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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

Humanitarian Emergency: U.S. Efforts to Save Lives in Syria and Around the World

Anne C. Richard
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration

New York, NY
September 26, 2013

12:00 P.M. EDT


ASSISTANT SECRETARY RICHARD: So to give you a quick overview, this is the second time I’ve come to the UN General Assembly in this job and for this week of meetings, and I’ll be going on to Geneva next because the annual meetings of UNHCR are also taking place. And there will be a particular emphasis there on Syria crisis, as there has been, of course, all week here. And so a good part of my time here this week has been focused on meetings related to the Syria crisis – mostly humanitarian meetings, but also I went to the International Support Group meeting on Lebanon yesterday.

And then another piece of what we’re doing this week – and this really is complementing and in league with the British – is talking about the need to fight gender-based violence in crises all over the world. And so we supported the Secretary in his announcement on Monday of a $10 million initiative to work with humanitarian organizations to do a better job preventing violence against women and girls right at the early stages of a conflict and crisis, and not to just wait and later, say, “I think we have a problem; let’s bring in the experts,” but instead have experts ready to go right at the outset.

So the third piece of what I do is to also have conversations, since there are so many leaders here, to have conversations about other parts of the world where there are displaced people – so from conversations about Burma to conversations about migration with Mexico, hopefully later today with the President of Mali – not to forget about the rest of the world while we’re also so very focused on what’s going on in the Middle East right now.

One of the things that we had planned for that came off very well was the President announcing $340 million of additional aid for humanitarian responses to the Syria crisis. In that – this is on top of $1 billion we’ve already given, so our total since the beginning of the crisis is now $1.3 billion. Of that $340 million, $70 million will probably end up being spent in Lebanon, working through our partners, UNHCR and others, nongovernmental organizations, ICRC.

So what we’ve found on the Syria crisis is that while we’re the leading nation in contributing we are really allied with other major donors in doing this. We’re looking for more donors to join us at the table; we’re very pleased with Kuwait’s leadership on that. We’d like to see more from Gulf countries. We’re very concerned about what’s happening inside Syria, of course, and trying to get access and get aid in. And then we’re also very concerned about the strains that having so many refugees fleeing across Syria’s borders into neighboring countries, the strains that this is putting on the neighboring countries.

And so we’re in frequent conversations, especially with Jordan and Lebanon, which just don’t have the kind of economic strength that Turkey does, about what else we can do to help, because we so appreciate – this is what I should’ve started out with – we so appreciate the fact that refugees are being hosted in these neighboring countries, because they really did flee for their lives, and people have lost everything, their children have been traumatized. They have terrible, terrible stories to tell, and this is where the neighbors have a responsibility to keep their borders open. But I think the rest of the world has a responsibility to help the neighbors keep their borders open and to help them to meet this responsibility. And in all of our conversations, we have understood that this is not easy. The schools are overcrowded now, water in that part of the world is scarce, and there’s been sort of a strain on all the resources of society. Hospital beds are full of Syrians. And so we appreciate very much what the neighbors are doing, and we want to be helpful.

That’s why I was so pleased that the Secretary yesterday at the International Support Group for Lebanon – I was able to sit next to him – he talked about not just our humanitarian assistance, but also some additional bilateral assistance for development purposes, to help Lebanese society. I think that’s something that we all agree on.

The other thing that’s been useful is we’re trying to get the humanitarians and the development experts to talk more to each other. So that means that my partners that I’m used to working with and funding – the High Commission for Refugees, UNICEF, the World Food Program – that they’re then talking more to UN Development Program and the World Bank. And the World Bank had done this assessment very rapidly about the impact of the refugees on Lebanon, and that assessment really did a good job, I think, of telling the story of the strains on Lebanese society that is being brought to bear by the enormous refugee population, and also what we can foresee in the coming months.

So this is the way these multilateral organizations are supposed to work. And so this was a good day, I think, yesterday, in that we saw this coming together of these key organizations’ leadership by these key countries in support of Lebanon.

QUESTION: Can I ask – when – what are you doing, I mean, at the – it’s – I know it’s political, if you want to get UN reaction or action on the humanitarian access front into Syria. Is there any work going on now in this regard like issuing a product from the Security Council?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY RICHARD: Well, I think that the leader on this has been Valerie Amos [UN Undersecretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator], with whom we have a very good relationship. And she recently traveled in the region and also went to Damascus, and so she has been pushing for more and more access. She’s pushing the regime, but she’s also aware that in order to get aid from one part of the country out to people who need it, you have to cross battle lines and you go from regime-controlled areas to disputed areas that are very dangerous to opposition-controlled areas, and so they have told us stories of all the checkpoints. Kyung-wha Kang, her deputy, had gone on one trip and had been stopped 54 times, I think. It takes three days to go what used to take three hours.

So we are hopeful that if there can be agreements on – among the Security Council on issues like chemical weapons, potentially there could be more done on humanitarian access, but I don’t think we’re there yet. This is the kind of conversations we’re having this week.

QUESTION: So are you working on a press statement or presidential statement or –

ASSISTANT SECRETARY RICHARD: I can’t give you any specifics right now, but we are constantly looking for opportunities to make some progress on this issue.

QUESTION: Is there any work on cross-border access for –

ASSISTANT SECRETARY RICHARD: Cross-border is always one of the issues raised in these conversations, because we want to get aid to the people who need it. And it is proving to be very, very challenging, and so we want to pursue all channels possible to get aid to people who need it. And what we’re finding is aid is getting to all 14 governorates in Syria, but within those governorates it’s not getting to all the places that need the help. And I think if you asked any UN leader of humanitarian organizations, they would tell you the same thing. I think people are being very frank about the positive pieces of this enormous, incredibly large-scale humanitarian effort, but also the limitations of it.



QUESTION: So as part of this group that was launched yesterday, I heard that there will be other events. Now, one of them is going to be on the humanitarian situation in Lebanon.


QUESTION: So what’s your expectation from that meeting and who’s going to – which is going to be held in Geneva, right?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY RICHARD: There is a meeting on Monday in Geneva that is focused on helping the neighboring countries cope with the refugee crisis, and so it’s – I think the – you’ll have to check the UNHCR website for the name, but I believe part of it is solidarity and part of it is burden sharing, which are both important goals of the meeting. This is the brainchild of the High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres, someone I work with very closely and think very highly of. And so he is trying to help the neighbors manage the crisis. UNHCR plays a different role in different countries. It’s more supportive in Turkey and it’s more leadership and outreach to the refugees in Lebanon, and then it’s very much focused on both camp populations in Jordan and Turkey, but also the 75 percent of refugees who are not in camps in the region, which most people don’t realize that so many refugees are living in cities and villages and amongst the people.

QUESTION: That’s very important, actually. This is the issue in Lebanon. And now my question is much more political, and I would like to have –

ASSISTANT SECRETARY RICHARD: I may not be able to answer some political things because that’s not my portfolio, but --

QUESTION: Yeah. This is very interesting to know, to see that there are camps in Jordan, Turkey, no camps in Syria. And the only – and what you say, usually the USA says that those people have an interwining (ph) relationship with the Lebanese, they are very much related – they are into the society. Does it mean that those who are in Lebanon will be implemented under long term in Lebanon?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY RICHARD: Will they stay for a long time in Lebanon?

QUESTION: They will stay for a long time, because now the strain is on Lebanon and the strain also is the economy of Lebanon because those people are willing to work for almost nothing, very cheap work. They are – the workplace is becoming very dangerous place for the Lebanese, and the economy is now – that’s why you have the group is working on this matter.


QUESTION: But how long will they stay? How long does it – can Lebanon give this situation? And the problem is how you have – we have more than one million, a quarter of the population is now refugee. How can Lebanon handle the situation? Do we need to send them to Canada, to the United States, or to Europe in order to help them really in this situation?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY RICHARD: Well, you’ve asked a lot – you’ve raised a lot of really good points, so let me see if I can remember all of them and walk through them, because these are exactly the issues with which we’re grappling. I’ve been asked in recent weeks: How long are the refugees going to stay? How much is the total cost of this crisis? And no one can answer those questions. What has changed from last year was that last year I was still hopeful that had the circumstances of the fighting changed inside Syria, one way or another, people would have been able to go home relatively quickly. I no longer think that. That’s because of the extent of the devastation inside Syria – people have lost their homes, they’ve lost their workplaces, they’ve lost the normal parts of society that keep daily life possible from bread to schools to traffic flows. So this is going to require at some point in the future a major reconstruction effort.

We could also anticipate that families may not go back all at once if they could. They may split up. We could see a reverse flow of people leaving Syria and others going back. So we don’t know what the future holds, but we do know they will not – this will not be over soon. There will be – even if peace came, there will be aftereffects.

So in terms of inside Lebanon, we have to do more than just short-term emergency relief. We have to look at development spigots, as we call it. We have to look at development streams of funding coming, and we have to involve the development agencies like UN Development Program and the World Bank and other development agencies. And this is why U.S. Agency for International Development, who are our partners in a lot of what we do, is so involved.

It also may involve either countries taking some of the refugees temporarily or permanently. So we see that Germany has stepped forward and will take 5,000, and a number of other European countries are coming forward now to take numbers on a temporary basis. And the UNHCR is moving very quickly to work with them to fulfill their promises.

From the U.S. standpoint, we are the leader of the world in resettling refugees in the U.S. permanently. So on September 30th, our fiscal year will end and we will have brought in almost 70,000 refugees this year. So --

QUESTION: From where? (Inaudible.)

ASSISTANT SECRETARY RICHARD: From all around the world. And the top three places are Iraq, Bhutanese from Nepal, and then the Burmese from Southeast Asia. And so I can now anticipate that we will – if referred by UNHCR, which I expect they’re planning to do – we will then start to add streams of Syrians coming in. What we will try to do, working very closely with UNHCR, is to take those who are the most vulnerable, for whom going home is not an option, or perhaps a widow with children where the children have specific medical needs, let’s say. So people who can’t live on their own or can’t live well in a – thrive in a camp environment.

So that is for us not a particularly controversial thing to bring refugees here because we do it every year, and we have this existing program and we do have security screening that all refugees have to go through. But if they pass the security screening, being settled in the United States is not an issue. And we have Syrian Americans who I’m sure will be very --

QUESTION: I’m Syrian.


QUESTION: And Lebanese, so I come from Allepo. So I have been embraced by the Lebanese and I’ve become Lebanese and I’m very proud, but I don’t forget that I’m Syrian. My family is in Syria and they have to go Paris waiting to go back to Syria.


QUESTION: So what does it mean?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY RICHARD: Well, and this is why also the numbers – I don’t argue about numbers because there’s the number of refugees who are registered with UNHCR, there’s the number of refugees beyond that because some don’t register, and then there’s the people who are already living overseas or in other countries from Syria who are wealthy, although some of them will be now running through their savings and needing help.

So we are very aware. And this is where I think travel to the region – I’ve been five times to the region, and I’ve been twice to Beirut, I’ve been four times Amman. Travel to the region really brings this home, the full-scope impact of having all these refugees in terms of like the things I was talking about before: hospital beds, classrooms, depressed wages potentially, competition for rental space, apartments, places to live. So this – I think that the government officials in several of these countries are very good at explaining that. And I think the World Bank report on Lebanon also helps to get the Lebanese story out.

But I thought about the meeting yesterday, the International Support Group for Lebanon. It was very important to show the Lebanese Government, but more importantly the Lebanese people, that the world is paying attention and appreciates what’s going on. And so that’s why I was so pleased that our Secretary of State came and that these other very senior officials came to that meeting. And I talked to the Minister of Social Affairs Abu Faour because I’ve met him now a couple of times to talk about these issues. I may see him again in Geneva. And then President Sleiman I got to meet in Kuwait in January at the pledging conference, and he was up on the dais. And there were a lot of praise for the way – the hospitality he extended to the refugees, and also the way that the Lebanese citizenry is coping with this.

QUESTION: Just a technical question. What – under which status you’re providing – you’re bringing refugees to the U.S.?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY RICHARD: If UNHCR makes a refugee status determination that they are refugees and then refers them for resettlement, we will then help get them ready for an interview by the Department of Homeland Security. And if the Department of Homeland Security feels that they do not represent a threat to U.S., and that their story is consistent, that they’ve been telling the truth, then the State Department sponsors a program to bring them to the United States. And then we have partners who are nongovernmental organizations across the United States in 300 places.

QUESTION: I meant, do they come to the U.S. as refugees --


QUESTION: -- or not political asylum seekers?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY RICHARD: Well, the difference in our system is that if you arrive at the airport on a visa or you come in on a student visa or you come on a tourist visa, and while you’re here you realize you can’t go home, you can seek asylum. And then you will either be granted asylum and get to stay, but no special benefits --

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

ASSISTANT SECRETARY RICHARD: -- or you’ll be refused – you’ll be turned down and deported. But this program, before you arrive, it’s been determined that you are in fact a refugee. And so when you arrive, we help you. We have a whole program to admit you and to help you get resettled, and so there’s support provided to you to get the kids in school, to help you find a job, and to sign you up for all the benefits of life in the United States.

QUESTION: Okay. My question, in fact, whether the U.S. would support building camps for Syrian refugees in Lebanon and --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY RICHARD: This has been a question I’ve been asked in Beirut when I visited, and we can’t make that decision for other governments. I think we constantly have to ask ourself, what’s the best thing for the refugees? And my sense is the best thing for the refugees can sometimes be living in a home-like situation where you have a lot of autonomy and it’s as close as possible to what your life was like before you left.

That’s not always possible, and clearly, in Jordan they started off by having no camps. They had transit camps and people were bailed out and taken in by relatives, taken in by friends, business associates, sometimes even strangers showed up and said, “I’ll take in some.” The numbers were so big they determined that they were being overwhelmed, and they chose to build camps. And the camps have a mixed story in terms of – they have succeeded in keeping people sheltered and getting aid and giving them a place to stay. And it’s been very challenging to get children educated and to keep women and girls safe. You may have heard that there’s a phenomenon of early marriage, there have been issues about security of the Zaatari camp. Zaatari is now the fourth largest city in Jordan.

Turkey took a different approach. Turkey said everybody goes to camps, and then they built a series of smaller camps, so that now they have 21 camps and they have two more on the drawing boards.

So it’s not a yes-no question for me, yes-no answer. We think it’s great when they live – refugees live like normal people in an apartment, the kids go to local school, somebody gets permission to work. That’s the ideal. The current situation is so challenging, it’s so very overwhelming. The numbers, the scale, the scope of this crisis is just challenging everybody.

So my job is not to go around and criticize this aspect of a government’s generosity or this aspect. It’s instead to figure out how the rest of the world can come to the aid of these governments who are doing so much.

QUESTION: When are you going back to the (inaudible)?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY RICHARD: Yeah. I don’t know. I am trying to make every other trip a trip to the region, and then the in-between trips to someplace not in the Middle East so that I – because my responsibilities are global, and so I’m – I have been to Colombia, I’ve been to talk about displaced persons in Ecuador where there are Colombian refugees, I’ve been to South Sudan and camps for Sudanese and Somalis in Kenya. So I imagine that – I think I’m going to Ethiopia this fall, so before too long, I will be back definitely.

And I must say Beirut is a beautiful city to visit. The food is fantastic, the people are lovely, and the fact that Americans are advised not to travel there, it just breaks my heart. I mean --

QUESTION: Can't you do something about that?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY RICHARD: Well, I don’t know if they – if I should tell them to travel there.

QUESTION: Well, there is a terror warning there and yet those who came during the summer, they had the best of their life – best time of their lives, so maybe you can release the [travel warning].

ASSISTANT SECRETARY RICHARD: That’s definitely not my portfolio. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: So it can help it, can help (inaudible).

ASSISTANT SECRETARY RICHARD: But I just think Lebanon is a beautiful place with beautiful people, and the spillover from Syria is a terrible shame and a threat to Lebanese society, clearly.

QUESTION: Do you expect an end of the crisis in Syria?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY RICHARD: I pray for – I’m not a very religious person – I pray for the end of the crisis in Syria. I really do. I don’t make any predictions because we predicted sort of worst-case scenarios last year and they all came true. And so I don’t want to give false hope or unrealistic optimism. I think this is a very daunting challenge.

QUESTION: Thank you, Madam Richard.


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