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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

U.S. Commitment to Refugees

Arthur E. Dewey, Assistant Secretary for Population, Refugees, and Migration
Remarks at the Congressional Youth Leadership Council Global Young Leaders Conference
Washington, DC
August 5, 2003

Good afternoon. World Refugee Day was on June 20th, and this year the theme is "Shared Wishes, Shared Dreams: Refugee Youth and Us." So it is especially fitting that I have the opportunity to speak to you "Global Young Leaders" today about what the United States does for refugees.

Refugees are people who have fled their home country because they fear they would suffer persecution there. Often, they fear persecution in the form or torture or physical violence. Sometimes, they have been persecuted by being imprisoned, denied access to education, or subjected to other human rights abuses. They face this persecution because of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. They have fled because they cannot find protection in their home country–the police are not willing or able to protect them, nor the army, nor any part of their government. Indeed, sometimes it is police or other authorities who are committing the persecution.

This is a definition agreed upon by the United Nations after millions of people were displaced by World War II. Anne Frank and her family are a very famous yet tragic example of refugees fleeing persecution by the Nazis before there were strong international mechanisms to protect them. Albert Einstein and former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright are other famous refugees who fled persecution as young people and fortunately found safety in the United States.

Today, there are roughly 21 million people worldwide who meet the refugee definition or who have fled their homes and are living in refugee-like situations, including over seven million children. The vast majority of refugees are in developing countries in Africa and Asia–from countries as diverse as Afghanistan, Burundi, Burma, and Liberia.

Can you imagine what it would be like to be a refugee? Every refugee has a unique story about the danger they faced and the hardships of flight. Some of you may have heard about the Sudanese youth who fled horrific persecution during the civil war in their country. Many fled their homes during attacks on their villages by government militias. In the confusion of flight, they were separated from their parents or witnessed their murder. With their families and homes destroyed, they walked for months over hundreds of miles through the harsh desert terrain. The strongest of them survived by eating leaves and roots, sometimes sucking water out of mud. They bravely crossed rivers where alligators lurked and dodged bullets from continuing attacks. When they finally reached a camp in safety, they had to build their own shelter and form social groups with other refugees to meet basic health, education and other needs.

We all feel tremendous compassion and concern for refugees through a spirit of humanity that links us together. But it takes more than compassion to create a better future for refugees. It takes a sustained commitment and decisive actions from the nations and organizations that make up the international community.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is mandated to protect all refugees, whether they are in large camps, integrated settlements or urban areas. It advocates to governments on behalf of refugees, urging them to open their borders and not force refugees back to places where they would face harm. It provides legal protection to refugees by issuing identity documents, for example. It also works to ensure refugees’ survival by providing humanitarian assistance: food, water, shelter, health care, education, and other vital services.

Other humanitarian organizations work with UNHCR to protect and assist refugees and conflict victims, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, the International Organization for Migration, and nongovernmental organizations such as the American Refugee Committee, Save the Children, and the International Rescue Committee.

The United States is a global leader in refugee protection. As Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration, my bureau in the State Department is the humanitarian voice in U.S. foreign policy, and we are the major supporter of multilateral operations to assist and protect refugees and other forced migrants. Our budget of over $800 million per year allows us to support programs and influence policies and decision making that create the conditions in which people in need can be protected.

We are proud to contribute more than any other country in the world to the UNHCR. Last year alone, we contributed over $259 million.

We are also proud to offer a new home to more refugees each year than all other countries in the world combined through the U.S. Resettlement Program. Each year, we bring tens of thousands of refugees to towns and cities across the United States, where they can begin new lives in safety and peace.

Resettlement is one of three durable solutions for refugees. A second solution is for refugees to become integrated into the communities where they’ve fled. For example, the government of Zambia has begun an initiative to grant citizenship to long-staying refugees from neighboring Angola. But the most preferred solution is for refugees to be able to return home voluntarily and with dignity. What is happening in Afghanistan and Iraq as we speak are important examples of how the United States is working with the international community to make it possible for millions of refugees to return home.

Before the ouster of the Taliban, Afghans made up the largest refugee population in the world: there were over 3.5 million Afghan refugees living in Pakistan, Iran and other countries. Since the end of fighting in Afghanistan, over 2 million refugees have returned home.

This success is the result of a sustained and collaborative effort by the Afghan people, their transitional government, donor governments, the United Nations, NGOs and other humanitarian organizations, as well as Coalition forces, to create conditions that enable displaced persons to return. Providing security was a fundamental step. But successful returns also require assistance with transportation, housing, health care and other services in order to create a stable environment that allows families to rebuild their lives and communities.

One urgent need for refugees returning to Afghanistan has been jobs. I recently returned from a trip to start up the Afghan Conservation Corps, a program designed to find work for up to 10,000 returning refugees and displaced persons, demobilized soldiers and other vulnerable groups in planting trees, restoring parks and managing watersheds. The hope is that the ACC will help Afghans find work in a time of need while also preserving their national heritage.

Another initiative to promote sound governance and create future leaders for Afghanistan is a Presidential Fellows Program modeled after the United States’ own White House Fellows program. This program will place promising young university graduates in Afghan ministries to help shape and strengthen their new government.

We are striving to achieve similar success in Iraq, although the circumstances are not the same, and we face many more challenges in the months ahead. The fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime has eliminated the source of much persecution in Iraq that had forced hundred of thousands of Iraqis to flee their homes.

Although much of the international community was opposed the U.S. military intervention in Iraq, it has remained committed to preventing a humanitarian crisis there. My bureau worked tirelessly with the United Nations and international organizations, as well as the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Department of Defense and other U.S. agencies to stockpile medical kits and shelter materials, to ensure that there would be enough food available, to coordinate an integrated response in case the conflict produced massive refugee flows and a breakdown in vital services.
Thankfully, there were almost no refugees as a result of the war in Iraq. And there was no major humanitarian crisis.

Clearly, however, there is much work to be done to set Iraq on a path of peace and prosperity. As you know from daily news reports, security remains a problem. Infrastructure–electric and and water systems, hospitals and schools – must be rebuilt after years of neglect and deterioration. Human rights abuses such as the executions uncovered in mass graves, and ethnic tensions resulting from Saddam Hussein’s Arabization campaign must be addressed and resolved.

All these issues and others are setting the stage for refugee returns in Iraq. The UNHCR estimates that over 500,000 Iraqis will return home over the next few years. Already last week, the first UNHCR convoy of 244 refugees from the Rafha camp in Saudi Arabia arrived in Basrah. This movement alone required the coordination of the Coalition Provisional Authority, the governments of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait (through which the convoy passed), and the UNHCR.

Still, it is too early for large scale returns to begin. As in Afghanistan, it is important to create stable conditions that will allow communities to absorb returning refugees without conflict and allow those families that return to thrive and participate in the rebuilding of their country.

I hope that you will remember just one message from my talk here today: Refugees need all of our help. This means first that success in humanitarian operations depends on multilateral coordination. The U.S. is a leader in the humanitarian community by encouraging other governments and international agencies to forge a strong partnership. We believe in working with other nations through the UN system to ensure a universal, needs-based response and to promote burden sharing.

It also means that your own efforts can make a big difference in a refugee’s life. I congratulate you for being here today as "Global Young Leaders." But I also challenge you to use the advantages and opportunities you have been given to help those who are suffering. Whether that is by volunteering to help refugees adapt to their new life in the United States, by pursuing a career in government or humanitarian work, or simply by raising the awareness of other Americans about these challenging issues.

There is hope on the horizon for many refugees today. If peace is achieved, and if we can coordinate international efforts effectively to facilitate returns in Angola, Sudan, Burundi, Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere, we could see a 30% reduction in the number of refugees worldwide. We must seize this window of opportunity. We cannot let those refugees down. Thank you for listening. I look forward to your questions.

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