THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, WASHINGTON, D.C.
11:30 A.m. edt
MODERATOR: Good morning and welcome to the Washington Foreign Press Center. Today we’re hosting a briefing on “World Refugee Day: How the U.S. Manages the World’s Largest Refugee Resettlement Program.” We have two speakers. They’ll each make comments and then it will be open to questions and answers. The speakers are David Robinson, the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration at the Department of State; and our second speaker is Kelly Gauger, Deputy Director of the Refugee Admissions Office, Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration – also the Department of State.
So our first speaker will be Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Dave Robinson.
MR. ROBINSON: Thank you very much, and good morning, everybody. And thank you all for the interest you show in refugees and refugee resettlement. This week we’re going to mark World Refugee Day, and that’s an important event for the State Department and for the United States in general.
Since 1975, the United States has resettled more than three million refugees into hundreds of communities around the United States. The refugees come from more than 70 countries. Last year alone, we resettled 56,000 refugees from 65 countries around the world.
A couple of things I think are important to remember when you consider how the United States reaches out to refugees that need resettlement. The first is that we generally recognize a responsibility – an international responsibility – to respond to humanitarian crises, particularly crises that force innocent people to flee their homes, flee their communities, and often cross borders into other countries.
Generally, there are three durable solutions for refugees, and the United States is very active in all three. The first is we hope refugees can go home. When circumstances permit, we try to assist them to return in safety and dignity to their home communities and home countries. When that’s not possible, the next solution is for refugees to integrate in place in the country where they found first asylum. And we work with those countries to provide opportunities for refugees to build new lives there. But for some refugees, they will never have the opportunity to do either of those two things. And in those cases, we offer them resettlement here, as do about 23 other countries around the world. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that there are about 15 million or so refugees in the world. Of those, they estimate, again, that about 700,000 at some point will need relocation or permanent resettlement in a third country.
The United States is by far the largest resettlement country, as you heard just a moment ago. As I said, we’ve taken over three million since 1975. And we operate our programs through a unique public and private partnership. We work with the United Nations overseas generally to identify refugees that need our help. And then we work through a series of voluntary agencies here in the United States to bring refugees into the country and to relocate them into local communities in all 50 states.
The program’s ideal is self-sufficiency. Our goal when we bring refugees here is to offer them a path to citizenship, offer them a path to a new life, When they arrive in the United States, they are permitted to work immediately, and we expect them, if they can, to work immediately. The State Department is responsible for the first 90 days, and we provide a sum of money to help them get started. They work with various organizations in their local communities. And then after that, it becomes the responsibility of the Department of Health and Human Services to help refugees find jobs, integrate into the communities, go to school, and try to build a normal life. The program has been a success. We think it has been a flagship of humanitarian response. And refugees have been and continue to do extraordinarily well here and contribute back into our society.
I think it’s important at the outset, particularly as we consider World Refugee Day, that welcoming refugees is not ancillary to who the United States is as a nation. It’s intrinsic to our national values and our national virtues. We see ourselves, yes, as a nation of immigrants, but even more fundamentally we were started by refugees, the Pilgrims. And so it’s important that we continue this tradition, in part because it’s who we are and in part because we want to encourage other countries to also participate in this activity, to offer more spots for refugees to find new lives.
So with that, I’ll turn it over to my colleague Kelly Gauger, who can address principally the domestic side, if you’d like, and then we’d like to entertain any questions. Thank you.
MR. GAUGER: Okay. So I thought that I would follow up on David’s remarks by focusing on three areas briefly: one, how the U.S. decides who we admit as a refugee to the United States; number two, a little bit about the process for admitting refugees to the U.S. – I see that we have a handout here that everybody has – and then a little bit about the domestic side of refugee resettlement.
So every year – and this is a requirement of the Refugee Act of 1980 – the Administration forwards a report over to the Congress called the Report to Congress on Proposed Refugee Admissions for the following year. And in that report, we lay out the Administration’s priorities in terms of nationalities, certain groups that we’re prioritizing. And every year, we set an annual worldwide refugee ceiling that establishes a number up to which we have the authority to admit the number of refugees.
This year, the worldwide authorized ceiling is 76,000 refugees. And that’s divided into regions, with a little bit of an unallocated reserve for unanticipated emergencies. As Dave said, we admitted about 56,000 refugees last year. We anticipate that we’ll admit about the same this year. Our numbers in the last couple of years have been down a little bit because of some new security check issues that we’ve been working through, but we think that our numbers will be back up again next year more closer to the range that they were in Fiscal Years ’09 and ’10.
So we don’t establish quotas by nationality. One of the questions that we often get from journalists is, “What is your quota for a given nationality – for Iranians, for Syrians, for Iraqis?” We don’t establish national quotas, so we establish these regional ceilings, and that’s how the maximum number of refugees is established.
I thought I would just go quickly through this chart that you have. The big yellow bubble talks about how one gains access to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. Every family or every refugee has to be individually adjudicated by the Department of Homeland Security prior to entering the United States. So no matter how you come to our attention, whether it’s a referral from UNHCR, whether it’s a referral from one of our embassies, a referral from a trained NGO, or whether it’s a direct application for a program, such as our program for U.S.-affiliated Iraqis. So we do have some self-application processes. But for the most part, your case has to be referred to us for settlement consideration.
And once that happens, we have established nine resettlement support centers around the world in refugee hot spots in terms of where refugees have fled. So we’ve got one in Nairobi, in Bangkok, in Amman, in Moscow, a number of other places around the world. The cases are prepared by our partners, which are NGOs and international organizations. And then each case has to sit down in front of an officer from the Department of Homeland Security to make their case for refugee settlement to the United States, why they have a well-founded fear of persecution based on one of the five protected grounds, why they can’t go home. And DHS makes that determination against our law and also ensures that the person is otherwise admissible to the United States.
And then there’s a whole series of steps that all refugee applicants have to go through before coming to the United States: security screening, health screening. We do something called cultural orientation, which is normally a three-day class about what to expect from your first couple of months in the United States. And then after all of that is completed, then we work with the International Organization for Migration to transport them here. And then we work domestically with nine resettlement agencies who among them have about 350 offices in just about every state in the country – also Hawaii, Puerto Rico, here in the District of Columbia.
And as Dave mentioned, we have – the State Department is principally responsible for the first 30 to 90 days that a refugee is in the United States, and then the Department of Health of Human Services takes over through their Office of Refugee Resettlement. And the State Department pulls back at that point. A lot of people ask how it is that we decide where to place refugees in the United States. A lot of refugees are coming to join family, particularly now that in the last couple of years, we’ve been resettling large numbers of Iraqi refugees, Burmese refugees, Bhutanese refugees. So as these programs mature, more and more of these refugees who are coming in have family that they’re joining or even friends that they’re joining. That’s one way we decide where to place people. Another way is that we, through this network of nine resettlement agencies that I mentioned that have 350 offices, many of these offices have developed specialties. Certain of the agencies have staff that speak certain refugee languages. And so an agency may choose to resettle a cluster of, say, Afghan female-headed households or Iraqi families because of some partnerships they’ve developed with local organizations or because of their staff capacity.
So I think I would leave it there, and then we could take questions. Is that good?
MODERATOR: Okay. So for those who have questions, please just wait for the microphone and state your name and media organization. We’ll take the first question over here.
QUESTION: My name is Hee Jung Yang from Radio Free Asia. I have a question regarding the resettlement of North Koreans. Since the introduction of North Korea human rights law in 2004, there has been only 130 refugees resettled in the United States – North Korean refugees resettled in the United States. I would like to ask if there has been any effort to increase the number of North Korean refugees’ resettlement into the United States. Or if there has not been any consideration for that matter, may I ask why that number has been low compared to other Asian countries?
MR. ROBINSON: Thank you. As I said at the outset, we work closely with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and we establish the ceilings that Kelly spoke about in part in consultation with them. And these are the folks that the UNHCR deems are necessary to come here. We are always willing to consider either new populations or increasing current populations depending on what our partners suggest the need is. If our partners suggest that we need to look at increasing the number of North Koreans, well, then we will do that. But we do this in partnership with the other organizations. So we take what is being asked of us at the time on that.
I would like to emphasize that one of the criteria – and I think it’s important in this case – the United States does not establish characteristics or special qualities for bringing refugees into this country, meaning that the only criteria we use is need. We don’t look for educational levels, we don’t look for certain professional groups, we don’t look for any other attributes in a person other than the express need, and usually that need, again, is conveyed to us through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. So that would be the first order of inquiry would be through the UNHCR.
MODERATOR: Sure. We’ll take the next question here, and then we’ll go to you.
QUESTION: Thank you. Kitty Wang with New Tang Dynasty TV. I have heard that some people are concerned the current process of refugee application is kind of long. They have to endure a lot of difficulties in this waiting period. So I’m wondering if you have any plan or how to speed this process. Thank you so much.
MR. ROBINSON: Thank you. It is very long. Coming into the United States, the process can take over a year in some cases. If a person is in dire circumstances, we can expedite it and shorten that process to a matter of six, eight weeks or so. But it is always, in our case, a very long process, in part because, as my colleague said, it requires security background checks, it requires medical screening, other sorts of checks, and it requires a face-to-face interview with an officer from the Department of Homeland Security.
There are other countries that are able to resettle refugees much more quickly than the United States does. They usually resettle them in much smaller numbers than the United States, but they may do it on a portfolio basis without a face-to-face interview. And that’s why we see it as extremely important that we work in concert with UNHCR and that we try to increase the number of countries involved in refugee resettlement, because while our size makes us an important player in this arena, speed is not our attribute. And some refugees need to be pulled out as quickly as possible. And in those cases, UNHCR should have the option of going to another country that can act much more quickly than the United States. We take the vast majority. We take about 80 percent of all refugees UNHCR refers for resettlement. But in cases where someone needs an emergency care, then another country is probably a better choice.
MODERATOR: You had a question here.
QUESTION: Good morning. I am Fabienne Faur from Agence France Presse. I understand you don’t have the criteria, but is there a specific profile of the refugee? I mean, are they young, old, educated, non-educated, male, female? Is there a specific profile?
I’d like to know as well how long does it take to obtain U.S. nationality? And is it – does it mean that all the refugees will have the U.S. nationality? And recently did you see a surge or a rise in Syrian applications?
MR. ROBINSON: We do not have any kind of profile for the refugees that we accept into our program. Our only criteria, again, is need. And so if UNHCR or one of the other people or organizations that makes referrals says this person needs resettlement, we don’t consider male, female, or any of those other attributes. We only look at the need of the person coming to the country. And so consequently we get refugees that are extraordinarily well educated and we get refugees that have never been to school. They come in through the same program, and they are expected to integrate into the United States as fully as they possibly can. So there is no specific profile for that.
In terms of Syrian refugees, we have not seen a spike at this point in applications for refugee resettlement from Syrians, and that doesn’t strike us as very unusual. What is happening in Syria is a very new – in a sense – I mean, it’s going on for some time now, but in a refugee lexicon, it’s not a very mature program, and I think most of the refugees that have found asylum in Turkey or Jordan or Lebanon or Iraq just want to go home, and hopefully conditions will allow them to return home in the not too distant future.
And the middle question, I’m sorry; I forgot what it was.
QUESTION: How many have become naturalized U.S. citizens?
MR. ROBINSON: Oh, yes. Of the three million refugees that have resettled in the United States, or more than three million, about 1.5 million to date have become U.S. citizens. All refugees arrive legally with a legal right to work, and they arrive with a path to citizenship, and it normally takes about five years if they choose that.
MODERATOR: Okay. The next question, we’ll go in front right here.
QUESTION: Thank you. Charlene Porter with IIP at the State Department. Have you any idea of multiplying effects? That is to say that, as I understand immigration law, that particularly someone who becomes a citizen can become a sponsor for another person, maybe not through the refugee process but through standard immigration processes. So do you know – is there a multiplying factor of the three million that you’re talking about since 1970, X number may have brought in family, friends, relatives, et cetera?
MR. ROBINSON: Yeah. We don’t track that in our office. I think clearly that family reunification is one of the priorities, is one of the things we try to accomplish. So I would assume that families have come to join refugees.
MR. ROBINSON: We don’t track it. I mean, somebody may, but it’s not our office that would track that. So I don’t have the answer for that. I don’t know. Kelly, I don’t know if you have the information?
MODERATOR: Next question right there.
QUESTION: Santiago Tavara from NOTIMEX. Do you know how many people from – refugees from Latin America come to the United States and specifically on the number of Mexicans?
MS. GAUGER: Actually, it’s zero.
MR. ROBINSON: Yeah. For Mexicans, yeah, that’s right, it is zero. From Latin America, I think last year was in the neighborhood of 2,000 or 3,000. Most of those are either Colombians or they’re Cubans that come.
QUESTION: How many?
MR. ROBINSON: I think last year the number was somewhat under 5,000 from the Western Hemisphere, and the vast majority are either Colombians or Cubans, and no Mexicans.
MODERATOR: Down here.
QUESTION: Hi. Sina Alinejad from BBC Persian. I was wondering what kind of trend you’re seeing in regards to Afghan refugees in last few years. I mean, the (inaudible) order, has it actually affected the number of people who are trying to get out or – and the number of Iranian (inaudible) last year, do you have any numbers for me?
MR. ROBINSON: On Afghans, the interesting story, I think, in part with Afghan refugees is that in the last several years about six million have returned to Afghanistan. And our office also runs programs inside Afghanistan, working with the Government of Afghanistan, with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the ICRC, and others to try to help them integrate back into Afghanistan and to participate fully in life there. We still take some Afghan refugees, again, that are referred to us by UNHCR and other out of Pakistan, out of Iran and other places. But the trend in Afghanistan is returns. It hasn’t been an increase in refugees coming here.
QUESTION: It’s not six million from the United States --
MR. ROBINSON: No, no – six million worldwide.
QUESTION: Good morning. My name is Dagmar Benesova. I am from World Business Press Online, a Slovak news agency. Well, my question is: You mentioned that the last year, there were 56,000 refugees accepted in the United States and that this number was lower than it used to be in the past. It was due to security reasons. So my question is now does security (inaudible)? And could you mention in what kind of – it’s like more tightened security? And what are the differences, so maybe in the past it wasn’t so tight? And another question is: Did you observe in the last year, due to economic problems in the United States, that the number of refugees has decreased? Thank you very much.
MR. ROBINSON: The security programs that we’ve put in place – we’re always revising and reviewing security. And with new screening processes that were introduced in 2010, I believe it is, it had the immediate effect of slowing down the number of refugees brought into the country, as we learned how to grapple with the new screening processes.
You had to remember that refugees come in through a sequential process, and if any part in that sequence slows down, it slows down the whole process. So I think we’ve begun to learn how to deal with that. The numbers are increasing again. The speed with which we’re getting them through the system is increasing again. It was a bureaucratic learning process more than anything else. And we will continue to review our security procedures. We have a dual responsibility, and our first responsibility is always to protect the safety and security of the United States and the citizens of the United States. Within that, we try to always live up to our humanitarian responsibilities as well. So there’s a balancing act that has to occur. And I think we’re learning how to do it better, so the numbers are increasing, and the speed with which we’re able to process refugees is increasing.
MR. ROBINSON: One of the goals that we have and I mentioned at the outset is self-sufficiency. We expect refugees to work. We do not have a social welfare program specifically designed for refugees. When they come to the United States they – those of working age, those who are not in school – are legally permitted to find jobs, and our affiliates help them find jobs around the country.
The length of time it takes for refugees to find jobs depends in large part on the economic climate in the United States. The fact remains that most refugees go into the lower paying entry-level jobs, and they are still finding those opportunities all over the United States. But it takes longer. The economic climate has not had the – a direct correlation in the numbers of refugees we’re bringing in, but it does impact how quickly they can become self-sufficient.
MODERATOR: Question back there.
QUESTION: Hello, this is Ana Coman from Radio Romania. I’m wondering about Roma people coming into the United States. I know that they are not treated as refugees, but some of them get asylum. So I’m wondering if you keep statistics on that. And also what – how can a Roma come to the United States as an (inaudible)?
MR. ROBINSON: Do you want to --
MS. GAUGER: Thank you. UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees) does not tend to refer Roma to us for resettlement to the United States. So you’re right, we don’t – it’s not that we have a policy against accepting Roma as refugees; we just don’t get them referred to us.
In terms of being granted asylum, it’s not our office that handles the asylum program, but they would get asylum in the way that anyone else who came to the United States and either filed for asylum at a port of entry or went into an office of the Department of Homeland Security and to seek the protection of the United States.
QUESTION: Do you have any statistics on that?
MS. GAUGER: Of Roma, I’m sure there are. Our office doesn’t keep them, but we could get them from the Department of Homeland Security for you.
MODERATOR: Question right up here. Just wait for the microphone.
QUESTION: Thank you. Could you give us the number of refugees from China, like last year or overall?
MS. GAUGER: From China?
QUESTION: Yes. And what’s the major reason for their application?
MS. GAUGER: Right, right. It’s very small. I don’t have the number with me, but I would guess that it was less than 10 last year. And it would be a small number of Chinese who make their way probably to Thailand or some neighboring countries, and I believe that probably that the two primary claims would be Falun Gong membership or the one-child policy. But the numbers are very small, although the numbers that are granted asylum in the United States – the number of Chinese who make their way here, file for asylum and are granted asylum -- are very high. I think that in many years, Chinese is the number one nationality in terms of being granted asylum. But they don’t access our U.S. Refugee Admissions Program overseas.
QUESTION: But we heard there are many. Many of them, they escaped to Thailand and have to apply for refugee status there.
MS. GAUGER: Okay. That may be the case, but they’re not being referred for U.S. resettlement. Nor are they, to my knowledge, being referred to other countries for resettlement.
QUESTION: May I also ask how many North Korea refugees are submitting applications for the resettlement in the United States? And what is the percentage of acceptance? Is it possible for you to know?
MS. GAUGER: I don’t have the number in front of me. As you said, we’ve resettled somewhere around a hundred in the last couple of years. It’s a very small number. I can tell you – I don’t have the numbers in front of me – but anecdotally, I believe that the vast majority of North Koreans who do apply are accepted by the Department of Homeland Security. So they have a very high grant rate when their applications do make it to us.
MODERATOR: Our next question – all the way in the back.
QUESTION: Thank you so much. My name is Ivica Puljic. I am from Al Jazeera Balkans. My question is: Do you have any information about how many of the refugees who came here are returning home? And I was following Bosnian refugees here in the last 15-20 years, and I know there are more than 100,000 of them in the U.S. And also, speaking of information, how many of them became terrorists here in the United States and how many of them actually are in some kind of connection with terrorism in the United States?
MS. GAUGER: Our bureau – the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration – doesn’t track either one of those statistics. In terms of the people going home, we hear anecdotally that people go home – the vast majority would wait until they have their green card, their legal permanent status, because it’s a little difficult to travel as a refugee. You have to get an advanced parole documents from the Department of Homeland Security. But lately we’ve been hearing anecdotally that, for instance, that a lot of Iraqis are going home. Most people who are going home, we suspect, are not going home to stay. They’re going, and then they’re coming back. Either they’re checking on family members or checking on property or that sort of thing and coming back.
We did have one program – in 1999, we admitted about 13,000 Kosovar Albanians out of Macedonia. We had a program whereby the U.S. Government funded the return of anyone who wanted to go home, until I believe the deadline was May 31st of the following year. And about a third of those 13,000 went home. The other two-thirds accepted our offer of permanent resettlement.
MODERATOR: Any other questions?
QUESTION: Yes. Yes, I had the same question of my colleague. But on the other way, do you know why do they choose to go to the USA? Is it their own choice, because they have families, or why do they come here?
MS. GAUGER: Well, for the cases that are referred to us by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the refugees actually don’t choose. It’s the UN. The UN decides to which country to refer them. And having family ties in the United States or in Canada or in Australia or one of the other large resettlement countries is often a reason why they would be referred to a certain country.
Of course, let’s talk about the direct application programs that we have, for instance the program for U.S.-affiliated Iraqis. In certain countries in the Middle East, including in Iraq itself, in Jordan, in Egypt, an Iraqi who had affiliation or has an affiliation with the United States – either they were an interpreter or translator or they worked for a U.S.-based media organization or NGO – they can approach us. In those instances, for the U.S.-affiliated Iraqis program, obviously they applied to come to the United States because there’s a program for them.
Believe it or not – Dave mentioned earlier that our program is really built around self-sufficiency, and we expect refugees to work soon after they arrive. We hear that some refugees actually prefer to go to some other countries. It’s not always the United States that’s the first choice for all refugees, because they know that the landing in the United States is challenging. And if it’s not – if there are individuals who are not willing to try to become self-sufficient or to try to go to work, they may not choose to come here. But sometimes they don’t have the choice.
QUESTION: You mentioned about other countries and the hope that other countries might step up their programs. Are there particular efforts diplomatically underway to encourage other countries to expand the number of refugees they might accept, particularly when you get to looking at what’s going on in the Horn of Africa this year, for instance, the possibility of climate change refugees in the very near future? Look down the road, around the corner, please.
MS. GAUGER: Maybe I’ll start, and then I’ll let Dave finish that one. But there are ongoing diplomatic efforts where we’re always talking to the other resettlement countries. There are currently about 27 or 28 resettlement countries -- countries that do a resettlement program like we do, where you identify people overseas, interview them, and transport them to your country.
And last year, the United States was chair of a body called the Annual Tripartite Consultations on Resettlement, ATCR. We co-chaired that with UNHCR. And as the Swedes did when they chaired the ATCR the year previous, the main effort was to increase both the number of resettlement countries and of slots that other resettlement countries offer. So one of the initiatives that we’ve undertaken with UNHCR in the last couple of years has been an effort we call twinning, whereby established resettlement countries like the United States, Australia, Canada, New Zealand pair up with other emerging resettlement countries to mentor them and to encourage them to accept more refugees.
So actually, for instance, my boss today is in Bulgaria because one of the countries that the U.S. twins with is Bulgaria, along with Uruguay. And so he participated in their own World Refugee Day events in Sofia yesterday, and he’s meeting with the Government of Bulgaria, the Bulgarian Red Cross, and other organizations that are involved in refugee resettlement. And others of the established resettlement countries are doing the same things with other emerging resettlement countries.
QUESTION: That person’s name?
MS. GAUGER: Lawrence Bartlett. He’s our office director for refugee admissions.
MR. ROBINSON: You mentioned climate change refugees and that possibility. The conditions in which people find themselves fleeing change all the time, and we are looking carefully at climate as a possibility. There has not been a consensus yet around that, but with UNHCR, with ICRC, with us, and many others, we’re all discussing that kind of scenario in which people who are fleeing radical changes in climate may be classified at some point as refugees. We’re not there yet. We don’t know what the implications of that would be. But it gets to the point that we’re constantly measuring and taking the temperature of events around the world that would lead us to change the dynamics of the program to include other people.
In addition to refugees, it’s important to note as well that there are many more internally displaced people around the world who have not crossed an international border, who find themselves trapped in their own country. For instance, in Syria, there are about 300,000 Syrians who have not been able to leave. And the United States is very concerned about them as well. We offer assistance to them through, again, our principal partners, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and others. So we continually look at these vulnerable populations and these populations of concern to see how we can reach out to provide humanitarian solutions for them.
MODERATOR: Any other questions?
QUESTION: Yes, a follow-up. Can you give us some of the reason that Colombians are giving to come to the U.S.? What are the reasons?
MR. ROBINSON: Sure. A number of Colombians – as you know, Colombia may host or does host one of the largest populations of internally displaced persons. Estimates range from three million to nearly five million people who have been displaced through the more than 20 years or so of conflict between the forces of the Government of Colombia and the FARC and other bacrims, or criminal groups and others. A number of Colombians have been caught in this conflict and have fled either into Ecuador or into Venezuela. If they cannot be integrated into the host countries, the countries in which they found first asylum, UNHCR may refer them for resettlement. And so normally the Colombians that are coming to us have fled the violence that surrounds conflict with the FARC.
MODERATOR: Any other questions? Well, alright. Thank you very much for your time today, and thank you to the speakers.
MR. ROBINSON: Thank you.
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