program really got started during the fiscal year, actually the last quarter of the fiscal year. The numbers that were not used, and I don’t have that number, will roll over into fiscal ’09 which just started last week. So there will be 5,000 visas available plus whatever number weren’t used of the congressional allocation for fiscal ’08. So there could be a substantial number.

A number of Iraqis will have a choice to make about whether they want to apply to be refugees or special immigrant visa recipients. Some are eligible for both, and I have no way to predict how the numbers will shake out in the end.

Question: Can you tell us a bit more about what the numbers, the volume of Iraqi refugees going to the U.S., being resettled in the U.S., will depend on in the coming year, where they will go, and who is given priority in these programs?

Assistant Secretary Witten: We rely heavily on UNHCR referrals. The single largest group of Iraqis who have come into the United States have been referred to us by the UN, and UNHCR has country teams in each of the countries I mentioned around Iraq. The Iraqis who have been referred to us are interviewed by, in the case of three of the countries the International Organization for Migration -- that would be in Syria, Jordan, and Egypt. In the case of Lebanon and Turkey, they are interviewed by the ICMC, the International Catholic Migration Commission. They are initially processed to get information about them so that we have an account of their background and why they wish to be considered as refugees.

So the bulk of the 13,800-plus who were brought in, most of those went through the referral process of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, identifying people, getting their initial stories, referring the case to these overseas processing entities, and then being brought into the United States after being reviewed and approved by our Department of Homeland Security. So it’s a multi-step process where it’s generally self-initiated by the refugees. And refugees that have come in, some have been victims of violence, some have had family members who have been victims, some simply have determined that they cannot return safely to their homes. The single largest group are UN referred refugees.

The second largest group would be those admitted under the framework of a program that was legislated by our Congress in January of this year, so it’s now about nine or ten months old, the shorthand for which is Priority II. This means it’s a group designation of Iraqis who have had some association with the United States, either having worked for the U.S. or worked for U.S.-based non-governmental organization or U.S.-based media organization. These individuals do not need to go through the UNHCR referral process. The term of art in refugee processing is “direct access.” They have direct access to the program simply by self-identifying as fitting into the categories. The Iraqis inside Iraq are typically P-II, that is they are part of a group that had an association with the United States. They may have worked for the embassy or for a U.S.-based organization. Jordan also is a location where we’ve processed this group, I don’t have the breakdown, but we’ve processed quite a few of these Priority II individuals.

Did you have another part to the question I missed? I apologize.

Question: Yes, this is slightly on my first question which was what does the number that you expect, what does it depend on? What are the factors?

Assistant Secretary Witten: The two largest refugee populations are Syria and Jordan respectively. So the success of getting these higher numbers of refugees processed depends on a continuing processing operations in these locations. We had interruptions during the last year in Syria. There was a time that we were not able to process in Damascus until about November or December 2007 because the Syrian government had not given visas to our homeland security adjudicators. That issue was resolved, and we’ve had in the last 10 or 11 months good success with the Syrian government and they have provided visas to our adjudicators and we have an ongoing series of circuit rides where the DHS folks are able to come in and do the interviews.

In Lebanon we had a circuit ride planned in May, I believe, either May or June of 2008 which we had to postpone because of the violence in Beirut. We weren’t able to get people in and out and it wouldn’t have been safe for the refugees to come into our embassy for processing and we weren’t able to send people in to do the interviews.

So when I think ahead to 2009, to all of the platforms that I’ve mentioned, the five outside of Iraq and that inside of Iraq, if everything goes well and people can come and go and it’s safe for the refugees and safe for our overseas processing entities and DHS to go in and out, then we will get to the larger numbers that we’re talking about.

On the other hand if we have an interruption in one of the locations, then we’ll have whatever correspondingly lower number. It really depends.

Your other question was about where in the United States are they resettled. This is a national program in the United States. We work with ten agencies around the United States including the U.S. Conference on Catholic Bishops, the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society, the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, and others. The way this works is that the Iraqis who come in, just like refugees from Burma or Africa or anywhere, they could be placed initially in any location in the country. We do make efforts to keep people near family if there are relatives, as there are in many cases. If they don’t have family, if they don’t have that kind of connection they are initially placed with an agency that has told us they have an infrastructure capable of helping them with, for example, an apartment, with job training and so forth. We rely very heavily on agencies and organizations around the United States to help with refugee placement. And it’s only because we have this good network of ten organizations around the country that we were able to bring in over 60,000 this year and I believe it will be a larger number if all goes well in 2009.

So in direct answer, I don’t have a location. They don’t go to any individual location. Once they’re in the U.S., if they choose after the initial resettlement to move to be closer to people they know, that’s totally fine. We don’t restrict them. We just look for agencies that are able to be a framework for them to move into, an umbrella to help take care of them when they first arrive.

Question: [Inaudible] Two questions. One, [inaudible] did mention today in our press conference the need [inaudible]. What is the assurance that you can give that the U.S. government will continue funding? What is the projection for next year in terms of funding of all donations to UNHCR, for example? Secondly, on a regional issue, Haiti. What are the programs that you have today and what is the fear that the process is not giving a solution so far to the stability of the country will generate as refugees or migrants, whatever [inaudible].

Assistant Secretary Witten: Your first question is about projected levels of assistance for 2009. At this time it’s impossible to predict the impact of the global economic crisis on developing countries or on foreign assistance overall from the U.S. or any other donor country probably. That said, we are committed to staying in close dialogue with our partners, including UNHCR as we move into this new fiscal year.

We expect to continue to be a major donor to international humanitarian programs, but at this point we are at the beginning of our fiscal year. At this point a year ago we didn’t know what our year-end totals would be either. We started off fairly modestly at the beginning of fiscal ’08, which started in the fall of ’07. Over the course of the year we were able to program at the level of over $1.44 billion. I have no way of knowing at this point what our numbers will be. That’s because of the legislative process in the United States. The amount of money that we have available is legislated. We do not know at this time a number of things -- when the appropriations will be enacted and what their levels will be. And until we know that, I don’t have an answer. I can state only generally that we are committed to humanitarian relief and I will work hard, as will others involved in international humanitarian relief, to see that our contributions are as large as possible.

With respect to Haiti, the part of the U.S. government that has the greatest economic programs for Haiti is not mine because the USAID, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and I’m not prepared, I don’t have that information about what assistance. I know that after the natural disasters in the last month or two, there was substantial assistance but I don’t have a number. Obviously Haiti is a close neighbor of the United States. We have programmed money for Haiti. Because we’re two different government components, I’m more involved in the refugee relief part of the government and USAID is more involved in sort of development issues and infrastructure, so I’m afraid I can’t be as helpful as I’d like on that.

Question: In political terms or not financially, do you fear that there will be a continuation of Haitians trying to flee to the United States? Was there a flux of Haitians in the last couple of years to the United States? What is the situation in terms of people?

Assistant Secretary Witten: I’m not able to answer that question with any authority so I’ll have to pass on it.

Question: As far as Mexican and [inaudible] American inhabitants, are they considered economic migrants or political refugees? Number two, Chinese migration, where it goes today? Have you got many Chinese migrants? And what is [inaudible]?

Assistant Secretary Witten: To be sure I understand your questions, the first one was about Mexican and Central American?

Question: Central and South American. Where do they, are they considered political refugees? Because they live in pretty harsh regimes. Or economic migrants?

Assistant Secretary Witten: I think I’m more able to talk about the Americas situation so let me address that.

With respect to what we consider migration within the Western Hemisphere, I think that it’s safe to say there are both categories. There are economic migrants, and those who move to find jobs for a better way of life, to try to gain money for remittances as opposed to fleeing political or other repression. The first category would be economic migrants. The U.S. certainly has been the home of quite a few.

There are also political refugees, for example, from the very difficult circumstances of Colombia. There are refugees in, for example, Ecuador who have left Colombia and have no ready prospect of return. A number of countries, actually in South America, have agreed to take some of those refugees from Colombia into their countries and resettle them. This is a trend that we’re very pleased with. The U.S. has been a leader in resettlement, but we’re of course very pleased when other countries step up and accept refugees.

So I think there are both categories in the hemisphere.

Question: The majority probably for economic reasons.

Assistant Secretary Witten: That would be my understanding, yes. Most economic, but obviously Colombia in particular is the single biggest, in our hemisphere, the single biggest number of internally displaced persons, and they’re leaving a conflict area. And those that have left the borders of Colombia to go into Ecuador and elsewhere are, I would consider many of them to be refugees. Some might be economic migrants but many would be appropriately classified as refugees.

Thank you.

Question: Have you got some information about Chinese migration? When I was there most of the refugees were [inaudible] in various cities. Still the case today?

Assistant Secretary Witten: Most of them, I’m sorry?

Question: Settling down in very large cities like San Francisco or New York.

Assistant Secretary Witten: There’s always been historically a lot of movement of Chinese into the United States as migrants. I don’t know that I have more for you on that.

Moderator: Thank you, Mr. Witten. Thank you everyone for coming.


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