11:00 a.m. , EDT
NEW YORK FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, 799 UNITED NATIONS PLAZA, 10TH FLOOR
MODERATOR: So we’re going to get started. Yesterday we visited a refugee resettlement organization here in New York, and I know there are a lot of questions about the process of how refugees actually come to the U.S. and the State Department’s role in that process. And we have two experts from the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, better known as PRM, who are going to talk about that today. So please join me in welcoming Deputy Assistant Secretary David Robinson and PRM’s Director of the Office of Refugee Admissions Larry Bartlett. Thank you.
MR. ROBINSON: Let me put my coffee down. I was spilling it. There we go. Well, good morning, everybody. And first, thank you all for being here this morning and taking the time to meet with Larry and I. And I appreciate the work of the Foreign Press Center in setting this up as well, so thank you. And also I want to thank all of you for your interest in refugee resettlement and in the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program generally.
I think what I’d like to do is just offer a brief overview of the program and then ask Larry to give some more specifics on the mechanics of how the United States resettles refugees, and then we’d be very happy to try to answer any questions that you might have.
It’s important at the outset to note that the United States has always resettled refugees from the very inception of the United States as a colony, before we were even a country. Resettling refugees or welcoming refugees is intrinsic to who we are as a nation and to our national culture and character.
The vehicle by which the United States resettles refugees today is the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. That’s a program that is in part run by the Department of State but also in concert with the Departments of Homeland Security and with the Department of Health and Human Services. So the three federal agencies work with other groups, one of which you met yesterday, the IRC, to resettle refugees here in the United States.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that there are somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 million refugees worldwide. And of that number of refugees worldwide, several hundred thousand of them require resettlement in another country. As you know, a refugee is someone who’s fled across an international border. Many of them, hopefully, will go home again when conditions allow. Some of them will find a permanent home in the country that gave them first asylum, but there will always be a number of refugees that can neither go home for one reason or another and cannot find integration or a home in the country that first received them in first asylum.
So the United States, along with about two dozen or so other countries around the world, offer resettlement spots to those people. We work through the United Nations and other groups to bring in refugees. Now, the United States is by far the largest resettlement country in the world. We, last year, resettled about 56,000 refugees. This year, we’ll do something similar. In the past, we’ve settled up to 100,000 in a year. Two years ago, we settled, I think, 74- or 75,000 refugees. So we’re always up around that number.
I think it’s important to recognize that there are some unique characteristics of the U.S. program. As I mentioned, we work with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, meaning that the UNHCR will refer people to our program, and we will interview them and go through our processing, which Larry can explain, and offer them positions here in the United States or sites here in the United States in which to live.
We also reach out directly through our embassies and other means to people and offer them places in the United States, like for instance Iraqis in Baghdad and other places.
The key thing here, and I think the thing that’s most unique about our program, that is unique about our program, is that we don’t have criteria for accepting refugees other than need. We don’t look for a special kind of person. We don’t have educational criteria. We don’t have physical criteria. We don’t shy away from people who have special needs. The real issue here for us is if somebody is in need of resettlement, the United States tries to be in a position to offer them resettlement here.
The other thing that I think is interesting about our program is that it really is a public-private partnership. And you got a taste of that yesterday. We work with organizations like the IRC and eight others that are national organizations, and they have a network of affiliates, over 300 affiliates that work in all 50 states of the United States. And so when refugees pass through our program, they get settled by these affiliates in local communities. So refugees come to the United States and they are passed through to local places all around the U.S. in all 50 different states.
Now, a refugee coming here is expected – and we try to facilitate their self-sufficiency as quickly as we can. We do not bring refugees in and put them on lifelong welfare. People come to the United States, and we try to help them become integrated into the broader society and culture just as quickly as they can be, and we offer them a path to citizenship. Most refugees, after a few years, do, in fact, become citizens of the United States. When they come here, they are automatically eligible to work and to exercise all the rights and benefits of any other legal permanent resident in the United States. So based on that, we expect them to participate in their own resettlement by working, by integrating with the local community, by going to school, by raising families, by filling in part of the fabric of the broader U.S. society.
So this year, as I said, we’ll resettle about 55,000 refugees. They’ll come from 65 or so different countries. They come to the United States often out of situations that are harrowing or very difficult, to say the least. They come in here often with very little foreknowledge or information about what life is really like here. We do offer a cultural orientation program overseas to give them a basic understanding of what’s going to happen when they get here, but frankly, if they’ve been in a refugee camp somewhere for several years, some of that information doesn’t stick. So the programs like – or the organizations like you met with yesterday work hard to provide them services in place so they can begin to understand and participate in their own resettlement.
That’s a very brief general overview. The key features, I think, are first that we are dealing in large numbers of people. We are taking them from all over the world – as I said, over 60 different countries. We do not have criteria other than need, meaning that if they need a place to resettle, we try to offer it to them. And we work through a public-private partnership. It’s the federal government working with private organizations like IRC, working all the way down to the state and local town and community levels. And there are three U.S. federal agencies involved. It’s the Department of State, Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Health and Human Services.
Good. Larry, do you want to give a bit on the bones?
MR. BARTLETT: Thank you. I think Dave has certainly laid out the broad structure of the program and how it operates. What I think – and I know that you all have a handout with – which gives a little bit more in terms of specifics about the various steps that refugees go through in making their way successfully to the United States.
What I would emphasize, I think at this point, is the partnership of UNHCR and really kind of the primary role that they play in the process. And UNHCR, of course, plays a primary role in the life of any refugee. And again, as Dave mentioned, most refugees, we hope, will have the opportunity to return home, and certainly most refugees hope the same. And so in terms of providing protection in the place of asylum, that’s UNHCR’s central role, which we support.
But again, as UNHCR identifies individuals or perhaps larger populations that, in fact, do not have an opportunity to go home, maybe a population that’s been a protracted situation, more than five years, and the situation that they came from has not been resolved satisfactorily and, in fact, there isn’t hope that they’ll be able to return, those are the populations that we work closely with UNHCR to identify, and along with other countries, try to make – helping it have an international solution to that protracted situation.
So the idea really is that we as one of the countries can play a central role in changing the lives of these refugees. And so over the last few years, we’ve worked very closely with UNHCR and other countries to change the lives of over 60,000 Bhutanese who’ve been resettled. This was a population that had been living in southern Nepal for some 20 years and had no hope to return to Bhutan and had little prospect of locally integrating in Nepal. And so again, the international community under U.S. leadership has played a central role in really changing the lives of the Bhutanese refugees. And that’s a program that is one of the three largest groups that we are bringing into the United States right now.
Another program that is similar is that of Burmese. The Burmese living in the camps along the Thai border, the Burmese living in Malaysia largely in urban environments – again, a population that, up to this point, has really not been able to return to Burma. Now, we all hope that the situation in Burma has changed and will change and permit people to voluntarily and safely return; but at the moment, that is not the case, and our program continues to help the Burmese.
The third population I think I would mention is the Iraqis. And Dave talked about the program we have inside Iraq, but in fact, we have a broad program in the region for Iraqis. It’s a program that we’re interested in inside Iraq because the people there who I think are in danger are people who principally worked for the U.S. Government, either for the U.S. military or for the Embassy or some of our other partners inside Iraq. But we also have a program in Jordan, Syria, Turkey, Lebanon, and Egypt which are other countries to which Iraqis have fled. And again, working principally with UNHCR but also other local partners, we seek to identify Iraqis who, in fact, are in need of resettlement, can’t locally integrate – some people can, or do not want to wait to return. And so again, this is one of our three pillar programs at the moment and probably will continue to be for a few years given the numbers that are in our system.
But we also look around the globe at populations that are in need of resettlement. In the continent of Africa, there are many refugees in need of resettlement, Somalis being the principal but Congolese being another, Darfuri being another, and then smaller populations, largely in east and southern Africa. And again, we work closely with UNHCR offices in the countries in which those refugees are to help identify who the populations are and then individuals within the population that may need resettlement. And again, we look – as Dave mentioned, we look at vulnerability really as a principal factor for resettlement. It’s not the people who perhaps for economic reasons or others would like to come to the United States, but for vulnerability reasons can’t stay in the country of first asylum.
So one of the populations we tend to find are women at risk, female-headed household. The male is no longer there: maybe he’s been killed; maybe he has simply left the family. There may be children involved; there may not be. But that – a female-headed household in a refugee camp or an urban environment may be at more risk than not – than other populations. Medical cases – people who can’t get medical services for the condition that they have; victims of torture, victims of trauma: So these are, again, populations that UNHCR as a partner, some of our NGO partners, help us identify and then we process.
In terms of the mechanics of processing, we have nine overseas regional centers. These are either run by NGOs or by the International Organization of Migration, and they really do the bulk of our processing. They interview refugees in the first instance; they take the information, the refugee claim. They develop the file. They take all of the biodata that’s necessary to have somebody enter our system.
The Department of Homeland Security, as Dave mentioned, another of our partners, sends officers out overseas to interview each refugee prior to their arrival in the United States. The Department of Homeland Security is charged by law with making the determination as to whether or not a person qualifies as a refugee under U.S. law. And so the face-to-face interview is one of the critical elements of our program.
We also conduct security screening on refugees prior to entering to make sure that they are safe to enter the United States, safe for the U.S. population, and that, again, there is no reason that we would not want them here or that they haven’t perpetrated some kind of a crime which would make them ineligible as a refugee.
And then upon arrival – again, you saw the IRC affiliate yesterday. We have nine – we have partnerships with nine national agencies that among them have a collection of about 350 local sites. And so again, the site you saw yesterday is one of the 350, and they are spread around the United States in communities which have relationships with the local organization and has agreed to be a welcoming community for the refugees.
The local organization provides initial services with State Department funding and then it provides longer-term services, between eight months and five years, with funding from Health and Human Services. And a lot of the funding is meant really to help people get started, so English language classes, help with job counseling – employment counseling as well as actually locating a job, registering children in school, doing initial medical exams, registering with local authorities for Social Security benefits. So again, it’s meant to be a start, but it’s not meant to be a long-term, comprehensive welfare support, because our expectation is people will become self-sufficient. And so, again, that’s – and initial housing, obviously, is one piece of that as well that’s provided.
So I think that’s where I would leave it, and I think we’d certainly welcome any questions that you might have about our program. I would just say maybe finally – I mean, one of the other things that we’ve been doing – Dave mentioned there was a collection of about two dozen resettlement countries. One of the things we’ve been very active in over the last few years is really working with other resettlement countries to try to share best practices, best practices that we have and certainly those that other countries have, so that we can increase the number of resettlement places worldwide, not just in the U.S. We’re trying to get our numbers back up from 56,000 last year to something higher over the next few years, but we also have an expectation that other countries will also increase kind of their receptivity and ability to increase the numbers of refugees, and also looking, perhaps, at different populations of refugees than they’re currently serving.
MODERATOR: We’ll start the question-and-answer session. Please remember to state your name and media organization before you ask your question.
QUESTION: Hi. My name is Karim Lebhour. I’m the correspondent for the French radio, Radio France Internationale. I’m curious to know what is the top list of country of origins for the refugees? And do you see a change over the years, I mean, new country coming and a country disappearing for providing refugees, if I may say?
MR. ROBINSON: Yeah. Thank you for the question. As Larry mentioned, today the top three countries of origin are: Bhutan, and these are Bhutanese refugees coming out of Nepal; it’s Burma, and these are mainly Burmese refugees currently in Thailand and Malaysia coming here but the origin country is Burma; and Iraq. And we have an in-country program where we take Iraqis from Iraq itself, from Baghdad, and also we run programs in Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, and Syria to bring Iraqis out to the United States. So those are the three.
Now, these countries change over time. Back in the 1970s, the country of origin was, of course, Vietnam. That was the single largest country. And over time, we’ve certainly – during the 1980s, the former Soviet Union was a country of origin for many Soviet Jews, religious minorities, and others that came to the United States. So depending on circumstances around the world, the countries of origin change. But today, it’s those three. It’s Bhutan, Burma, and Iraq.
QUESTION: But it’s been stable the last few years, so there’s no change?
MR. ROBINSON: The last couple of years, it has been. And again, those are just the three largest programs that we have in terms of numbers. As I mentioned, we receive refugees from about 60 countries. And so the countries do change depending on the circumstance. And we are anticipating larger numbers of refugees coming from the Congo and other parts of the world as well in the near future.
QUESTION: Hello. I’m Idoya Noain. I’m from El Periodico from Barcelona from Spain. I wanted to focus on the Iraqi refugees. I think in 2010, you had – there were like 18,000 Iraqis admitted in the U.S. Last year, it was only 9,300. I don’t know – I think there has been a change. I don’t know if you can explain that downsize of the number of Iraqis coming.
And also if you can talk about – because I think before you admitted – yeah – people that were Iraqi refugees in Syria. And because of the situation, I think you are not working in Damascus now. So I don’t know – where are you at and what are you expecting, because there are more than 100,000 Iraqi refugees in Syria?
MR. ROBINSON: Yeah. The downturn in Iraqi refugee arrivals in the United States is due not to an absence of refugees needing resettlement. We still have a very large pipeline in Iraq of people that need to come to the United States.
Last year, the United States instituted an additional set of security background checks, and that had the impact of slowing down our processing. And one of the things Larry can address quite well, and he touched on in his comments, is that there are a number of steps refugees have to go through before they come here. They have their initial screening, they have the security background checks, they have medical checks. They have a whole variety of things that have to happen. When we imposed these additional security checks, that interrupted that flow. And consequently, the numbers dropped dramatically last year and this year. The numbers will start to go back up again, we assume, this summer and into next year as we become better at managing this new system. It was really just the imposition of a new system or the addition of a new system that we had to learn how to use more appropriately. We’ve learned now, and I think we’re going to get the numbers back where they ought to be.
You’re right; there are a large number of Iraqis inside Syria, and we did have a program, a very active program, in Syria. Because of the circumstances inside Syria today, we can’t reach them as we were before. Again, we work very closely with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to provide for their assistance and safety, and we’re working diligently with UNHCR. But we do continue to bring in Iraqis out of Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, and other places where they may have fled.
Larry, do you want to add anything to that?
MR. BARTLETT: No, that’s okay.
QUESTION: Yeah. Frank van Vliet of De Telegraaf of the Netherlands. I just have a follow-up question and then my own question. Can you explain the situation with the Iraqis? Because after the war, it has more or less been sold sometimes as a success. There is a kind of working democracy. Why do we still need refugees from Iraq?
And my second question is – I looked up some figures here. And it says from the additional countries – this is UNHCR 2009 – the United States took in 49,000 refugees, and France was the second with 41 – or almost 42,000. So size-wise, it doesn’t seem to be so impressive what you tell us. I mean, if you compare other countries. Also, isn’t it just a drop in the ocean, because we have 10 million or even more refugees?
MR. ROBINSON: A couple of things. First, I’m not sure where your numbers are coming from. In terms of France’s program, I certainly don’t want to comment on that.
To begin with, we take about 80 percent or more of all of the refugees UNHCR refers for resettlement. So refugees coming through the UNHCR system – I think that’s correct, Larry – is about 80 percent or more are destined for the United States. So again, I can’t address the numbers you just read.
And as I said at the outset, in addition, we work with but outside of the UN system to reach directly to certain groups of refugees that we think require assistance in the United States, like the Iraqis, to get back to your other question.
Limiting myself to the humanitarian issues, there are a number of people inside Iraq who, for one reason or another, feel that they are in grave danger, largely because of their affiliation with the United States during the conflict. And those people have a claim on us. We have a responsibility toward them, and so we’re offering resettlement for them in the United States. So the circumstances on the ground there for these people remain perilous, and so we continue to respond to them.
QUESTION: (Off mike).
MR. ROBINSON: Yeah. It’s interesting. As I – I don’t think it’s a drop in the ocean. It’s a strategic issue and it’s --
MR. ROBINSON: No, no, no. I understand what you’re saying, and you’re right. If you look just at the numbers, the numbers of people who get resettlement are very, very small compared to the potential need for it. As I said, resettlement is one of three durable solutions: local integration, return home, and then resettlement. And usually, people want to go home. Most refugees just want to go home in peace and safety and security. And so that’s the preferred route.
Many others who have fled across one border do find adequate and comfortable homes in the country that offered them first asylum, frequently culturally very similar to the country they left. And that’s, again, an option that we, working with UNHCR, help for that to happen as well.
On the resettlement aspect, what we are doing is demonstrating principally to the countries that are hosting large numbers of refugees – and you can think of Kenya, you can think of Thailand, you can think of Nepal or the Bhutanese – what we’re demonstrating is that the international community recognizes a responsibility to share the responsibility, to share the burden of caring for people who have been persecuted. Geography alone should not be the decider of who responds to people. And so the resettlement program is an effort to make real and firm the international community’s responsibility to respond to these crises. And the United States, through our program, takes a lead role in doing that. So it’s a strategic effort.
I think in the back there was one.
QUESTION: Hi, Krissy Kolesa, Al Arabiya. I’m wondering if you can talk a little bit about how long this process is in general. How long are these refugees – can they expect from the time that UNHCR or whatever organization takes them in, to perhaps getting to the United States? And as well, is there any instance where this process is expedited? Maybe there’s a particularly dangerous political situation in a country and they are expedited through the system?
MR. ROBINSON: First of all, it’s a great question, and again, the U.S. system, I have to be frank, is a slow system and it’s one that achieves numbers but it’s not speedy. And there are other programs in the world – and I would say the Nordics are one – where they can actually do things fairly quickly. And again, it’s a different system and it’s perhaps a different size.
But the U.S. program – I mean, traditionally, we have said six to nine months from beginning to end, end meaning arrival in the U.S. Frankly, over the last year, it’s become slower. And again, because the new security check and because of trying to synchronize that check with other elements of the program, we are slower. And it’s hard to quantify because Iraqis have been more caught up in security checks than other populations, so Burmese and Bhutanese would tend to flow more quickly. Iraqis, Somalis, other nationalities that are not less secure for us but the checks slow things down more because of, say, common names, is one of the issues, we have more of a struggle to get people through quickly. We can process people in an extreme environment within a month or two, but again, those are individuals and those are not groups.
What we have done to try to really help people in terms of protection needs while they’re in this, this long-term resettlement process, is we’ve supported UNHCR over the past few years in their efforts to set up emergency transit centers. And if you’re not familiar with it, UNHCR has three locations in the world where they have set up an emergency facility: One is in the Philippines; one is in Romania; and one is in Slovakia. And this was really an effort, number one, for those three governments to provide a service to refugees in the first instance but also the international community that is resettling refugees to provide a temporary safe haven, if you will, for refugees while they’re in processing.
And so the U.S. has been a partner. We have certainly funded many of these operations. We’ve also used many of these operations. So we are, for example, resettling Afghan women at risk out of Iran. Obviously we can’t go to Iran to process, so the refugees have to come to, in this case, Slovakia so that we can process them. Other governments are also resettling out of Iran, but they can actually access the refugees in Iran.
We have populations in Yemen, Syria, for example, the Iraqis in Syria that we can’t access. Those populations will be coming through those two transit centers in Europe so that we can actually access them. The limitation and the problem with that is that these centers hold between 150 and 200 persons. So again, it’s not – it’s not a large program, but it will reach populations that we cannot otherwise access.
QUESTION: Beatriz Barral from Cadena SER in Spain. I wanted to ask about Afghanistan, what happened with the Afghan people, because I guess there will also be some people in danger because they have worked closely with the U.S. military or – it’s not the same case on the Iraqis?
MR. ROBINSON: Yeah. Well, each circumstance is different. I think it’s important to note that in the last, I think, five or six years, more than six million Afghans have returned home, mainly out of Pakistan and Iran. And yes, the United States does recognize a responsibility to those Afghans who may feel at risk and vulnerable because of their association with us, and we do have programs to help them as well.
QUESTION: And are they coming to the U.S.?
MR. ROBINSON We have some, yeah, that are coming here. The numbers are not as large now as the Iraq program has been because we’re at different stages. So – but we do recognize the same responsibility.
QUESTION: Thank you. I’m Qian from China, Sina Finance. I have two questions. The first one is about the funding. What’s your budget area you spend to resettlement the refugees? And I see the number is slowing down. Is that because of the funding or just because of the security issue? Can you give me the trend of the funding?
And the second question is – because I’m from China and I saw a lot of Chinese refugees yesterday and I want to – can you give me a brief introduction about how many refugees coming from China, what are the main reasons they are coming here for resettlement? Thank you.
MR. ROBINSON: Sure, thank you. Funding is – of course, the United States Congress gives the State Department an appropriation, a certain amount of money every year, to fund the refugee program. The U.S. Refugee Admissions Program has enjoyed bipartisan support traditionally in the Congress. We still enjoy bipartisan support. The program is well funded.
I think this year, for refugee admissions alone, we’re talking on the order of $340 million or so to the State Department. As I mentioned, there are two other federal agencies that also have funding for refugee admissions – the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Department of Homeland Security. But the State Department’s portion for refugee resettlement is about $340 million.
Now, the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration does assistance overseas as well, so the Congress generously funds us for that as well on the range of about $1.7 billion altogether for our humanitarian assistance overseas.
As for Chinese refugees, I think there’s an important distinction that has to be made. We frequently – folks don’t necessarily recognize the distinction between immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. And you may have seen Chinese refugees – I don't know the answer – but you also may have seen asylum seekers. Those are people who have come to the United States on their own volition and then once they were here requested asylum. That’s not part of our program. The Department of Homeland Security is responsible principally for that. And then, of course, immigrants come in on their own without the assistance, the direct assistance, of the United States Government.
Larry, you may be able to answer the question about Chinese refugees, but I’m not aware that we’re bringing people from China into the United States under our program.
MR. ROBINSON: Sure. Again, we take refugees that are referred to us from the United Nations High Commissioners for Refugees, so people may have come into the program through UNHCR. And really, I don’t have the numbers of people from Tibet that would have come in through the UNHCR auspices or from other countries at the tip of my tongue. But we don’t have a specific program for Chinese potential refugees.
QUESTION: Orhan from Zaman Turkish newspaper. As you know what’s going on Syria and a lot of Syrian refugees going to Turkey or Jordan or other country. Do you have any special plan for the Syrian refugee?
MR. ROBINSON: Off the top, I think it’s important to say that I was in Turkey a couple of weeks ago. My colleague from the State Department Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration was also there in Hatay Province. And the work that the Government of Turkey is doing in response to the Syrian refugees is remarkable. The Government of Syria – the Government of Turkey is providing outstanding support and far exceeding international standards in the assistance it’s giving to Syrians. And in addition, I think that the Government of Turkey has been very sensitive to and attentive to international interest in what’s going on. So the Government of Turkey is really doing a magnificent job when it comes to the Syrians.
In terms of refugee resettlement, that crisis is not at a stage where we would normally look at the Syrians as a population in need of resettlement. It seems to us, and to the United Nations, I believe, that the vast majority of Syrians that have fled are thinking only of going home. I mean, they want the circumstances on the ground to change, as we all do, and when they can go home in safety, that’s what they want to do. So we don’t have any concrete plans at this moment to resettle Syrians, although we are contributing through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and other organizations to their assistance in Turkey and Lebanon and Jordan and other countries.
QUESTION: Thank you. I’m Yoshikata, Yuji Yoshikata from Japanese newspaper Yomiuri, and I have a follow-up question about asylum seekers. Even though the United States Government doesn’t make distinction between refugees and asylum seekers, I think there are many, say, people coming to the United States, not because of the war or conflicts but because of the political system in their own country. And so after being, say, accommodated or accepted by the U.S. Government, and once their country normalizes, should I say, and the problems of politics is solved, I think many of them would like to contribute to the, say, nation building or reconstruction of their own country.
So in that case, do you expect those people to play some kind of role in, say, bridging the United States Government and their country of origin? And do you expect that kind of role from them?
MR. ROBINSON: I think we’re pleased when that role is played, but no, we don’t have an expectation, a formal expectation, that that happens. When a refugee comes to the United States or someone is granted asylum in the United States, they are here without strings attached. I mean, they are here in legal status with the same rights and responsibilities that a legal permanent resident has, and they have a pathway to citizenship. So they are here in the United States without us expecting them to do anything different or special simply because of their country of origin.
Now, there are good examples of populations that have come here and have returned home – as American citizens frequently – to help rebuild a country that has suffered a conflict, and we’re always grateful when something like that happens. But there’s no program that we sponsor, certainly, that lays that expectation on refugees or asylees.
QUESTION: Hello, I am (inaudible) from Radio Romania, and I have two questions. First, you mentioned the transit center from Romania, and I’m wondering, what is your collaboration with it? What kind of refugees do you work with from the center? And the second question would be if you have resettlement programs or asylum programs from – for the Roma, people coming from Europe to the United States. Thank you.
MR. ROBINSON: Okay. Larry, you want to –
MR. BARTLETT: Sure. In terms of the Romania transit center, first of all, you probably know already that it’s located in Timisoara. And again, the Government of Romania has been very generous in not only providing a site but providing the ability for UNHCR to bring refugees to Romania. And so over the years, the populations have changed depending on which populations were really in need of using the transit center. So we’ve had individuals who have gone there, and that could have been of any nationality who really needed immediate protection.
Groups that we are bringing there with UNHCR’s help at the moment largely are Iraqis. We brought a group from – of refugees who had left Libya. They weren’t Libyans, but they were either Iraqis or Somalis or Sudanese who had been refugees inside Libya and had to flee during the time of conflict. So again, that was another population we brought. Those were refugees who had first made their way to Tunisia. But again, in terms of the Tunisian Government’s ability to really receive and allow them to stay there, we were helping Tunisia by relieving some of the burden and allowing them to go to Romania while we process them.
So I think those are really the principal populations. What we’re looking at, I think, in the future in terms of populations, there are Eritreans who, again, we cannot access in certain parts of Sudan. And then there are Somalis, principally in Yemen, who we cannot access, again, because of the conflict inside Yemen.
I’m sorry. Was there a second part of your question?
QUESTION: Yes. The second part of my question was related to Roma and --
MR. BARTLETT: Oh, the Roma.
QUESTION: Yes, you are to offer resettlement or (inaudible)?
MR. BARTLETT: We do not. And again, that’s not a population that UNHCR has recognized as refugees.
QUESTION: Matthew Hall from The Guardian newspaper. This is a broad question, and possibly the President might be suited to answer it as well, but the question is: Why is refugee resettlement an issue for the United States? Why is it so important? Why do you put so much money into it?
MR. ROBINSON: That’s a good question. Thank you. And I’m sure the President would do a better job answering it than I will likely do.
As I said at the outset and without any guile, this has been part of our national culture and history since before we were actually a country. If you think about the way the United States developed over time, welcoming refugees has been at the core of our development from the beginning. There’s a statue in the harbor near here that sort of gets to that point. So it’s part and parcel of who the United States is.
On the specifics of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program though, we think it’s important that the United States participate in, and to the extent that we can exert a leadership role, in helping to create a humanitarian architecture that is global, that is able to respond quickly to crisis, to catastrophe, to political conflict, for people who are made vulnerable by that conflict. Libya is a good example. And we think it’s important that as many countries as possible share that responsibility and that burden. So refugee resettlement is one of the components of that global architecture for humanitarian response.
And so as your colleague from the Netherlands said, it’s a small number of people out of the whole pool that really need resettlement that we’re actually able to take care of on a yearly basis, but it’s an important component of that broader humanitarian response mechanism. So we situate ourselves inside that international system that seeks to reach out and respond to humanitarian crisis wherever we find it, and the Refugee Admissions Program is part of it.
In doing that, we follow the principles of humanitarian response, which is impartiality, neutrality, transparency. We help people who need help. We don’t help people who need help because of political motivation or some other motivation. We do that too through other programs, but our humanitarian program, working with UNHCR, working with the International Committee of the Red Cross, working with the International Organization for Migration, working with UNRWA and others, seeks to really give form and substance to humanitarian principles, and this is a part of that.
QUESTION: Hi, Hanneke Keultjes with the Netherlands Press Association. I understand that the U.S. works closely with UNHCR, but I was just wondering if refugees from countries like Iraq or Afghanistan or maybe even Somalia, countries that the U.S. has or has had a presence, if there’s some sort of moral responsibility to take in more of those refugees, resettle more of the people from those countries.
MR. ROBINSON: I think our Iraq program is a direct response to that. The answer is yes; if someone has been made vulnerable because of their good association with us, their service with us, then we do feel an obligation to be responsive. That said, we do that in a context that is careful about the integrity of the program, because again, this is a refugee program. This is a program that is designed to respond to people who have been persecuted because of their association with us or of some other immutable characteristic, religious reasons, or other reasons. But in the context of Afghanistan, Iraq, and others, yes, we do feel a responsibility for people who have worked well with us, and we do reach out to them.
MODERATOR: We have time for a couple more questions, so Kristina and then back up here to --
QUESTION: Hello again. Thank you. My question is – you said there’s no criteria except for need. Can you define a little bit for us what are the components that go into defining need? And also, in terms of placement of these individuals, who dictates or decides where they will go? I mean, there’s the – New York here. They’re coming here. They’re also going as far away as Washington state, Idaho. Who decides that? And do you make certain – depending on who the individual is, where they’re coming from, does that influence where they end up?
MR. ROBINSON: Why don’t you go ahead and start?
MR. BARTLETT: No, I think for the first question, in terms of vulnerability, we really rely on our partners in the field. And UNHCR is the main one, but certainly NGOs, in some cases U.S. embassies who have contact with refugees or people who have a well-founded fear of persecution, help us make that determination. And so what UNHCR, in a very classical sense, be it a camp setting or even in an urban environment like Nairobi, people would come to register with UNHCR for protection as a refugee. And again, not every country will recognize them as a refugee. I think Jordan and Syria may be good examples where, although they don’t recognize them as refugees, they understand their own kind of responsibilities and they treat them as guests or brothers and sisters.
But nevertheless, UNHCR still has the ability to register people, provide some semblance of protection, and then assess over time the vulnerability. And again, just because you are a single-female-headed household doesn’t necessarily mean you’re vulnerable, but it might be one indicator. People who need assistance – some refugees are able to flee with funding, with resources; others are not. And so again, UNHCR would have the responsibility to provide immediate assistance in a place like Syria, in a place like Jordan for those populations, but then over time look to see whether or not that can really be sustained.
And finally, the refugees themselves really need to decide whether this is an option that they’re interested in. And again, most refugees simply want to go home. They don’t see this as an economic benefit necessarily to go to another country where they have to struggle and find – learn a new language, perhaps change jobs. Keeping their similar lifestyle and their jobs is very, very difficult, and perhaps you saw that at IRC yesterday. It’s a huge transition and very difficult for refugees. So that’s really the kind of the answer to that.
And it’s an ongoing process. The identification of refugees, our interaction with them, is ongoing. And it’s – in some ways, it’s imperfect, but we have so many officers on the ground, again, principally through UNHCR and through NGOs who are working at the camp level, people working on health projects, people working on sanitation projects who have that kind of contact, one-on-one contact with refugees.
In terms of where refugees end up in the United States, again, this is part of the partnership with our nine national agencies. And so the nine national agencies have a network, and it’s a network that we examine on a regular basis to see where there is – where they have the staff, where they have the language skills, where they have the other support systems to really welcome and assist a refugee. A lot of – I mean, most refugees would choose to go where they might have a family member. And if they do, that is the first principle that we try to adhere to is to reunite families, reunite people with other relatives or friends, and because, again, that’s part of the structure that will help them integrate and thrive.
If people don’t have that kind of a relationship, then they’re free to go elsewhere in the United States, and then our agencies look at their own ability to welcome them. And again, language translation services is one of the key components. So if they have case workers who are Bhutanese, if they have case workers who are Iraqis or some other Arab-speaking case worker that can resettle that population, that would be a key element of it.
But again – and we try not to overburden any one community. So again, communities have limitations, and the IRC New York office has been – a certain numerical limit has been set for that office that they are allowed to receive in a year, so they need to manage their own reception of refugees in a way that doesn’t overburden their own staff.
So again, it – many communities welcome refugees. Refugees thrive, frankly, almost anywhere they go. Many refugees would like – I mean, Iraqi refugees would love to go to Detroit and San Diego, because there’s huge populations. I don’t have to tell you from Al Arabiya. But having that said, Detroit isn’t the only place where Iraqis can thrive. And so part of our orientation for refugees before they even arrive is to help them understand that the United States has a lot of opportunities. Once people arrive they can move, and they can move the first day if they want to. It’s difficult for us if they move, because it’s harder for us to provide services in the initial period. But over time, people will move because of opportunities, because of family, because of jobs. And so that’s, again, part of the nature of the program.
QUESTION: Hi, again. I have a multipart question. It’s the last one. First, in New Hampshire, I think, the mayor of Manchester said please halt the program; we cannot take any more. I wanted to know if there are more places where they are feeling a little bit overburdened or if this is an isolated incident.
Also, I don’t know if you have figures on return. You say that’s – a lot of people want to return. I don’t know if you have figures on return.
And you talked before about bipartisan support. But for example, I was reading about the Supplemental Security Income Program, and there has been problems in Congress to extend that program. I don’t know if it’s a bipartisan problem with giving more money to that program or what is the situation.
And the last thing is Latin America. I guess in – I don’t know if Colombia – you took refugees from Colombia. And I wanted to compare the situation with the drug war now in Mexico. Thank you. (Laughter.)
MR. ROBINSON: Well, done. That was really good. (Laughter.)
The situation in New Hampshire is challenging and interesting. This is a national program, and – but as part of our work and as part of our partnership with the nine agencies that Larry has spoken about, we do outreach to state governments, local governments, municipalities, and regularly are in dialogue with those groups. And so when someone raises a flag and says our services are being overburdened, we go and we listen and we talk, and we try to arrive at an amicable solution to that.
That said, this remains a federal program. It’s not limited by the activity of an individual mayor, although we take very seriously their concerns and, in fact, have worked very closely with the mayor of Manchester, New Hampshire and other towns to try to answer their concerns. And we have reduced the number of refugees being settled in Manchester, in part because of the mayor’s concerns. But we are still resettling refugees there.
I’ll let Larry answer the other issues.
MR. BARTLETT: No, I think the second part of that question would be – I mean, the state of Georgia has expressed concerns about resettlement. The state of Tennessee has expressed concerns. So it is part of the discussion. And again, this is – as Dave said, it’s a federal program, but it’s important that communities continue to welcome refugees. And so we try to work closely with those communities.
So Dave was recently in Tennessee, I was recently in Georgia, having discussions and dialogue with those communities. And I have to say both of those states have tremendous programs. And so when we look at the kind of services that are delivered, we look at the kind of jobs that refugees find and we look at the kinds of support that our agencies offer there, they’re both very, very strong programs. And so again, our – part of our challenge is to make sure that they can remain so.
QUESTION: Will they have the –
MR. BARTLETT: Remind me of your --
QUESTION: If you have figures about return of refugees –
MR. BARTLETT: We don’t have figures on returns. And I have to say, some of what has been in the press, I think, over the last few years has been rather anecdotal. And I think the one population that we’ve noticed in the press is the Iraqis, and Iraqis coming into the U.S. not being happy with the kind of services that they found here or not being satisfied with the kinds of job prospects that they’ve been able to find. And again, many Iraqis had high levels of education, very professional classes of refugees that had fled, not just the ones from inside Iraq but people who had fled to Jordan. And we know anecdotally that some people have returned. I think the numbers are, in fact, very small. But it certainly was a press story.
And again, people are welcome to return at any time, and there is nothing that would hold them here. I mean, this is – in a way, it’s a humanitarian program that the United States offer to refugees. Refugees can avail themselves of that to the extent that they want to. And if they want to return for whatever reason, that’s certainly fine.
QUESTION: And the Supplemental Security Income Program, the program that is – that the Congress is having to extend it. They extended it for one year, but --
MR. BARTLETT: Yeah. I can’t speak really, per se, about that program. It’s certainly one of the programs that refugees can take advantage of, but it’s certainly not – the focus is not for refugees. And so again, refugees are mainstreamed into many of the programs that the United States offers to its own citizens. Refugees become eligible for those. So again, it’s one of the aspects that helps them, but again, it’s not directed towards them, per se.
QUESTION: And the last one was Mexico --
MR. BARTLETT In terms of refugees or --
QUESTION: Yeah. The comparison with Colombia and when Colombia was (inaudible) in the drug war was going forth, and then now you have it in Mexico. I don’t know if the U.S. is considering a new (inaudible) accepting refugees from Mexico (inaudible).
MR. BARTLETT: Do you want to answer? Maybe, I’ll turn it over to my Latin American expert. (Laughter.)
MR. ROBINSON: Yeah. We do bring refugees into the United States from Colombia. Actually, they are Colombians who generally are in Ecuador who have fled into Ecuador, and we welcome them to the United States as well.
On Mexico, the United States is working very closely with the Government of Mexico on a broad range of programs to try to address the violence in Mexico. We do not have a refugee program based on the violence in Mexico now, and hopefully we won’t need one. Hopefully our work will make that unnecessary at this point.
I left out a figure that I think you may already have that I think is important for a general overview of the program, and it’s that since 1975 the U.S. has welcomed over 3 million refugees. We welcomed the 3 millionth in February of this year, so the program continues to be vibrant.
Okay. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Please join me in thanking Deputy Assistant Secretary David Robinson and Mr. Larry Bartlett for taking their time today. Thank you. (Applause.)
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