Dear colleagues and friends,
I write to share with you a description of my first trip as Assistant Secretary. First stop was Geneva to participate in an international conference on Afghan refugees and to meet senior leaders of the organizations that PRM supports – UNHCR, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the International Organization for Migration. Next stop was the Middle East to focus on Iraqi refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs), Palestinian refugees, and Syrians fleeing violence in their country. In both Iraq and Jordan, I met an interesting cross-section of their societies – from poor families to senior Government officials to a member of the royal family in Jordan. I was accompanied throughout by PRM staff assistant Lauren Diekman and DAS Kelly Clements joined us for the Middle East portion of the trip.
Geneva: In Geneva, government participants (including government ministers from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran) in the UNHCR-organized conference endorsed a regional, multi-year strategy to help refugees from Afghanistan. Delegates from more than 40 countries pledged to support voluntary repatriation of refugees, efforts to reintegrate returnees into Afghan society and assistance to host countries. The conference concluded with the adoption of a Communiqué that welcomes and supports the strategy. I delivered remarks – pledging the United States to “remain committed to assisting refugees, refugee returnees, and contributing to Afghanistan’s inclusive national development plan.”
Baghdad: The visit to Iraq focused on encouraging the Government of Iraq to lead in providing help to its displaced citizens. Support for female-headed households is a priority of our programs. I met with a small group of women – nearly all widows – who were displaced from their homes and now live in a squatter settlement on the outskirts of Baghdad. (A longer description of this visit is available here.) They expressed appreciation for the assistance they had received from UNHCR, but still face extreme poverty. They have very little income and do not get all the benefits to which they are entitled because the government does not recognize them as lawful residents of their neighborhood. Only local officials can register them so that they qualify for help.
Their concerns were front and center in subsequent meetings, and I raised their need for registration with both the Minister for Displacement and Migration and Iraq’s National Coordinator for Displacement. I also welcomed increased Government of Iraq support for aid to returning Iraqis and for allowing the displaced to integrate into the communities where they currently reside.
I also appreciated the challenges American colleagues at the Embassy face daily. While security is improving, these diplomats spend most of their time on the Embassy compound and from time to time duck into bomb shelters to protect themselves from incoming explosives launched by insurgents. All of us want to see Iraq become a stable, peaceful, functioning democracy and the U.S. Embassy is at the forefront of American efforts to help the Iraqis achieve that goal.
Jordan: We traveled north to the border and spoke with refugees who had fled unrest and violence in Syria. Thanks to Jordan’s humanitarian spirit, the border remains open, but Syrian forces have attacked people trying to flee to safety along footpaths that lead out of the country. One man I met had survived being shot in the leg. Several families told me of leaving relatives behind. Others were concerned about getting medical care for ill spouses or children, and had made the dangerous crossing for that purpose. They had fled, one said, with only the clothes on their backs. When I asked where they came from, several said the city of Homs and one boy wore a shirt with the insignia of the local soccer team there. With PRM support, UN Agencies and local humanitarian partners are providing food, medical care, supplies and other basics in cooperation with the government of Jordan.
Amman: In Amman, I visited a busy Ministry of Health clinic, which benefits from PRM funding to ensure access to health care for Iraqi refugees. While touring the hospital, we also spoke to patients who had arrived recently from Syria. At another stop in Amman, we saw a facility that helps Iraqi refugees find employment and cope with myriad other problems that come from living as a refugee.
In several meetings with senior Government officials, we discussed issues related to the Syria crisis, support for Iraqi refugees, and international support for Palestinian refugees and the UN agency providing essential services to them – the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). In every meeting I expressed gratitude for the generosity of the Jordanian people and acknowledged the burden and expense of hosting so many refugees. We also discussed our hopes for peace in Syria so that the tide of those fleeing violence could reverse.
Later we highlighted the humanitarian commitment of the U.S. Government by briefing reporters from both the international wire services and local media during a lively press roundtable. In telling them about the trip, we used the opportunity to discuss the $40 million in aid (as of mid-May) that the US Government was providing to displaced Syrians, including those in Jordan. Subsequently, that amount was increased to just over $52 million this fiscal year.
Refugee Admissions to the US: In both Iraq and Jordan, I carved out time to visit the resettlement support centers (RSCs) PRM funds as part of the program to admit refugees to the United States. In Baghdad, PRM’s unique in-country resettlement program for Iraqis is impressive. Over 8,200 of the nearly 65,500 Iraqi refugees admitted for U.S. resettlement from the region since 2007 were processed through this operation, which PRM runs in close cooperation with the Department of Homeland Security. In Jordan, PRM’s RSC has assisted in the resettlement to the U.S. of over 16,700 refugees, primarily Iraqis, since FY 2007. In both locations, I was pleased to see that cultural orientation programs were helping families get ready to travel to the United States. While we have experienced unfortunate delays in the processing of Iraqi refugees for admission to the United States, in the coming months we expect to see increased numbers arriving.
This trip was more than just an opportunity to meet with policy-makers and senior officials in the region. As I advocate on behalf of our programs and priorities, it helps to have seen these powerful examples. Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria will continue to remain high priorities as we strive to make sure our assistance and admissions programs are as effective and responsive as possible.
I look forward to continuing to press these issues and will make sure to keep you apprised of our progress.