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Addressing the Needs of Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons Inside Iraq and in Neighboring Countries

Paula J. Dobriansky, Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs
Assistant Secretary Sauerbrey for Population, Refugees and Migration; Director Richard Albright of PRM Office of Asia and the Near East; Deputy Assistant Lawrence Butler of Near Eastern Affairs; Director Ky Luu of the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, USAID
Remarks at the United Nations Office in Geneva
Geneva, Switzerland
April 17, 2007

UNDER SECRETARY UNDER SECRETARY DOBRIANSKY:  The United States is pleased to participate in this important conference on Iraqi displacement.  I would like to begin by thanking High Commissioner Guterres for his commitment to this issue and to congratulate him on his success in bringing together a wide range of concerned countries - including Iraq and its neighbors, other regional states, key donors - and for shaping a useful, productive, and results-oriented discussion over today and into tomorrow. 

We fully support UNHCR in its effort to mitigate the human costs of Iraqi displacement, both in Iraq and in neighboring countries.  We have pledged $18 million toward its emergency appeal of $60 million, and we stand ready to provide additional support if and when UNHCR requests it.  In 2007, the United States Government expects to provide over $100 million in humanitarian assistance for Iraqis, both inside and outside Iraq .

We have expressed our deep appreciation to the neighbors of Iraq who are hosting close to two million Iraqis.  We ask them to maintain secure but open borders, allow Iraqis access to vital services, and facilitate assistance for Iraqis from the international community.

We also welcome Iraq 's stated goal described this morning by Foreign Minister Zebari in his conference remarks to play a leading role in assisting displaced Iraqis both in Iraq and in neighboring countries, in anticipation of their repatriation when conditions permit.

We appreciate the announcement made by the Foreign Minister of Iraq's $25 million financial contribution.  We thank UNHCR for its cooperation in recommending particularly needy and vulnerable refugees for resettlement in the United States and other willing countries.  While resettlement can be a helpful durable solution for some displaced Iraqis outside Iraq , it is essential for those at greatest risk.

We noted the plight of almost 44,000 third-country refugees in Iraq , including 15,000 Palestinians in Baghdad , and we asked UNHCR and other concerned members of the international community to continue searching for ways to help these groups.

I am also pleased to announce today that the Bush Administration is sending to the United States Congress draft special immigrant visa (SIV) legislation.  If passed, the legislation gives the Secretary of State worldwide authority, under extraordinary circumstances, to lower the number of years a foreign service national (FSN) must work in order to be eligible for the existing special immigrant visa program from fifteen to three years.  We hope that Congress adopts this important piece of legislation into law. 

We also welcome the intent of Kennedy/Lugar (Senate bill 1104) and Fortenberry/Berman bill (HR 1790), which seek to extend existing law on special immigrant visa to allow as many as 1500 interpreters, under our Department of Defense and State authority, serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, access to the special immigrant visa program.  Both bills are aiming to address the needs of employees serving in difficult posts or on the front lines with our soldiers or our diplomats and others, who are at risk or who could become at risk because of their affiliation with the United States Government.  We look forward to working with the Congress on these important initiatives. 

Before we take your questions let me just introduce who is up here.  We have Ellen Sauerbrey, who is the Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration. She returned from a recent visit to Egypt , Jordan and Syria .

We have to her side Richard Alan Albright, who is Director of the Office of Asia and Near East in the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration.

We have Ambassador Lawrence Butler, who is Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs.  He works with our Special Coordinator on Iraq , David Satterfield.

We have Ky Luu, who is the Director of the Office of Foreign Disaster. They work specifically on internally displaced persons in Iraq and providing assistance.  He himself has worked in Iraq for an NGO.

I'd like to also mention that we have as part of our delegation two gentlemen, John Acree and Rafael Foley.  Both gentlemen serve at our Mission , in fact, in Iraq .

We also have Richard Parkins, who represents an NGO.  He's the Chair of the Refugee Council USA, as well as the Episcopal Migration Ministries.

And Zoya Naskova, who is Director of Education Programs, Relief International, but who is here representing Interaction.

Now let's go to your questions.

QUESTION:  I would like to know in what way do you think this conference and its results could lead to an easing of the situation for the coalition forces in Iraq and improvement in the situation in Iraq .  And an improvement in the security situation in Iraq .  And how many Iraqis would you accept this year for resettlement?

UNDER SECRETARY DOBRIANSKY:   You asked a number of questions.  Let me start with first the outcomes today of the conference and what bearing it has on the situation overall in Iraq .

First of all, the conference in fact was summarized by High Commissioner Guterres.  He pointed out that this conference is very timely and it's important because it galvanizes the support of the international community to help Iraqi refugees and also internally displaced Iraqi persons.

Secondly, the conference itself also committed support to help those host governments that presently have a large share of Iraqi refugees, Iraqi individuals present in their respective countries.  So this morning the focus was also on a commitment to help those countries, and there are a number of them, but in particular Jordan and Syria have a sizeable number of Iraqis present in their countries and there were commitments from the countries speaking today to help alleviate the situation.

Thirdly, High Commissioner Guterres also spoke about the important work of the UN organizations.  There is a need for UNHCR to work very closely with all of the UN organizations that have responsibilities here and that collectively can have an important impact.

Our message was that we have a moral imperative here.  We believe that just like across the globe.  There are refugee situations and individuals who are in need and who are vulnerable, the United States has stepped forward to help those individuals.  We are doing so here to help those refugees, those who are internally displaced, and also those individuals who have been associated or are associated with the United States Mission in Iraq or with those organizations affiliated with the United States or other foreign governments in Iraq .

Would you like to address the second part on the numbers, Ellen?


The number that has gotten great attention is the number of 7,000.  I think it should be very clear that the 7,000 number is only one thing, and that is the capacity that UNHCR identified that they could refer to our program.  Throughout the world UNHCR is the referring agency that has the mandate to give countries the names of those people who are most vulnerable, for resettlement.

We have no limit, except we have a 70,000 presidential determination for refugee resettlement for this year worldwide.  Of that, 20,000 was an unallocated number to be used wherever needed.  So I think it is fair to say that if we get the referrals we could resettle up to 25,000 Iraqi refugees within the President's determination this year.

QUESTION:  In talking to people here centered in Geneva and the humanitarian agencies we come constantly across the question of the source of the refugees, what is generating this.  There seems to be a general agreement that most of the problem in Iraq is attributable to the military occupation.  Most people seem to feel, especially those who have worked over there or are working over there out of Amman , for example, that if the military occupation were ended as much as nine-tenths of the difficulty would be eliminated because it's the occupation that tends to be used as a catalyst for the violence that's driving these people out.

In view of that, when you're looking at the refugee problem are you at least in the back of your minds considering the problems posed by the military occupation and the tremendous opposition now on the part of the Iraqis to this occupation?  Or are you strictly thinking in terms of the consequences of the occupation?

UNDER SECRETARY DOBRIANSKY:   Foreign Minister Zebari this morning spoke to the issue by indicating that there was a sizeable number of Iraqis during the time of Saddam Hussein who left Iraq .  He mentioned in fact that he himself was one of those who left. The United States since 1975 has taken in some 37,000 Iraqi refugees into the United States . 

It was also mentioned by a number of delegations this morning that in 2003 there were many Iraqis who returned home, but with the Samarra bombing you had then an out-flow that increased the number of Iraqis displaced.

In terms of the steps that one is taking, we place a premium on the importance of preserving and seeking to provide for security and stability in Iraq .  The Foreign Minister mentioned this as an important goal and objective - meaning the Iraqi Foreign Minister - and this is an important goal and objective, to provide for Iraqi peace and stability.  The Iraqi government has asked the Multinational Force to provide for this peace and stability.

We want to see Iraqi refugees and those individuals go home.  We believe the majority want to go home. In fact, High Commissioner Guterres has said many times that the most durable solution in fact is that - to have a secure environment provided for in Iraq .

So let me say that in terms of the situation you do have extreme forces on the ground whose actions have resulted in a very insecure, unstable environment.  We are seeking, with others, and especially with the Iraqi government, to establish secure, stable conditions.  That is one of our primary goals and objectives for the most durable solution here.

Would you like to add anything to that?

AMBASSADOR BUTLER:   Let me say that we clearly anticipated as part of the Baghdad Security Plan that in the wake or in the context of security operations conducted jointly by the coalition forces and the Iraqi security forces together, that there would be temporary displacements of persons.  That's been anticipated and those persons are being provided for and there are resources being allocated as best possible.  I would say it's a unified field theorem of displaced persons to suggest that the presence of coalition forces is the reason why there are refugees.  I don't accept that.  Just as Under Secretary Dobriansky has said, go back to 1975 and you find a history of persons who have left for a variety of reasons.

We've seen as the security situations improve, people immediately come home.  That continues to happen right now in Baghdad in connection with the Baghdad Security Plan.  We've seen people already coming back in where security has been restored to the different sectors.

QUESTION:  If I could ask perhaps Mrs. Sauerbrey first.  The discrepancy between the figure that you've just told us the United States could take during this calendar year and the 7,000 figure that the UNHCR says they could process, is there anything that the U.S. can do to help them increase the number?  For example, Human Rights Watch just said that they thought there should be a lot of effort to increase the number of people being resettled to make more room for refugees seeking asylum in the neighboring countries.

Could I also ask perhaps Under Secretary Dobriansky, was it necessary for the conference to be closed to the media this morning?  There were NGO participants who stayed in the conference.  Was there any benefit?  Or was transparency perhaps --

UNDER SECRETARY DOBRIANSKY:   If I may, let me go to that one first.  The question was about NGOs and the conference.

The organization of the conference was undertaken by UNHCR.  They established the ground rules and the structure.  I would say that we thought there were very good statements made this morning by all delegations.  There were important recommendations also set forth.  In our delegation, we are very closely interwoven with the NGO community.  In fact in my own statement I indicated that the NGO community is absolutely essential, it's critical to the work that needs to be done here.  It's not only that of international organizations.

But the actual organization of the conference and terms of organization had been made by UNHCR.

In terms of our own view, we value greatly the openness of this discussion.  We value greatly the work with NGOs.  We work closely with NGOs and take many recommendations from NGOs because the majority of them have been on the ground working these issues and have outstanding and very significant recommendations.

SAUERBREY:   In terms of the resettlement numbers, there are several points I would make.

First of all, we have provided additional funding for UNHCR to increase their capacity to make referrals.  We have also increased the overseas processing entities that prepare - when the referrals are made from UNHCR - that prepare the cases to be referred to our program.

The first issue is beefing up the infrastructure, and we will continue to try to increase that capacity on the part of UNHCR.  But it does take time to get all the pieces in place.

We also have made it very clear to our embassies that we welcome embassy referrals where people are specifically identified as being vulnerable by our embassies.

Third, we will be doing training of NGOs in the region so that NGOs who have the training will be able to make referrals to our program.

Finally, we are creating a special mechanism by which people who have worked for or been put in danger because of their affiliation with the U.S. government - large numbers of interpreters for example - to be able to have a means of access to the program that will not involve them having to be referred through UNHCR.

But having said all that, I also want to say that I think it's widely recognized as Under Secretary Dobriansky said before, that everyone is not standing in line wanting to be resettled in a third country.  Most people, refugees in any part of the world, their hope and desire is to go home to their community, to their families, to their loved ones.  We recognize that it is the same situation in Iraq , and that's why creating the conditions, the stability, the peace for people to be able to go home has got to be the main solution for most of the people who are currently displaced.

QUESTION:  On the numbers that UNHCR bring to us on internally displaced people and on refugees, your colleague just mentioned that you did expect a flux of people with the war. But these numbers that were presented to us and the amount of people leaving the country or their houses, is this above your expectation or below your expectation?  And just a clarification of my colleague's question on the question of transparency, I guess she was not asking or questioning the NGOs, but why was the meeting closed to the media?  What was there so secret that we cannot hear or cannot take part?

UNDER SECRETARY DOBRIANSKY:   Let me take the second part and maybe say a word also about the first part.

Frankly, I don't know what went into the organization here, but if the question is would we support an open meeting the answer is yes. 

I think you need to ask the organizers in this case.  In terms of the U.S. government, as I said, our own delegation includes NGOs.  I took the time to introduce two NGO representatives that we have with us and also our colleagues from Baghdad .  That's on the second part.

On the first part, you asked about expectations.  I don't know if you'd like to say a word, but let me say a word.  As with any planning in terms of a situation, whether it's in this part of the world or other parts of the world, we always try to look at what kind of migration flows, refugee flows, internally displaced persons may come out.  Sometimes I think it's very difficult to predict.

There have been times I can think of in some other parts of the world, there were predictions of massive out-flows.  For example, in Afghanistan there were predictions, I remember, of massive out-flows.  That did not happen.

In this case I think my colleague was merely suggesting that as part of planning we were looking at how, on an ongoing basis, we could help those in need, which we would naturally do.  That's why the question earlier -  we have been involved with Iraqi refugees since the time of Saddam Hussein, have taken in quite a few, and there were many who went back.  Then there was the bombing, the Samarra bombing, which produced an out-flow and increased that out-flow.  We have also seen that the situation has not been secure.

So in this case we have been working this issue.  We have worked this issue on an ongoing basis in terms of outreach for refugees, for also internally displaced.  And you might want to indicate we've been in Iraq for quite some time in these years in dealing with internally displaced persons.  That's what I think my colleague was trying to suggest.

Do you want to say a quick word?  You've been in Iraq and dealing with things from both an NGO side and now a governmental side.

MR. LUU:   I think that we obviously are concerned with the rising numbers of IDPs in Iraq .  I think the latest estimate by UNHCR, it's well over 700,000 in this past year.

That said, we are very encouraged by the response that we've received from our NGO partners that are operating in Iraq .  They feel they have the capacity to immediately ramp up their programs to provide assistance for these very vulnerable groups.

I think we also need to point out the fact that to date these NGO partners operating under very difficult and insecure conditions have made a significant impact with the Iraqis.  Within the health sector they are standing up the distribution of pharmaceuticals and essential medicines; they're operating clinics; they are supporting hospitals; they have increased the access to potable water; they've improved the sewage treatment. On that note, the projects they have been able to implement, they're sustainable.  The community accepts the work that's being carried out.  They are providing protection for our NGOs.  I think what we need to focus on here is that the numbers have risen, but there is capacity in country to deal with it in immediate terms.  We're also looking at a strategy in terms of focusing on the host communities to increase their capacity to take on additional numbers.  But again, the take-away on this would be that the situation is dire, but it's not hopeless.

MR. ALBRIGHT:    One point on the numbers of the displaced:  Ky Luu just mentioned  700,000 for the last year, but of the total figure that UNHCR has put out, of the two million displaced, 1.2 million of them were displaced from the Saddam era, so there's a lot of old displacement in Iraq.

The other thing, if you look at the most recent UN figures on displacement, is that there has been basically a flat level.  There has been no net increase in displacement out of Baghdad in the last two months, in the last two months of the UN data.  And Baghdad is the largest source of displacement from Baghdad , so I think that's a very positive indicator.  It's the first indicator, but it's a very positive indicator that we're seeing, and we're watching that carefully.

QUESTION:  I wondered if you could go back to the draft legislation on immigration, and if you've been working with Iraqi refugees all these years you must have an estimate of how many people might benefit from this program reducing the, increasing the eligibility, in other words.

Then I wonder if you could point to any other concrete measure the U.S. delegation might have announced during the meeting today, bearing in mind the global figure you say you're providing this year is $100 million for humanitarian action, but do you have anything else specifically that you were able to bring to the table?

BUTLER :   The SIV (Special Immigrant Visa) program is a modification of an existing program whereby locally engaged staff who work for fifteen years in an embassy under certain circumstances can qualify for an immigrant visa to go to the United States .  It's not a given, it requires extraordinary performance and things like that.  This legislation will reduce the eligibility from fifteen down to three years.  Now I can quickly tell you that the number of persons that would qualify today is probably not very big because they would have had to have worked for the U.S. Mission in Baghdad for the last three years.   I think in terms of numbers - I don't think we have a hard and fast number - but it would be fewer than 200 persons might qualify for it today.

UNDER SECRETARY DOBRIANSKY:   In terms of the second part, I believe there are some, this is a rough estimate, but I think it's about 22,000 who are contractors.  That's mostly with the Department of Defense.  So I don't have the precise numbers, but in this case in terms of the legislation that I also mentioned, which we support, the Kennedy/Lugar bill, that refers to 1500 over a period of three years.

You asked a question about what the United States put forward today.  The United States indicated first, which Assistant Secretary Sauerbrey mentioned, our intention to work vigorously in accepting Iraqi refugees into the United States .  This was the question before about the number, as was indicated.  The number that we work with is 70,000 worldwide. 

Secondly, we also expressed our support for providing assistance for host governments.  We have done so and we will continue to do so.

We also mentioned the fact that we have processing centers in Amman and also in Damascus , and the functioning of these centers is to help and provide assistance.

We also addressed the fact that UNHCR has at this time asked for $60 million. That was what their appeal was for.  We have, however, stated that we would be prepared to give more if they expressed a need for enhanced capacity.  That figure was determined by UNHCR based on its needs at this time.

We also indicated our support for working with the Iraqis and with other governments and especially UNHCR in finding solutions for Palestinian refugees.  That was another specific that we addressed.

Finally, if I may say, we also highlighted the important role, going back to the other point, about NGOs and how crucial it is for NGOs to be able to have access in host countries, to be able to do the job they need to do.

We also made the appeal that host governments keep borders open, and we will provide support to those who are in need in those respective countries.

QUESTION:  I would like to know what the United States is planning to bilaterally provide assistance to Syria for the 1.2 million; and secondly, if you're planning any bilateral talks on the sidelines here with the Deputy Minister from Syria .  Thank you.

UNDER SECRETARY DOBRIANSKY:   First, as I indicated, our Assistant Secretary visited Egypt , Syria and Jordan in March and had discussions with Syrian officials; in fact, she could say a bit more about her discussions with Syrian officials about the situation.

Secondly, we work closely with UNHCR and have provided assistance through UNHCR and other organizations, NGO organizations that are operating there in Syria and also in other countries in the region. As I indicated, we will continue to provide assistance to those organizations in need.

We also have a refugee processing center that I referred to that we have set up, and let me also just add that even prior to Assistant Secretary Sauerbrey's visit, our Charge d'Affaires had discussions with Syrian officials about these humanitarian needs.

QUESTION:  -- in Geneva .  Secondly, what amount of bilateral assistance the U.S. has directly given to the Syrians, not through multilateral channels?

UNDER SECRETARY DOBRIANSKY:   On the issue of the meetings, Assistant Secretary Sauerbrey I think may be meeting.  I think there is some discussion about that.  As I said, she visited Damascus .

With regard to the other, I responded, we work through UNHCR and non-governmental organizations in providing assistance.

Thank you very much.

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