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World Refugee Day: Protection

Samuel Witten, Acting Assistant Secretary for Population, Refugees and Migration
Remarks at the National Geographic Headquarters on World Refugee Day
Washington, DC
June 20, 2008

Thank you Michel, and thank you Susan and the National Geographic Society for hosting this terrific event today. I am very pleased that so many of you were able to join us today, including Craig Johnstone, the Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees, who has come in from Geneva.

It is a true honor to share the stage with the three refugees we will be meeting today. You have achieved so much in your lives, and we thank you for helping bring the plight of the world’s refugees to international attention.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has chosen protection as the theme of this year’s World Refugee Day. The topic is excellent and timely, and reflects the outstanding work that UNHCR, countries including the United States, and so many international organizations and NGOs are doing to help those most in need of assistance.

The word “protection” has many important meanings in the world of refugees, and I want to highlight several to illustrate the needs of refugees and the efforts we and so many others are pursuing to help these very vulnerable populations.

First, the refugee needs physical protection, often from the people who have forced him or her away from their home, often with violence. This morning at the White House First Lady Laura Bush hosted a Karen Burmese woman whose parents were attacked by Burmese troops while they were living in a refugee camp along the Thai border.

Under the category of physical protection, refugees may also need protection from the inhabitants of the country where they have sought refuge. Often the conditions in the host country – in addition to the country of origin - are bleak, and international assistance toward refugees can breed jealously and rivalry from the local population who think the refugees are taking away their jobs and their resources.

Refugees also might need protection from often involuntary recruitment by guerilla forces, often of the refugee’s own ethnic background.

Refugees are not immune to violence, and have often been through harrowing experiences. In the past ten years, the issue of gender-based violence in refugee camps has increasingly been addressed by the international community, and several brave refugee activists, many of them women, are doing what they can to make camps safer places for women, where they can gather food and care for their family without fear of attack.

Health is another important aspect of protection. Disease has been a major killer of refugees since time immemorial. Today we still have a long way to go to improve health conditions in refugee camps. Refugees are often concentrated in a small area, increasing the likelihood of epidemics. Doctors and nurses are often in short supply. In camps, adequate food and nutrition is always a struggle.

Next, legal protection, which can range from the right not to be returned involuntarily from a country of first asylum to basic benefits such as the right to work and have children schooled.

A final type of protection is a new development -- protection of humanitarian workers – many of whom are in this room today. In the past year, officials from UNHCR and the World Food Program have been killed in the line of duty. No longer do warring factions and terrorist groups reliably see humanitarian workers as neutral parties. There must be vigorous protection from this sort of violence, and severe consequences for those who perpetrate it.

I have cited several refugee situations where protection is required. As the world urbanizes, we will see more refugee crises like the Iraqi case, in which refugees have gathered not in camps but in cities. Most of the Iraqis who have fled Iraq are not in tent cities, but in neighborhoods in Damascus, Amman and other Middle Eastern urban areas. This leads to challenges in service delivery to the refugees, possible resentment by the local population, and challenges for the host government to share basic services, such as education and health services, with their local population.

For me, the most challenging part of refugee protection, and the most rewarding when we are successful, is that -- for most populations at risk -- many of these protection issues exist at the same time, requiring careful and close coordination among governments, international organizations, and NGOs.

And the United States is playing an important leadership role in responding to the needs of refugees. In Fiscal Year 2007, we provided nearly $1 billion – primarily through the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the UN agency responsible for Palestinian refugees – UNRWA, in addition to our wonderful partnerships with many of the NGOs represented in this room. We are hoping to give even more this year. We work closely with our partners to help see that the money is well and wisely spent toward our shared goal of protection of refugees.

In closing, I want to salute the terrific leadership of our current High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, and his outstanding Deputy, Craig Johnstone, for being such strong leaders in this very complex world. We are indeed fortunate for your partnership and for the leadership you provide in these difficult times.

Thank you very much.

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