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 You are in: Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs > Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration > What We Are Saying > Remarks > 2003

Protection of the Persecuted and Trafficked

Arthur E. Dewey, Assistant Secretary for Population, Refugees and Migration
Remarks to the National Migration Conference
Washington, DC
July 8, 2003

(As Prepared for Delivery)


Protection is at the core of my bureau’s mission. As Assistant Secretary for Population, Refugees, and Migration, I am directly concerned with protection of both the persecuted and the trafficked. John Miller and I coordinate our work closely, and PRM has long put its money behind its mouth–primarily through the International Organization for Migration–to prevent trafficking in persons and to assist the victims of this pernicious activity. Since John will speak more about the State Department’s efforts to combat trafficking, I’m going to focus on protection of the persecuted–namely, refugees, internally displaced persons and other victims of conflict.

Protection of the persecuted is one of the most basic tenets of civilized human society. In practice, however, refugee protection is no simple task. The international community continues to refine its understanding of how to turn protection rhetoric into actions on the ground that actually protect people. Classic refugee protection was built around the legal principles laid out in the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. While these principles demand the United States’ continued commitment and leadership, we also recognize the reality that even when refugees are able to flee the country where they face persecution or conflict, they are not always crossing to safety. Increasing physical threats to refugees in host countries require that we incorporate new protection strategies into the delivery of humanitarian assistance.

My bureau is pursuing several strategies to promote this dual aspect of refugee protection worldwide – legal and physical:

  1. We continue to fight against refoulement–that is, the involuntary return of refugees to countries where they would face persecution.
  2. We continue to search for, and implement, what works for the physical protection of refugees.
  3. PRM seeks and facilitates sustainable solutions for refugees, including voluntary repatriation, local integration and resettlement.
  4. Finally, we are focused on preventive protection. We are increasingly involved in efforts to improve protection by preventing the conflicts and human rights abuses that cause discrimination and displacement in the first place.

Protection Issues in Iraq

The current situation in Iraq offers a microcosm of the spectrum of refugee protection issues. We are right now working with the Coalition Provisional Authority and UNHCR to facilitate an orderly return of refugees, while also dealing with spontaneous returns that are already occurring. UNHCR estimates that as many as 500,000 Iraqi refugees will return home in the next few years–most from neighboring countries such as Iran. While some have expressed an eagerness to return, many others are taking a wait-and-see approach. Our job is to ensure that host countries do not force refugees to return unwillingly, while at the same time maximizing safety and sustainability for those who choose to repatriate.

We face another challenge in protecting refugees inside Iraq–namely Palestinians and Iranians–many of whom have been evicted from their homes since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime. For many of these refugees, repatriation is not a viable option, so we must pursue strategies of local integration or resettlement. In the meantime, we need to provide physical protection to those who have been displaced, including humanitarian assistance and security.

Finally, we must use all of our response tools to prevent further displacement. Thus, we are urging the CPA and the U.N. to prevent reprisals against certain ethnic groups and former Baath party members, property disputes, and the breakdown of vital services and infrastructure, including the distribution of food and water, hospitals and schools, just to name a few. In this way, PRM’s work on protection issues–especially preventive protection–is tied to human rights and reconstruction.

We need to remember that there is a world outside of Iraq, and my bureau has made protection a priority across the globe. I’d like to highlight a few key examples of our work.


Consistent with long-standing international norms, my staff and I continually advocate adherence to the fundamental principles of non-refoulement and the right to an asylum process. Through diplomatic efforts–in both bilateral relations with host governments and multilateral fora such as the United Nations, we seek to prevent push-back of refugees to situations of persecution or conflict, and to promote access to a fair asylum process.

Last month, for instance, we joined several nations, together with the UNHCR, in protesting Nepal’s deportation of 18 Tibetan refugees to China. On a recent trip to Kathmandu, my staff met with Nepal’s Home Secretary and pressed for assurances that there would be no more deportations. We recently received assurances at the highest level that such deportations would not be repeated. We have made similar efforts to protest Russia’s pressure on Chechen IDPs to return to Chechnya prematurely.

PRM also has made a sustained effort to prevent the force-back of Burundi refugees living in Tanzania. Although the government of Tanzania continues to exert pressure on Burundi and Rwandan refugees to return, we have the good news that the 25,000 Rwandans who have returned in recent months did so voluntarily. This is in stark contrast to the bad news of 1996, when many believed the mass directed return of Rwandan refugees was involuntary.

Physical Protection

But however successful our actions with respect to legal protection, anyone who has been to a refugee camp can tell you that upholding such principles as non-refoulement and other legal protection instruments is not enough. Refugees face physical threats in their daily lives that require concrete action. These threats can be as glaring as the violence and insecurity that occurs when the conflict they have fled spills across the border into their settlement–or as glaring as sexual and gender-based violence, or the abduction and forced recruitment of child soldiers. They can also be more subtle threats around basic humanitarian needs, such as: unequal access to food distributions; a lack of cooking fuel that forces refugees to venture far outside the camp in search of firewood where they are at risk of banditry or assault; or even exploitation by aid workers who demand sex of refugees in exchange for the rations and other services they are due.

Identifying those who are in need of protection is an important first step. Because women and children make up close to 80 percent of refugees and displaced persons, their particular needs must be taken into account in our protection strategies. As in any society, single mothers and children separated from their families are especially at-risk. Other vulnerable groups include the elderly, the disabled, and minorities within the displaced population. If we fail to protection these most vulnerable groups, then we fail in our protection responsibilities for all refugees; if we succeed in protecting the most helpless, all refugees will be more secure.

PRM therefore works closely with UNHCR and other partners to make protection work on the ground. One important part of refugee protection is simply the presence of trained protection officers who can recognize and address protection needs as they arise. Successful protection through prevention depends heavily on protection by presence. In recent years, UNHCR has had difficulty filling all of its protection posts, particularly in field offices in Africa. PRM is continuously pressing UNHCR to fill these posts and has earmarked funding specifically for protection staff in Africa. We have proposed in our FY 2004 budget to provide funds to UNHCR for additional protection posts.

My bureau also supports a joint initiative between UNHCR and the International Rescue Committee to deploy protection officers quickly to fill gaps. Called the Protection Surge Capacity Project, its aim is to strengthen UNHCR’s protection capacity where it is needed most.

Protection through registration is another vital strategy. Several protection officers deployed through the Surge Project have been assigned to registration efforts. Registration not only helps determine the size and composition of a refugee population; it is also a tool to help identify vulnerable refugees and establish family ties. For individual refugees, the ration card received through this process is vital, because it determines access to food distributions, health programs, and other services. My bureau has led a sustained effort to push UNHCR to establish a standardized, effective universal registration system. We have also supported the registration of both female and male heads of household, in order to ensure that women have equal access to the basic services they need to help their families survive.
Another key problem is exploitation. Misconduct by some humanitarian aid workers was revealed in West Africa last year, and through this, the international community has come to recognize this reprehensible problem and, in most cases, responded appropriately. It has taken punitive actions against perpetrators, developed six core principles of conduct through the Inter-Agency Standing Committee, and begun training staff in preventing and responding to exploitation. PRM has played a leading role in pressing for these actions and has itself initiated new requirements to address abuse and exploitation. We now require all of our partners to adhere to the IASC’s six core principles, and continue to work with them to ensure that opportunities for exploitation are minimized.

Durable Solutions

In addition to refugees’ immediate protection needs, PRM is deeply committed to supporting the quest for permanent solutions.

Of course, voluntary repatriation is ours and the international community’s preferred solution, and we are supporting this option whenever possible. Voluntary repatriation is key to our efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, and is underway in a number of other places including Angola and Sri Lanka. We are also hopeful that voluntary repatriation may become a possibility in the next couple of years if peace is achieved in Sudan and Burundi.

We also strongly support local integration where appropriate. We have, for instance, provided funding for the Zambia Initiative, which aims to help Angolan refugees to become permanent members of Zambian society.

Finally, we are committed to resettlement where voluntary repatriation and local integration are not options. Many of you are familiar with PRM’s Admissions office, which focuses on resettlement in the United States as a durable solution for thousands of refugees in need of protection each year. I am happy to see Sudanese youth here today, who represent the success of all our efforts. I had the privilege of meeting several Sudanese about a year ago at the Southern Sudanese Refugee Reunion, where I was deeply moved by their enthusiasm for our commitment to humanitarianism, their perseverance in the face of tremendous suffering, and their hard work and ambition to succeed in their new home. They demonstrate the importance of the resettlement program in protecting individuals, and also in truly enriching American communities. Although we don’t look for or expect gratitute, they are one of the few groups that say ‘thank you’–both in their words and their deeds.

Developments since 9/11 have posed major challenges for the U.S. resettlement program. The implementation of new security checks has delayed the processing of many persons already found eligible for resettlement. At the same time, DHS has discovered a high degree of fraud in certain aspects of the program, which we have also had to respond to and try to prevent.

In spite of these setbacks, and in the face of all the carping and criticism, it is important to note that the United States continues to admit more refugees each year than all other countries combined. And we are committed to restructuring and strengthening this program post-9/11 to ensure that the United States maintains its worldwide lead in refugee resettlement. Whereas in the past the resettlement program has been dominated by large-scale admissions of individuals from a few regions (South East Asia, the Former Soviet Union, the Balkans), who have family or other ties to the United States, the program now has become much more diverse. It places an increased emphasis on identifying refugees at greatest risk in countries of asylum. These places represent some 80 countries around the globe. We have undertaken an ambitious reform effort to make this possible, and have begun new, expedited programs to process Liberians in the Ivory Coast and Colombians in Ecuador and Costa Rica. To enhance UNHCR’s ability to identify refugees in need of resettlement, we have this year already provided $4 million and will do more to ensure adequate staffing.


We face many challenges in protecting refugees, but I also see many opportunities. I am reminded of our greatest protection challenge ever–that of Vietnamese refugees ravaged by pirates in the Gulf of Thailand. In the early '80s, experts told us it was a hopeless cause–yet we got serious and effectively shut down these practices. The United States is capable of similar commitments and creativity today.

The world’s refugee population is undergoing historic shifts. The United States has led the effort to eliminate root causes of displacement in Afghanistan and Iraq, paving the way for millions of refugees from those countries to return home. Other opportunities for repatriation are developing in Angola and Sri Lanka. PRM’s protection mandate is not only to take advantage of opportunities to achieve durable solutions when they arise, but also to help create them. If all goes well in the next few years, success in US aims and diplomacy, and support for the multilateral humanitarian system could reduce the number of refugees worldwide by as much as 30%. As advocates for protection, we believe we must seize on these historic opportunities. Together with such worthy organizations as the International Catholic Migration Commission and the U.S. Catholic Conference, we are committed to making this happen. Thank you.

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