10:00 A.M. EDT
THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, WASHINGTON, D.C.
MODERATOR: Welcome, everyone, to the Washington Foreign Press Center. Today we are pleased to welcome Anne Richard, the Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration. The topic of today’s briefing will be Colombia and Ecuador: Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons, and she’ll be reviewing her recent travel to Ecuador and Colombia.
And with that, I’ll turn it over to the Assistant Secretary.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY RICHARD: Thanks. Thanks very much for your attention. I have global responsibilities. I work on refugees, displaced persons crises, statelessness globally around the world. And I’ve been since – in the a little over a year that I’ve been in the job, I’ve been to the Middle East, for example, four times, because of the Syria crisis and the refugees spilling out of Syria.
So it bothered me that I hadn’t had time to visit one of the world’s largest displacement crises, which is displaced Colombians, displaced inside Colombia and also over the borders into Ecuador and other countries. So I was pleased to set up this trip with my very talented staff and to head down to South America. It was my first visit to South America; I’ve been to Central America several times. This was my first visit there to the Andes. And we went May 17th to 23rd.. We traveled first to Ecuador and then to Colombia.
Colombia, as I know you’re aware, was in the days of preparation for a visit from Vice President Biden. So the hotel we were staying at, the Marriott, was filled with American Secret Service agents. We were – there was a real buzz in the air. But we were still able to focus on our work and do our work.
It’s the world’s second-largest population of internally displaced, and what I found there was a sort of good news and bad news story. The good news piece in Colombia was that the – there is a good legislation now, the Victims Law, that is intended to help the displaced and get them the help they need and help people go home again. The other piece of good news was at the time of our visit and ongoing is the peace process that’s being carried out in Havana between the Government of Colombia and the FARC. And that was a lot of what I had focused on and been briefed on before going.
The bad news piece is that every day, more innocent people, families, are displaced. And so this is not a historical situation; this is a live situation. In Ecuador, we flew up to the Lago Agrio area and met refugee families – mother, father, two little kids – who were farmers in Colombia, and they had to flee across the border because they had been threatened that if they didn’t cook for a [para]military group, they’d be killed, they’d be slaughtered. And so these were really live, real threats to them. And for the good of their lives and the lives of their children, they had to flee.
So speaking directly to people like that, recently displaced – internally-displaced persons in Colombia, it really brought home to me that this is – that despite the progress that’s going on, this is very much a continuing problem of violence, real and ugly violence. So what became very clear is that the Colombian Government is trying to set up and institute post-conflict programs, and really very thoughtful and responsible post-conflict programs, during a time of continuing conflict. And it makes it a much more complicated situation. And so that I found very sobering. It also made me very sympathetic to the authorities in Colombia who are trying to follow through on the law and start the programs that are called for in the law.
We traveled at one point with Paula de Viria (ph), who’s the head of the victims unit. She came with us down to Florencia from Bogota. We flew down to Florencia the day before. I had travelled with UNHCR and the UN refugee agency folks to Villavicencio. In both places, I was really impressed by some of the government officials I met. I met the governor of Meta, who was held hostage for years – I think seven and a half years – and is today still a doctor (ph) and working on behalf of the people concerned about these issues. In Florencia, we met the mayor. She was a beautiful woman who’d been shot six times in her legs and survived, and was still serving as mayor.
Personally, I think if something like that had happened to me, I would want to sort of pack it in and live out my days in a more restful, less demanding environment. But these people are very, very brave. So when they talk about victims and instituting the Victims Law, they are themselves victims of the violence. So that was very inspiring to meet people like that.
So we met with displaced people in both of those Colombian cities. In Villavicencio we met with displaced people who’d set up a sort of sprawling neighborhood in what had been a field on the outskirts of the city, and they were being helped by having a school built for them and a community center. They were also very inspiring in the sense that they were speaking up for themselves and trying to organize themselves to get the help they needed. But you could really – traveling just through town, you could really feel like you were traveling from different ends of the economic spectrum. I mean, these people lived in very basic houses that they built themselves. But at the same time, the other parts of town, of the city, were very nicely established.
So I think it really is a dilemma in terms of how does the society help its fellow citizens. And this is where I think we all admire what President Santos is doing, the environment he’s promoting, of caring for people who have been victims. Most of the victims are displaced; 75, 80 percent of them are displaced.
So I think the world community has to care about refugees. It is the responsibility of the country whose citizens are displaced to care for them. We see today lots of examples where that’s not happening. In Syria, for example, the displaced people are being bombed by their own government. In Colombia, I really think that the Government of Colombia deserves recognition. Its approach is very serious. It is providing a breadth of services, or calls for a breadth of services delivered to its citizens through this Victims and Land Restitution Law. And I think the challenge that we heard about and that we saw was how municipalities, really at the village and town level, will be able to follow through on the law and provide those services.
So one of the things we’re doing is we’re providing funding for nongovernmental organization partners to work with municipalities, to help them set up places where Colombian citizens can go to get the help they need. And so for example, in Florencia we visited the train station where there was an office filled with people who weren’t considered victims. And they went from station to station, or spot to spot, desk to desk around the room, meeting with different service providers – nd this was all under the umbrella of the municipality – and sort of help with databases, help setting up computer systems was being provided by us, but one hopes that that’s a one-time investment, and that the city, after a couple years, will have just a routine ability to provide help to people who’ve been displaced, whether it’s getting land restitution or emergency aid in the early days of being displaced or other help that they need.
So why don’t I stop there and see if you have some questions. For me it was a great trip – oh, and perhaps the other thing to say is, speaking to you all in the media is the one part of follow-up to the trip. Another part is going and talking to people on Capitol Hill to fill them in on what’s going on. I’ve already had a conversation with a staff member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. I know that members of Congress like Congressman Dan Farr are very interested in what happens in Colombia; he’s a former Peace Corps volunteer in Colombia, so he has a special interest. And so we will be – I’ll be meeting with Roberta Jacobson – it’s not that hard; I’ve known her for years. So that should be a pleasant conversation. But just to make sure I fill people in on the things I saw and the – through the – update people on what’s happening in Colombia so they get a picture of the humanitarian programs being carried out.
MODERATOR: So for the question and answer period, if you just can identify your name and media outlet before you ask a question. Thank you.
QUESTION: Well, my name is Edwin Girlando. I work for Caracol Radio. And just by the progress, as you say, the progress in the situation in displaced persons in Colombia, you say that this is still a real problem. And could you give us more specifics on that? And what is the role of the FARC? Are they strong, according to you?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY RICHARD: Well, you know that the FARC is involved in a peace conference. But at the same time, the violence has not stopped, the fighting has not stopped. And in talking to displaced people we asked them, “Well, who did this to you? Who was threatening you?” And it was interesting that most of them would not identify who was threatening them. And I don’t know if that’s out of fear or out of uncertainty. But what was clear was that it may have been the FARC or it may have been other groups. The – what was explained to me was that some of the paramilitary groups have been demobilized but that there is a thriving criminal enterprise now going on, run by various armed groups.
And so, as you know, they’re called bacrim, for bandita (ph) criminales. And it’s possible that that – those groups were harassing people and threatening people. It – at times it sounded to me like people had been subjected to things that happened to Americans by the organized mafia, where you have a business, someone tells you they’re going to be taking a part of your profits every week, and if you refuse to do that they will hurt you.
We met one woman who had run a restaurant and somebody threw a grenade into her restaurant. She no longer has a restaurant and she fled. She fled into Ecuador. So for her, now she has to determine what she’s going to do with the rest of her life. Can she start over with nothing and run a restaurant again? What kind of help would she need to do that? So I think part of what we’re seeing is FARC-related and part of it may not be related to FARC at all. But the overall environment is very violent and very real for the people I met.
QUESTION: Sergio Gomez from Tiempo, Colombia. You mentioned that you will go to Congress and give an update of what you saw. Is there any plan, now that Colombia is in this peace process, to expand the level of aid that the U.S. gives in the attention to displaced and victims and all that is going to come up to – if there’s a post-conflict, it’s going to be a huge need of help from the international community. Is the U.S. ready to step it up, then?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY RICHARD: So I think there’s three streams of funding that are worth mentioning. The first is what my bureau does, which is about $40 million per year for refugee and displaced persons needs in the region. So that’s partly inside Colombia but it’s also the programs been being carried out by our partners, UNHCR, International Community of the Red Cross, and some of these nongovernmental organizations, International Organization for Migration, in Ecuador and in other countries that I didn’t get a chance to visit.
And so we see that funding as being particularly important for the immediate humanitarian needs of people who’ve been recently displaced. And also then I talked about this sort of catalytic funding to help implement victims’ loss.
Then the other stream of funding coming from the U.S. Government is USAID funds. And Congress has been very generous in providing funding for USAID to spend in Colombia. So one of the conversations that I’ve had since coming back was to talk to the associate administrator of USAID about what we saw, and we put our heads together and our staffs are meeting to consider if there are gaps in what’s needed there that we can help provide using this funding that Congress is providing.
Then the third stream of funding is what the Colombian Government itself is providing, and there it’s significant and there’s a 10-year plan to put real money on the table. So since foreign aid dollars are always scarce, we have to balance U.S. funding against whether a country can do it on its own. And so we’re trying to get the proportions right in terms of what we provide in a way to make sure that the international community is present, it’s supportive of what’s being done in these two countries, but also that we step back if a country is in a position to do it itself. And so this is sort of the live conversations we’re having.
I’m very pleased that at the moment we’re involved in being such a part of helping small, local governments carry out of the law. But at some point in the future, we might decide that if they’ve – if that’s all been sorted and they’re doing a good job, that we could perhaps withdraw our piece of that. So I don’t see this as a long term proposition necessarily for us. I see it as something supporting a government that’s doing the right thing.
QUESTION: Do you – I mean, how critical for the displaced people situation will be the government reaches an agreement with the FARC? Do you think this would definitely turn the page in that sense, or do you think the underlying problems are still there and it doesn’t matter if there’s an agreement with the FARC?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY RICHARD: What was made clear to me was that a peace agreement with the FARC would only solve part of the problem, because – it would be an important part, but because there are so many other violent groups now engaged in this kind of illegal behavior that it won’t be a cure-all. It won’t solve everything.
Also which came through was the tragedy of the people with whom I met. They’re living in a country that has a lot going for it. I’m sure all the flowers that we buy here in New York come from Colombia. (Laughter.) And Bogota was – we had a very comfortable visit. This is not like me going to South Sudan, which I’ve done, and staying in Juba. This is a very nice place to visit. Ecuador, I mean, there were all these tourists headed out to the Galapagos.
So here are countries where they have a lot of advantages, and so wouldn’t it be great if all the citizens of these countries could enjoy those advantages? So when you see the potential that’s there, it makes me really hope that a broad peace can come.
What else am I forgetting to say? (Laughter.)
QUESTION: If you don’t mind, my English is like your Spanish.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY RICHARD: (Laughter.)
QUESTION: According with your conversations with the people in Colombia, the victims. What do they say about this peace process? They believe that it is possible with the FARC or not?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY RICHARD: The peace process was something we really talked about more with government officials. It did not strike me as something that was on the minds of the displaced people, because their concerns were much more immediate in the folks I met with about how do we get our kids in school, how do we make a living. We’re – we met, for example, refugees in Ecuador who were staying in a shelter that we were supporting, that the International Organization for Migration was running with a local group. And the shelter’s rules are you stay for a few weeks and then you really have to find your own housing, and they help them find housing. But it was clear to the family that they were taking a break to say, “Okay, we’re safe,” and then in the next breath, “Where are we going to live next?”
The – so directly to your question, we did not talk about the peace process with the displaced people we met, the people who were the beneficiaries of the programs that I’m talking about.
QUESTION: Hi, I’m Raquel Goros. I work for EFE, the Spanish newswire. You were talking about the victims law, how it’s working in Colombia, but I’m more interested in how the government and you are working with them about how to stop the ongoing process of refugees. I mean, you were saying that they are still being moved or taken apart from their own land. And how it’s working in this process, because it’s very – a very good job that you are working with the victims that are already going, but how you deal with the current problem which is making it bigger, or at least still there?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY RICHARD: Yeah. So another part of the U.S. relationship with Colombia is on the security front, and so other people in the State Department work closely in terms – and this has been part of Plan Colombia, looking retrospectively, was to improve military, improve policing.
What I was told was that those programs have reached a point where now Colombia is a regional trainer of other countries’ forces, because these military and security forces are now seen as sort of the gold standard in Latin America. But one of the things that I learned on the trip was the insecurity is not just in the south along the border with Ecuador. It’s also along the Pacific and it’s also on the border of the north with Venezuela.
So it’s a tougher problem than I realized, but it’s not my bureau’s responsibility to stop the violence; it’s to care for the victims. But obviously, the best way to help the victims is to stop the violence. So that makes me the advocate within the Department for the programs that can help the Colombian Government do something about the violence in the first place.
QUESTION: In this peace process in Havana, the FARC hasn’t recognized that they are responsible of committing crimes like displacement. Do you think that --
ASSISTANT SECRETARY RICHARD: Has or has not recognized?
QUESTION: Has not.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY RICHARD: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: It has not. So, do you think that in order to achieve a real peace process in Havana, they should recognize that they (inaudible)?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY RICHARD: My sense is peace negotiations are very delicate, so I think it would be irresponsible for me to start opining on what should or should not happen there.
What is clear is that the time may be ripe – this is what people told me – the time may be ripe to make some progress on peace negotiations. And that’s such a hopeful thing. I think we’re all really hoping, some people are praying, burning incense at our home shrines, to have some kind of a breakthrough there. It’s an interesting – for me, it was an interesting time to visit, really was, to see this mix of very positive and very worrisome things happening at the same time.
QUESTION: And what do you think about the current confrontation between President Santos and former President Alvaro Uribe, they substantially defer in the way that the peace process in Colombia is going on. Is it something that in some way, like, you care about here in Washington?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY RICHARD: Yeah, I heard a little bit about that on my trip, and I found it very interesting, and I don't think I can comment on it. (Laughter.) But it’s very clear to me from the time of President Pastrana and then President Uribe and now President Santos that the presidency – people in that job can really can really have a big influence on the direction the country’s taking. And so watching the progress over time – I was in the U.S. Government. I worked for Madeleine Albright. I was in the U.S. Government. I would work directly for her on funding issues from 1989 (ph) to 2001. I had been in the State Department much of the 90s, but I was in a very senior position working for her behind the scenes kind of on funding. So I was involved in the beginnings of Plan Colombia.
And so to come back now years later after working on the outside as non-governmental organization leader and catch up with what’s happened in the interim, it’s really, really interesting from a political science standpoint, which is of no interest whatsoever to your readers, I’m sure. (Laughter.) But personally, because I was in and then out and then back in again, I can see that there’s been a real change, a real progress. And I wasn’t certain that would’ve happened when Plan Colombia was put together.
I think one thing we’ve lost is back in the late ’90s there was a lot more interest in what was happening in that part of the world by U.S. newspapers and by the U.S. Congress. I think what we’ve gained is that there has been progress on the ground in Colombia, like the victims restitution law and land restitution movement. So it’s fascinating.
What I want to see now is further progress. And what I’m hoping to generate, part from my trip, not to be overly confident in what I can generate, is a little more interest to that part of the world among my fellow North Americans.
QUESTION: Did you feel tension in the border, I mean, with the Ecuadorian side, because of the displacement, Colombian displacement?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY RICHARD: We had a great visit. We met with a lot of people. But the security officers at the Embassy in Quito were concerned that we not just wander around and talk to everybody. And so whether their concerns – I always defer to the security experts, but it did affect our trip a little bit. We were traveling with Adam Namm who’s the Ambassador, the U.S. Ambassador to Ecuador. And I always like it a lot when a U.S. ambassador accompanies me up away from the capital. Usually they’re too busy to do that, and the fact that he stopped his work and came with me was great. But as a result – so it was an assistant secretary and ambassador. Instead of going door to door and meeting people (inaudible), they all came to us. And so that is a sign that they felt that it was not the safest place to have us wandering around. I can’t second-guess them, because it’s not my field, providing protection to American diplomats.
It was – one of the places we went in Lago Argio was a local bakery that was really doing a lot of business. And we went behind in the back and we met the Colombian refugees who were doing the actual baking. And then we went out to the front of the store and met the Colombian refugees who were the owners. And they were a success story. They were not people I felt sorry for. They were doing very, very well. They had come as refugees. And I meet people like this all the time in the United States, but this was a nice counterpoint to the people who have real needs and worries that we met with who are refugees. They were running a thriving bakery, and people were in and out buying the buns and the pastries they had out constantly.
It was – I guess it was sort of after school time or around late lunchtime, so people were coming in. And I asked him, why are you doing such good business? And he said Colombians make very good bakers, he said much better the Ecuadorians. (Laughter.) So there is apparently a difference. And I thought, really? You’re just a few miles apart here. But he’s very proud of the Colombian baked goods he’s selling. So it was not all miserable. There were parts that were fun too.
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