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Diplomacy in Action

Assistant Secretary Eric Schwartz's Trip to Iraq, Jordan and Syria

FPC Briefing
Eric P. Schwartz
Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration
Foreign Press Center
Washington, DC
December 1, 2009


Date: 12/01/2009 Location: Washington D.C. Description: Assistant Secretary Eric P. Schwartz, Bureau of Populations, Refugees, and Migration, talks about his recent trip to Iraq, Jordan and Syria at the Washington Foreign Press Center on December 1, 2009. © State Dept Image

Video

11:00 a.m., EST

MODERATOR: All right. Welcome. Good morning and welcome to the Foreign Press Center. We’re fortunate to have with us Assistant Secretary Eric Schwartz who just got back from a trip to the Middle East. Without wasting any time, I’ll turn it on over to him. Just to remind you before asking a question, please wait for the microphone, and state your name clearly and your media organization.

Assistant Secretary Schwartz.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: Good morning. I’ll say a few words, and then I’ll take your questions. From November 13th through November 19th, I was in Iraq, Jordan and Syria to see U.S. programs – U.S. refugee programs firsthand to speak with refugees about their experiences, to identify what more the United States can do, as well as what regional governments and other donors can do. Let me start with Iraq, if I may. In Iraq, I traveled to Baghdad to Diyala province, in particular, with Samantha Power, the senior director for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights at the National Security Council and the White House coordinator for Iraqi Refugees and Displaced Persons.

We met with Iraqi Government officials. We visited a village where displaced persons are returning home and are beginning to rebuild their lives with the help from UNHCR. This visit is – this visit was of particular importance to me because my bureau at the Department of State – the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration – provides support both to Iraqis and Palestinian refugees.

So in Iraq, the village – as I say, we met with government officials. This is a village where displaced persons are returning home. And this village was part – in Diyala was part of a larger initiative that the Government of Iraq is promoting. And while the Government of Iraq has made considerable progress in return and reintegration, in promoting return and reintegration of Iraqi refugees and internally displaced Iraqis, we urge them to do far more. This is a critical time in Iraq’s emerging democracy. And the process of return, reintegration, and reconciliation is absolutely critical. So there is – much has been done, but much more needs to be done.

All of us have a stake in Iraq’s future, including other donor governments who should seize this moment and do all they can to support reconciliation, including the return of IDPS from within Iraq and refugees.

The United States has been the largest donor for this Iraqi return and reintegration and assistance for refugees, but other – and other traditional donors need to do much more. UNHCR, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, their appeals have been undersubscribed. And as I say, other donors who have traditionally given generously to UNHCR really do need to step up to the plate and do the job here as well. We believe that safe, voluntary, and sustainable return will be the durable solution for the majority of the displaced, and that returns and reintegration are critical to long-term stability in Iraq.

This year, we’ve contributed – the United States – $386.8 million in humanitarian assistance to Iraqis who are displaced in Iraq, as well as Iraqi refugees in Jordan and in Syria and elsewhere in the region. And in the coming year, we will continue to provide generous assistance, and we’re urging other donors to do so, as well. And for those refugees who are most vulnerable in Jordan and in Syria and elsewhere and in Iraq, we will maintain our U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program. Over the past couple of years, we have resettled more than 35,000 Iraqi refugees in the United States.

Let me move now to Jordan, if I may. I met with both Palestinian and Iraqi refugees in Jordan. I visited the Zarqa refugee camp, where I had the privilege of inaugurating a new UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine refugees school – a school for girls, called the Zarqa Girls Preparatory School, where young girls are now getting a quality education and looking forward to becoming future leaders in a future Palestinian state.

We are – the United States is the largest bilateral donor to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine, providing in this year about $268 million. But without – here again, as in the case with Iraqi refugees, without assistance from other donors, both in the region and elsewhere, UNRWA is subjected without adequate assistance, UNRWA has been subjected to chronic budget shortfalls.

When I was in the region, when I was in Jordan, there was a conference of the UNRWA advisory committee, I urged other governments at that meeting to support UNRWA as a stabilizing force in the region and as an investment in the future, in particular, wealthy governments in the region. Wealthy governments in the region can and should be doing much more in terms of support for this important organization.

In Jordan, we also visited a community center for Iraqi refugees. I had a productive meeting with Prime Minister Dahabi in Jordan on these sets of issues. And I look forward to the continued collaboration with the Government of Jordan.

Now, finally, just in moving to Syria, again, the focus in Syria, similar to Jordan, was Iraqi refugees and the Palestinian refugees. There I visited the Khan Eshieh camp for Palestinian refugees, where I talked with community workers who are refugees themselves. I also met with refugees and staff at the UNHCR Duma processing center where Iraqi refugees are registered and receive benefits; spoke with international organization partners, including UNICEF, WFP, and other NGO Partners about the difficulties and the challenges of providing services in an urban setting. And I had a good meeting with Syrian Vice Foreign Minister Feyssal Mekdad. We discussed our two governments continued collaboration in efforts to improve the lives of Iraqis and Palestinians in Syria. The Government of Syria has provided important support for both of these populations, and much of our assistance in the region has benefited Iraqis and Palestinians who are in Syria.

So that was the trip – three countries – the focus on Palestinians and Iraqis and the need for other donors to do more to assist these populations. I’d be happy to answer any questions you might have.

QUESTION: Thank you. I’m Vladimir Kara-Murza with RTV-I Television in Russia.
What’s the Administration’s position on the so-called rate of return of Palestinian refugees into Israel? Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: I think that issue is an issue that will have to be addressed in the context of an overall settlement. I think everyone understands that that issue is really going to be – will have to be addressed in that context. But in the meantime, our objective is to support Palestinian refugees and – not only in terms of their immediate assistance needs, but also in terms of investing in Palestinian children through support of UNRWA and their educational efforts, and promoting values of tolerance and respect for human rights within the community.

QUESTION: Hello, my name is Natasha Mozgovaya. I’m with Ha’aretz newspaper, Israel. Could we just hear more about your impressions about the conditions on the ground and the refugee camps? I mean, jobs levels, some discrimination that we have been hearing about in Syria, for example, regarding a worker, et cetera.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: Well, there are two different – I mean, the Iraqi populations in both Jordan and Syria are largely – they’re urban refugee populations. They’re not situated in camps as such. And I think conditions in both places are quite challenging, as they are for refugees anywhere. But I think it is fair to say that both governments – the Government of Jordan and the Government of Syria – have made serious efforts to make the situation for Iraqi refugees as good as circumstances permit.

And UNHCR and other international organizations are permitted to operate and provide essential services to these communities. In both countries, there are established processes for the consideration of members of these communities for resettlement, although, as we all understand, third-country resettlement can only be a solution for a very small percentage of this refugee population, as it can only be a solution for a small percentage of any refugee population. But for the most vulnerable among this population, third-country resettlement is an important option, and both governments are working with international organizations and other governments to promote those opportunities. In both places, the governments facilitate or even provide some services for refugees. So I think all that is encouraging.

But it’s not easy to be a refugee. It’s not easy to be a refugee in Jordan, it’s not easy to be a refugee in Syria, it’s not easy to be a refugee anywhere. And so our challenge is to try to make conditions as good as possible. I think my critical concern at this point is that the world and traditional donor governments not forget about this population, that they not go on to other crises, but that they realize that increased – sustained and increased support for these populations remains critical. And the UNHCR has just issued its worldwide donor appeal, and I’m – we’re very hopeful that the United States will certainly contribute generously to it worldwide as well as with respect to Iraq, and we’re just very hopeful that other governments will do the same.

QUESTION: I’m Michel Ghandour with Al Hurra Television. Can you elaborate more on the Iraqi refugees resettled in the United States --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: Sure.

QUESTION: -- numbers on the past and the future? And what about the Palestinian refugees from Iraq that you plan to resettle them in the United States?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: Sure. For over the past two years, the United States has resettled more than 35,000 refugees from Iraq, from our Fiscal Year 2007 to today, so that would be – I’m sorry, our Fiscal Year 2008 to today. I’m looking at my experts.

STAFF: Seven, seven.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: Seven? Seven. Fiscal Year 2007 to today.

So as I say, we’ve resettled. So in the last couple or few years, it’s been over 35,000 refugees. We will sustain a generous program of resettlement in the coming fiscal year, Fiscal Year 2010. I don’t know what the exact number is, but we expect that we’ll approve – that we will approve at least 17,000 in the coming year. Again, that’s not the answer for every or even most Iraqis who are outside their countries of origin, but – their country of origin, but it is a critical component of an overall effort to provide assistance and durable solutions.

From Syria over this period, the number of resettled refugees have been just about 11,000 – pretty much on the dot, give or take, you know, a handful – and from Jordan, just over 11,000. So that’s kind of a thumbnail sketch of what we’ve done and what we’re going to do on Iraqi resettlement.

QUESTION: And what about the Palestinian refugees?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: Oh, I’m sorry. I neglected to answer that question. There is a small population of Palestinians who are in Iraq, who are being resettled as refugees. And they have been – and this is – let me emphasize that this is an international effort. There are many resettlement governments that are participating in this effort to resettle this relatively small number of Palestinian refugees. The numbers that will go to the United States are about 1,300. I’m looking to my experts, who tell me that number is correct. And – but again, these were Palestinians who had lived for many, many, many years in Iraq and were deemed by the UNHCR as vulnerable and in need of resettlement.

Yes.

QUESTION: Mina Al-Oraibi, Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper. First of all, apologies for coming in late. I just wanted to clarify, the 35,000 – they’ve actually been resettled? (Inaudible) approvals?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: Yeah, resettled.

QUESTION: Resettled, okay. And then if I can move on to my questions, I have two.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: Sure.

QUESTION: My first one is that, you know, the Iraqi Government very openly said, you know, people should come back, we want to help resettlement, that they have a program for actually getting people to come back to Iraq. Are you aware of this particular program? Do they have the sufficient capabilities for those Iraqis moving back from Jordan and Syria going back to Iraq? That’s my first question.

My second question is regarding participation in the next elections. There’s been much talk about whether Iraqis will be able to participate. The Iraqi Government has said they want Iraqis outside Iraq to participate. Did that come up in your meetings in Jordan and Syria regarding facilitating for Iraqi refugees? Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: Yeah. To both your questions – on your second question – I’m sorry, just give me on your first – what – your first question again was?

QUESTION: The program – the program that the Iraqi Government has --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: Oh, yes. Let me answer that one first and then I may have to ask you to remind me about your second question in a second. But in terms of your first question, yeah, I mean, I think the short answer to your question is that we’ve seen signs of progress in the Iraqi Government effort to encourage and support Iraqis who are outside their country to come home. But much more needs to be done by the Iraqi Government, and so let me just give you just one or two brief examples in each category.

Progress – well, progress, for example, the appointment of a senior Iraqi very close to the prime minister to serve as the coordinator for refugees and displaced. That’s a very encouraging sign. In addition, the government has indicated its intention to increase the budget of the Ministry of Displacement and Migration by 250 percent. That’s real. It makes a difference.

The government could take additional actions. For example, there’s – at the time we were in Iraq, there was a stipend on the order of $800 or $900 for returning Iraqis. There’s been discussion of increasing the size of that stipend severalfold. If the government took action on that – if the government took action on that issue, it would send a very significant signal. It would also send a very valuable signal if the government engaged with international – provided some support for international organizations that were providing assistance to Iraqis outside of Iraq. So I think there is – there are actions that have been taken that have been very encouraging, and there is much more that can be done that would move this process forward much more smartly – much more quickly.

On your other question, the issue of the – voting by refugees in the elections, this is a process that is the subject of discussion within Iraq right now, as you well know. And there are also responsibilities there with respect to the – the Electoral Commission has responsibilities with respect to the procedures that might be established. So our position has been whatever procedures are ultimately established, we encourage the government to make the process as easy and as transparent as possible to facilitate the greatest use of the procedures that are in place.

QUESTION: Could you just clarify what are the criteria for resettlements and how you would define vulnerable population? And do you have any statistics, and are they mostly male, female, families?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: I don’t think I have those statistics in front of me, so I think we’ll have to get back to you on that. And in terms of – we consult, in terms of vulnerability, we consult closely with the UNHCR, the High Commissioner for Refugees, which refers cases to resettlement countries based on a range of vulnerability criteria, which again, I don’t have in front of me, but we can get back to you on that.

QUESTION: Yes. Joyce Karam with Al Hayat newspaper. I want to ask you about Iraqi refugees. I mean, the return of those refugees. is it parallel to the end of the U.S. mission in Iraq? I mean, do you want them to be back before the withdrawal? How does it work? I mean, especially that many of those left because of security problems and militia’s control in the streets of Baghdad. And if you can elaborate what you really want to do – the Iraqi Government to do, I mean, step by step in the coming year?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: Yeah. Well, you asked two separate questions. Let me answer – let me give my best answer. I think it’s very difficult and probably not a good idea, in general, to identify specific time-related goals for return of refugees outside their country of origin, or certainly it’s not a good idea to identify deadlines. And I think – so we don’t think of the return process as one in which – that has got to be tightly linked to other activities that are taking place in different spheres.

Generally speaking, refugees are very – are the best judges of their own fate. And most refugees around the world want to go to home. And when conditions permit them to go home, in most cases, they do. So our objective, and I think the Iraqi Government’s objective, is to help create conditions of security and stability over time and situations of economic opportunity for people so that the return becomes a much more viable and practical alternative. So I – and I think that’s the effort that we have to just kind of stay the course on. We have to really focus on and ensure that it – that we don’t – that we sustain our interest and our support.

And I think, thankfully, the governments of Jordan and Syria have indicated that they don’t support any effort to – that they support the process of voluntary return, that Iraqis have to make their own decisions. And that’s the way it should be. So we don’t have a very specific timetable. I think we want to facilitate the process for those who are prepared voluntarily to go back.

Yes.

QUESTION: Do you think that the Iraqi Government is not serious about returning this – Iraqi refugees from Jordan and Syria, because most of them are Sunni and support the former regime?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: I think the Iraqi Government is very serious about supporting the process of return of its citizens. And I think the indications of that are – some of the indications of that are what I described. I think the appointment of a highly engaged senior official, I think increases in funding for the ministry that has responsibilities in this area, I think those are all signals that the government is interested in promoting returns. That doesn’t mean that more shouldn’t be done; more should be done. But I think the government – I think the government believes in the importance of return of its own citizens.

QUESTION: Thank you. Yasmeen Alamiri from the Saudi Press Agency. I guess my question touches kind of on a follow-up to what your response to Joyce’s question. There are some countries, though, that are – I guess their patience is running out with the Iraqi refugees that are living in their countries. We know the – economic crisis on other countries. I mean, obviously, having to take care of people that are not their own citizens is not something that a lot of countries are willing to put up with for very much longer. I don’t how many people are on board. I mean, if you can see to Europe maybe with this voluntary return program and kind of when they see fit.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: Well, I mean, I frankly, didn’t share your perception. I think the governments that are most closely – that are closer to the situation and that are hosting the largest number of Iraqi refugees have demonstrated a very high degree of understanding, a very high degree of patience, and support and solidarity with these populations. I think that it’s a challenge and that’s why the United States will sustain its very generous levels of assistance to Iraqis who are outside their countries of origin, so that we communicate to governments in the region that not only do we care, but we’re prepared to stand by you, arm in arm, to address this issue.

Refugees – refugee populations exist. There are 16 million refugees around the world. And the goal in most of these situations is to encourage conditions in their country of origin that will permit return. But ultimately, the best solution in these kinds of situations is a voluntary decision by the refugee to go home. And most of the refugees that I met in the region, I think it was very clear that they would very much like to be in Iraq. And I think as their level of confidence about return increases, I’m confident that we will see the levels of return increase.

We have seen steady returns. It’s – the numbers have been pretty small, but we have seen steady returns both of refugees and internally displaced Iraqis over the past couple of years. I think over the past couple of years, IDP return and internally displaced person return and refugee return has numbered – and I’m going to look again at my experts – at about 350,000, I think.

I beg your pardon?

STAFF: I think it was more.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: 350,000 or more. Now, admittedly, the large majority of that – those – that population were IDPs, internally displaced persons. But there has been some refugee return as well, and our objective is to continue to encourage that process. And I think we – and I have to say that we stand the best chance of ensuring that these processes go forward in conditions of – in conditions of stability and an overall sense of well-being if we in the international community continue to generously provide support to these communities.

QUESTION: How about support for the countries that are helping keep these refugees? I mean, I know that you said continue your – I forget your actual wording, but the high level of, I guess, assistance for the refugees. But I mean, the countries are the ones that are kind of depleting their resources and maintaining the – community.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: Well, I think on the humanitarian side, if you’re supporting international organizations that are feeding, providing assistance to these communities, then, in effect, you are also assisting the governments that face this challenge. And so I think on the humanitarian side, our primary route for assistance of refugee populations will continue to be through international humanitarian organizations.

QUESTION: I want to ask you, on the process of return, when those refugees return, do you want them to go back to their neighborhoods, given the nature – ethnic nature of those neighborhoods have changed, you know, after they left? And what makes you confident that the Iraqi refugees won’t end up like the Palestinian refugees? I know you said that refugees don’t really return, but you know, in the Middle East, we just see the exact opposite.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: Well, I can say that the village – the part of Diyala Province that we visited was one in which those who were returning were very much a mixed – a very diverse group from different communities. And I have to say that that was extremely heartening and encouraging.

I think that in terms of your second question, I think that the diminished levels of violence in Iraq of late, the commitment of the government to the process of return, the movement toward the development of democracy in Iraq – I think those are all encouraging signs that over time, we will see large-scale returns of Iraqis to their country of origin. I think that – as I said before, I think the nascent but significant levels of returns that we’ve seen over the past couple of years are an indication that this is a process that can and should accelerate. And I’m very hopeful that this process will continue to move forward.

I don’t – yeah, I don’t know how else to answer your question. That’s – yeah.

MODERATOR: The last question.

QUESTION: Okay. I’m L’houssaime from (inaudible) newspaper. My question is – is about other refugees who are in Sunni borders in a place called Jizan. So are you planning to make a visit there or give them – or provide them assistance?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: I’m sorry, where?

QUESTION: In Sunni borders, in a place called Jizan.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: I just have to get back to you on that question because I just – I don’t have an answer, so I’ll have to get back to you.

QUESTION: Okay.

MODERATOR: We have one real quick.

QUESTION: Do you have any specific message to the Iraqis who asked for a resettlement – the United States? What will they find in the United States when they will be resettled?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: Well, let me say again that – and I realize I sound a bit like a broken record on this, but I think it’s important to make the point so we don’t raise expectations, that resettlement is a solution for, under any circumstances, a small percentage of refugees from Iraq and everywhere else. But it’s an important – for some, it’s an important option and alternative, which is why we continue to promote a very robust program.

I think it’s difficult for a refugee in a country of first asylum – that is, a country when the refugee crosses the border, the country where the refugee finds him or herself. It’s difficult there. And so there are also challenges for refugees who resettle in third
countries. The refugee experience is not a simple one. It’s one in which people are put into societies that are new and in circumstances where you don’t necessarily have the circle of friends and family, where you may not have command of the language. So that creates all kinds of challenges.

The United States of America is very proud of its record on refugee resettlement. Last year, we resettled about 75,000 refugees around the world – from around the world – well, this year, 2009. And we try to create the conditions that will help to ensure the possibility of success for people who do come to the United States.

I think there is much more that we can do, the United States can do. And we are – I’ve been in the job for about five months. And since my first day in office in this position, we’ve been looking at ways that we can augment our assistance to newly arriving refugees for a couple of reasons.

Number one, because we’re in a difficult – all – the United States and much of the world has been in difficult economic circumstances, and that also has impacts for refugees. And we see a higher percentage of refugees from around the world who come here in recent years without many of the skills to quickly succeed. So we’re looking at ways in our refugee program to figure out how we can even – figure out how we can better assist newly arriving refugees from Iraq and everywhere else around the world.

MODERATOR: Thank you so much for coming.

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