The Global Migration and Refugee Crisis

Tuesday, June 14, 2016
Muhammad Hamed/Reuters
Anne C. Richard
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, U.S. Department of State

Vice President, National Program & Outreach, Council on Foreign Relations

Anne C. Richard, assistant secretary of state for population, refugees, and migration at the U.S. Department of State, discusses the scope of the global migration and refugee crisis, the humanitarian response, and policy options moving forward in this CFR National Program and Outreach Conference Call.

FASKIANOS: Good afternoon from New York, and welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Conference Call Series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the National Program and Outreach here at CFR. We are pleased to have those CFR national members and participants in our outreach initiatives on the call today. As a reminder, today’s call is on the record and the audio and transcript will be available on our website,

We are delighted to have Anne Richard with us to talk about the global migration and refugee crisis. Anne Richard is assistant secretary of state for population, refugees, and migration at the State Department. Prior to her appointment, Assistant Secretary Richard was the vice president of government relations and advocacy at the International Rescue Committee.

She was a nonresident fellow at Johns Hopkins University Center for Transatlantic Relations and a board member of the Henry Stimson Center. She also was an international affairs fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations from 1993 to 1994, and she is a Council member. And she was part of the team that created the International Crisis Group.

Assistant Secretary Richard, thank you very much for taking time out of your very busy schedule and a very full portfolio to talk with us today. It would great if you could tell us about the challenges and opportunities that you’re dealing with at the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, and the burden-sharing that you’re dealing with, with other nations, and the refugee crisis, as well as what our resettlement policy is here in the United States.

RICHARD: Thank you very much, Irina.

And thanks, everyone from the Council on Foreign Relations national members and the outreach group, for dialing in to have a conversation about the millions and millions of migrants and refugees around the world and what Americans are doing about this, and what more we can do to help.

If you follow the headlines or listen to the news, every day brings searing images and heartbreaking stories of refugees and migrants who have risked and lost everything. Two-thousand desperate people are crossing the Mediterranean and arriving in Italy daily. Thousands have been rescued at sea after overloaded flimsy boats capsize or sink. And thousands of men, women, and children have died.

In recent days, journalists have again turned their attention to America’s Southwest border and the children and families that arrive from areas of Central America that are plagued by ruthless criminal gangs. And it was only a year ago that we read about boats of migrants and refugees abandoned and left to drift in the waters off Southeast Asia, a crisis that mercifully has not repeated this spring.

So these tragedies are part of a global displacement crisis that shows no sign of ebbing. More people have been forced from their homes than at any time since World War II. Their numbers, over 60 million, rival the population of France. So let’s start by asking why record numbers of people are on the move. And it’s because violence has erupted, smoldered, or flared anew in a long list of countries.

Today’s conflicts are not just numerous, they are often brutal, chronic, and intractable. Long-term violence or oppression means that uprooted people aren’t able to go home. And these are not short-term emergencies. A child born in a refugee camp at the start of a crisis will often spend his or her entire childhood away from home. In some situations, camp midwives deliver the grandchildren of the original refugees.

The legal definition of a refugee is someone who has fled across international borders because they have a well-founded fear of being persecuted for five reasons: because of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. So nearly 20 million people, of the 60 million globally displaced, are refugees. Roughly 40 million are considered internally displaced persons, also called IDPs, who have not crossed international borders. They are still in their home countries but they have fled their homes.

So internally displaced persons do not enjoy the same type of protection that refugees do under international treaties and responsibility for helping the IDPs rests primarily with their own governments. And sometimes these governments are the problem. Syria is home to about 7 million IDPs, or one-fifth of the world’s total. And there, the Assad regime drops barrel bombs on its own people, destroying hospitals and schools and killing rebels and civilian alike. So another example is South Sudan, where feuds between leaders push the country to the brink of famine. And it has essentially ensured that one of the world’s poorest countries remain that way.

Combatants also thwart efforts to help. Convoys are blocked and delayed, even into areas where civilians are at risk of starvation. So we see, in many places around the world, humanitarian workers continue to be harassed, threatened, or even killed. The South Sudan example which I was just giving was we’ve seen that food convoys have been attacked, aid workers kidnapped and killed. The same goes for Afghanistan, where these are very dangerous places to work.

Like IDPs and refugees, migrants traveling without documents, can be exceptionally vulnerable. Migrants are just anyone on the move who may be seeking opportunity—a better life, going to school—but they don’t fit the definition because they’re not fleeing persecution. They may be fleeing poverty. In Malaysia and Indonesia last May, traumatized Bangladeshis told me about being starved and beaten by the crew on ships and seeing bodies dumped overboard.

Our bureau supports oversees operations and projects run by the international organizations, including the U.N. Refugee Agency, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the International Organization for Migration, and the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, UNRWA. We are also doing more and more to get aid to children caught up in conflict through the U.N. Children’s Fund, UNICEF, and to help mothers and families get the health care they need through the U.N. Population Fund.

We also help fund nongovernmental organizations that work in this field. These operations deliver essential lifesaving assistance: food, shelter, medical care, clean water, and sanitation. They protect the rights of the displaced, care for survivors of sexual violence, reunify families, educate children and youth, and help people gain the skills they need to support themselves and their families.

We can do this year after year because of support from Congress. And then we also get funding from Congress for our refugee resettlement program, which identifies some of the world’s most vulnerable refugees, brings them here to the United States, and offers them a fresh start. The United States resettles more refugees through this program, this UNHCR-run program, than all other countries combined.

As you may have heard, this year we will accept 85,000 refugees from around the world, including at least 10,000 refugees from Syria. Some critics say that our numbers are too low. Others oppose admitting Syrians at all, arguing that terrorists may seek to enter the United States as refugees, and have called for shutting down—bringing people from Syria, and some have even said from countries that have active conflict going on, particularly in the Middle East.

The U.S. government is taking every possible precaution to make sure that no one who intends harm to Americans is let into the country. Specially trained Department of Homeland Security officials screen applicants, conducting extensive security checks and lengthy in-person interviews. This process is deliberately thorough and careful and we are working to speed it up, but the days of airlifting hundreds of refugees to the United States ended on September 11th.

So I would maintain that U.S. humanitarian aid and diplomacy are vital in crisis after crisis. We have been able to spearhead the international response and use our influence to help keep borders open and aid flowing. And this has saved millions of lives. This is something Americans can take great pride in, that we are essentially funding the backbone of the international humanitarian system.

Like the United States, other donor governments have contributed generously, but today aid groups are stretched thin. Every year the needs outstrip the resources available. Last year the U.N.’s appeals to deal with these emergencies were only half-funded. Over the summer, budget shortfalls forced the World Food Program to reduce rations for millions of refugees in Africa, in the Middle East. And the World Health Organization had to close health clinics serving vulnerable and displaced civilians who had fled ISIL’s attacks.

So how can we close this yawning gap and meet such vast needs? Private giving could help. In just one week last September, after the photo of the drowned Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi hit the social media, donations for the U.S. Fund for UNICEF jumped more than 600 percent. The charity Save the Children raised four times more in that week than it had over the previous eight months.

You may recall that Google added a “donate” button to its search page, making it easy to contribute to humanitarian groups aiding refugees. It also pledged matching funds, and three days later it had raised more than $11 million. Dozens of other corporations have made major donations and offered matching funds as well to help fund relief efforts and essential services for refugees. Importantly, businesses and their foundations are also engaging directly, deploying their unique resources and knowledge to help refugees and organizations that help—the organizations that help them or setting up programs to hire or train refugees.

We also need more nations to contribute what they can. Some clearly are already shouldering enormous responsibilities. Because of Syria’s war, Germany now leads the world in taking in asylum seekers, or refugees who have traveled on their own to a new country and then petitioned to stay. And according to UNHCR, Turkey now hosts more refugees than any other nation. And Lebanon has absorbed so many Syrians that every fifth person living there is now a refugee.

But other nations too are coping with large influxes of people in need. If you look at a country like Uganda, they accept refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, Somalia, Burundi, and then allow them to work and farm to support themselves. And Ethiopia hosts refugees from Eritrea in the north, Sudan, South Sudan in the west, and Somalia in the south.

And a few years ago I traveled to Burkina Faso and there people were coming out of Mali. And they were coming not just with their families, which is the norm, but they had also brought their cattle and other animals. And the people of Burkina Faso were letting them share their pasture lands, which was a truly, remarkably generous thing because these animals obviously let the refugees care for themselves. They were able to bring their livelihoods with them.

The same handful of nations, the so-called traditional donors, always provide financial backing for aid operations. And that’s been the case. In the past few years the Saudis, Kuwaitis, and Emirates have also given hundreds of millions of dollars to help cope with the emergencies, particularly in the Middle East, but their giving has been uneven and varies a great deal from year to year.

With resources stretched thin, we need to make humanitarian aid as efficient as possible. Although refugees are often depicted in camps, most refugees today actually live in cities and towns. And instead of handouts, they may need to be handed an ATM card, or better yet a work permit. Relief and development experts need to collaborate, instead of working on completely different sets of countries and aspects of countries, to help counties like Lebanon, Jordan, Chad, and Niger coping with protracted crises and large numbers of refugees.

My own belief is that societies hosting refugees should not have to suffer for doing the right thing and taking in refugees. And so this is something that we’re working on a great deal lately. What you should know looking forward is that in September the U.N. General Assembly will hold a high-level plenary meeting to discuss the refugees and migration crisis. That will be on September 19th. And the next day, September 20th, the White House has announced that President Obama, in New York, will host a leaders’ summit to focus specifically on rallying countries to do more for refugees.

In the months between now and then, the president will be asking governments to make concrete commitments to meet three objectives. The first is to raise more money for humanitarian aid overall. We are asking more nations to regularly contribute to humanitarian agencies and operations.

Second, we’re asking more countries to take in refugees through permanent resettlement programs, like the one we participate in, by offering humanitarian visas or programs to study or work. These would all be ways desperate people can find safety and opportunity without putting their lives in the hands of smugglers.

Finally, we’re calling for measures that will help refugees become self-reliant and contributing members of the communities that are sheltering them. So the White House would like to see 1 million more refugees get the legal right to work and a million more children given the chance to go to school.

In addition to working together to address the staggering needs of displaced people around the world, we need to stop the conflicts that are scattering them. And to do that, we must stay vigilant; engage; try to stop the ethnic, religious, and political rivalries from exploding into violence. We must try to prevent life from being so bleak that risking death somehow seems preferable.

And the point is that, whatever we do, however incremental, it matters. So whether they are visible, under the glare of TV cameras, arriving in Europe or in more remote corners of the earth, each person fleeing has a story. And often, I’ve found, these are stories of incredible determination to survive, to protect their families, and to make something of their lives. They seek safety but also seek the dignity that all people deserve.

And let me conclude by saying despite borders and barriers, despite our different circumstances, our fates are linked, and their fight should not only be theirs but also our own.

So those were the initial comments I wanted to make to kick off this phone call. Thank you for listening.

FASKIANOS: And thank you so much for that. That gives us a lot of insight into what’s happening and to what people can do.

Let me just start, Anne, to ask—you talked about donations that can be made. Is there anything specifically that can be done to ensure access to education?

RICHARD: Well, there’s been a big focus on education, starting—what I’ve seen this last year, last September, at the U.N. meetings in New York, there were, like, seven different meetings going on about this, when in previous years there maybe would have been one. And this continued, then, at the World Humanitarian Summit that took place in Istanbul on May 23rd and 24th.

There has been a lot of coming together—countries coming together to do more to fund education. And what’s happened is there’s been an agreement that our old way of thinking about education, which is that we’ll get to that later—first focus on life-saving; worry about kids going back to school when there’s peace—that concept has been rejected, especially as, I’ve said, these situations have become more and more protracted.

So we’re realizing that children are growing up as refugees. If we don’t educate them while they’re living in exile, they will miss out on an education. This is what’s behind the No Lost Generation Initiative that UNHCR and UNICEF have come together behind. So a lot of top-notch nongovernmental organizations, including ones that care about children, have been focused on encouraging us, in the U.S. government but also other governments, to really put more funding behind educating children.

The Norwegians have been leaders on this, but so has the U.S. And the place I think we’ve made the most concerted effort is in Jordan and Lebanon, where we really have allies in the governments who know that they don’t want their own children to suffer from going to school with more and more refugee kids. And so we have tried to invest in helping them renovate schools, hire and train teachers, move—most of these schools are now moved to double shifts, where there’s a shift for the local kids and a shift for the refugee kids, but what we want to see is a lot more opportunity for all children from both communities.

And like I say, it gets beyond humanitarian short-term relief and starts to include, then, development experts in the work. But we have got to do it. We’ve got to knock down the old styles for responding to these crises and be very smart in our approach.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

Next question, please. Or let’s open up for questions, actually.

OPERATOR: Thank you very much.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

Our first question will come from John Reppert, Eckerd College.

REPPERT: Thank you very much.

It obviously is a critical international problem, but much of the discussion that seems to be going on, particularly around the Mediterranean, is a different approach to what you talked about, that carefully screening the refugees. Their argument is, how do you separate economic migrants from refugees?

RICHARD: Thanks for your question.

What we’ve seen in Europe is that a lot of people were able to walk into Europe and they were not initially properly screened, although the Europeans have moved to try to do a better job at that in recent months. And so they had people coming in, we now know, with false documents, or sliding through without documents, or being from one community and claiming to be from another.

And so we, by funding the High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Organization for Migration, we are looking to them to help countries in Europe, on the periphery of the EU—Serbia, Macedonia, Greece—to do a better job screening. And there’s two aspects of screening. First is to catch anybody who is a wanted criminal or a known terrorist, or who presents a profile that is dangerous. The other thing is to treat everyone with dignity, because these are human beings and they should not be mistreated, detained for lengthy periods of time.

We really promote interviewing, as part of the screening, to find out why people have left and to see if they have a case for asylum, in which case—in which situation they should be allowed to make the claim for asylum, and they should have that claim heard.

So there is, I think, within Europe—you know, there’s a strong human rights tradition, and their parliamentarians would like to see—I think their courts would like to see careful screening that’s humane. We are also hearing from some political leaders who say a lot of much tougher things, especially political leaders coming from these parties on the sort of far right, the ultra-right.

So we are trying to figure out, well, how can the U.S. help Europe in this situation? And clearly, Europe is resourceful, has smart people, has a lot of offices and organizations that can respond. And what we have chosen to do is to focus in on those places on the edges of Europe where the standards were below par and people were able to come in without screening.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Abbas Barzegar, Georgia State University.

BARZEGAR: Yes, hello. Thank you very much for being on the call this afternoon.

I was recently in Berlin for the launch of the Partnership for Religion and Development by the Foreign Ministry there for Economic Cooperation and whatnot. And the focus of that meeting, as well as a number of other agencies and organizations, is to try to figure out how to better integrate the faith-based development and aid network into, you know, responding to the global refugee and migration crisis.

And I’m just wondering, from your vantage point, is there anything unique—is there anything uniquely beneficial, uniquely consequential about engaging large organizations that come from faith-based background, specifically from the Muslim world? Is that something that your office is interested in exploring more? How do they look at that phenomena?

RICHARD: Well, I was recently in Istanbul, as I mentioned, for the World Humanitarian Summit, and it was my privilege to speak to a gathering on the role of religious and faith-based organizations in humanitarian response.

And I think views within the State Department have evolved in just the last few years because Secretary Kerry is so interested in the role of religion in U.S. foreign policy and in international relations that he created an office, headed by Shaun Casey, my colleague down the hall—who I believe Irina told me will be speaking soon to a similar group—to look at the role religion plays.

This wasn’t exactly news to my office, because my office resettles refugees in the U.S. with nine NGO partners that have networks across the U.S., and six of the nine are faith-based. So I was able to talk about how those organizations, based very much in American communities, help resettle refugees and how Americans contribute sometimes through faith organizations that work to do good works overseas. And I’m thinking of Catholic Relief Service, Lutheran World Relief, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, Islamic Relief.

So we have a very powerful and professional set of international NGOs that are faith-based. What I made clear, though, is that the U.S. will only work with these groups, and sometimes fund grants to these groups, when they make clear that they’re motivated by their faith; they’re not proselytizing. They have to provide services in the humanitarian assistance field to everyone who needs it based on that need and not based on their religious beliefs.

So I think, you know, this really is a very American approach that is not necessarily well-known in the rest of the world, that we partner with people who are motivated by their faith but they’re expected to help everyone that they come in contact with. And that’s sort of one of the messages that we were trying to get out, that we take pride in our model and we think that it offers some unique dimensions that others might want to hear about.

BARZEGAR: Thank you. Thank you.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Thank you.

Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Judith Milestone, the University of California.

MILESTONE: For donors who are especially interested in helping women and young girls who are refugees, what are the most effective and well-run NGOs?

RICHARD: I probably should not get on a phone with a hundred people and tell—(audio break)—which are the right organizations to go to. But the good news is, there are some, and they’ve been very influential to me.

I think U.S.-based NGOs, the big ones that are professional, several of which partner with the U.S., not all—organizations like Oxfam and Médecins Sans Frontières don’t take U.S. money, but if you look at a number of the big ones that are—that represent a lot of Americans’ interests—so I’m talking about CARE, Save the Children, International Rescue Committee, Mercy Corps, International Medical Corps—who am I going to forget? Who is going to be mad at me? (Laughter.) You know, there’s a whole span—World Vision—there’s a whole span of organizations that, over the last couple of decades, have become really quite professional.

I used to work for the International Rescue Committee, so I learned a lot at the time about trying to prevent bad things from happening to women and girls, and how to respond once those things did, and trying to—I brought that into this job. And of course I was initially hired by Hillary Clinton, so there was no question that she wanted us, as the humanitarian—supporters of humanitarian response around the world, she wanted us to push and to get these organizations that we worked with to do more to prevent violence against women and girls and to respond to it.

So there was a question when she left if the next secretary of state would be as good on these issues. And of course Secretary Kerry is the former sponsor of the International Violence Against Women Act, so he has given us a lot of support in creating something we call Safe from the Start, which is a program to make sure that the U.N. Refugee Agency, and the International Organization for Migration, and other top-notch groups pay more attention to these issues. And not just that they send an expert on violence against women and girls to the field, but that they make sure that the water and sanitation engineers think about where to put the latrines, and when they’re setting up a camp that there’s solar lighting along the path to the latrines; that women and men are not just sort of foisted together, but there is some privacy and some separation; and that families feel safer in the places to which they’ve fled.

So there’s a lot of common-sense things that can be done, and we have pushed our partner organizations to do this. And the good news is at the top of the organizations, there’s a lot of support for this. If the people who are responding to an emergency who feel sometimes that there’s—we’ll take care—it’s the same with the education thing—we’ll take care of that later, we’ll get to that later, and that’s a mistake, because then that’s when bad things can happen in the early, chaotic days of response to an emergency.

MILESTONE: Thanks. Thanks very much.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

And as it turns out, we do have somebody from Oxfam on the call: I believe Ray Offenheiser, who is the president and CEO. So we won’t put him on the spot to talk—

RICHARD: Oh, I’m so glad I mentioned Oxfam. (Chuckles.)

FASKIANOS: I know, exactly. It’s really great. And next week here at the Council, we’ll have David Miliband of IRC. So definitely covering all—the whole waterfront there.

Let’s go to the next question, please.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Dorian Brown Crosby, Spelman College.

CROSBY: Hi. Thank you so much for being on this phone call as well.

My question is geared a little bit more towards the integration of refugees into the U.S. society and neighborhoods. And I know that we can’t forecast what will come under the new administration, but can you just kind of give me an idea of how much might be sustained or changed in terms of the White House’s initiative—White House Task Force on New Americans?

And secondly, as a part of that, what are your ideas or suggestions in terms of an academic partnership with the Office of Refugee Resettlement in terms of addressing integration of refugees in the U.S?

RICHARD: Thank you for an interesting question.

Yeah, not knowing the outcome of the election this fall, you know, one could hazard the U.S. going in a couple different directions. In the past, we had such strong bipartisan support year in, year out for decades for helping refugees, both the part where we help overseas and the part where we bring refugees to the U.S., that anyone asked that question in the past, would have said I anticipate little to no change. What’s been different about this latest political season is more discussions of border security, and groups coming into the U.S., groups that should leave the U.S., different ethnic groups in the U.S., that have been part of the national campaign debate.

So it seems like the two political parties are taking very different approaches. Having worked for Secretary Clinton, I would imagine she would continue in the direction that President Obama has, which is to seek to defend these programs and to continue them. On the Republican side, I think there is a lot of support from people like Lindsey Graham for overseas aid to refugees. Where we’ve seen more of a split within the U.S. discussion on the Republican side is, you know, whether, and how many, and who to bring to the U.S. in the refugee program, with a real span of options there. And so that may get—if Donald Trump is the nominee and if he is elected, then I anticipate there could be changes to this program that we have been running for some time now. But that—now I’m starting to get way out on a limb in terms of what—you know, that’s all just guessing, based on rhetoric—

CROSBY: Right, right, right.

RICHARD: —political rhetoric to date, and that’s not the most reliable predictor of what will happen in any administration.

The White House Task Force on New Americans has been very interested in promoting, you know, one real source of American vitality, which are immigrants and refugees coming to the U.S. I don’t know if it’ll continue into the next administration. That would be up to the next president.

I do think that we who work on refugees in the administration—whether it’s at Health and Human Services; the Office of Refugee Resettlement, that works with states to provide services to refugees after their initial welcome; or if it’s here in the State Department, where we are running programs to bring them here and get them settled in the first three months, half a year—we are trying to do more with universities. And part of it is I think this debate we’re having in the U.S. now about the impact that bringing refugees to the U.S. has, we need more evidence of what that impact is. I tend to think it’s an overall positive impact. But to be more persuasive, a smart person will use, you know, really good academic studies using evidence of whether there’s the—whether refugees coming to the U.S. are a drain on the economy, or whether they, as I suspect is the case, make a contribution over the long term that outweighs the short-term expense of bringing them here and providing services in the short term. That’s certainly been the story of America generation after generation, and I suspect that that still holds up. But it’s—while anecdotes are nice, I think academic studies that really look at these situations—the effect on cities, the effect on rural areas, the effect on labor force—would be very, very helpful to us. And that’s where we’re looking for more academic input.

CROSBY: Thank you very much.

FASKIANOS: Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Aimee Barnes, California EPA.

BARNES: Hi. Thanks so much for this topic and for the opportunity to ask a question. I have two questions, one that sort of pertains directly to my work and one that’s just sort of a broader question.

I’m curious about energy access in refugee camps, and if there are any ways that we could be helpfully supporting that work.

And then a second question is just sort of more broadly related to safer crossing. And I know there’s sort of a debate about whether—you know, not wanting to promote crossing, but at the same time, we know people are doing it. And so just curious about the extent to which you are engaged with organizations like the Migrant Offshore Aid Station or others, and what you think the right sort of balance is to try and make crossing the Mediterranean safer while also trying to discourage people from making that dangerous trip in the first place.

RICHARD: Yeah, those are very good questions.

In terms of refugee camps, well, first, I think I mentioned most refugees do not live in camps. They’re living in cities and towns. And they—in a place like Jordan, the government is very clear that they’re adding a strain to the water—usage of water, sanitation, and energy. The whole infrastructure of cities is then strained by having so many—an influx of so many newcomers at one time.

In a refugee camp, the key issues traditionally were, you know, how to get clean water to so many people. Do you dig wells? Do you truck it in? You know, it can be a tremendously expensive thing. And if there’s a local natural source, are you somehow siphoning that away from local people, who may be just as poor as the refugees coming in carrying nothing?

In terms of energy, you know, it really varies from place to place, but that too is a dilemma. And, you know, that’s behind these horrible stories of women sent out into the bush to collect firewood, for example, to cook the family’s meal and being attacked, and the men choosing to send the women because—this happens in several places on Earth—because they figure the men will be murdered; the women will merely be raped. And so these are really tough, tough situations around the world. So there’s been more of a push for, you know, better technology so that it can be more energy efficient in refugee camps.

You know, one of the interesting things—because Syria was such a developed country, the Syrians who’ve come out to neighboring countries, like in Jordan—the camp that the Jordanians built at Zaatari, it was one of the—it was, like, the—at one point, it was the fourth- or fifth-largest city in Jordan. It’s gotten a little smaller since then, but it’s still a lot of people. I think it’s 80,000 people live there now. UNHCR had power lines going into the camp from the local grid, but they were not providing power to residents; it was just for running the computers in the offices. And what they found was that the residents would tap into the power lines because they wanted to recharge their cellphones. They wanted to stay in touch with—as many of us would—(chuckles)—with family and friends, and find sources of information. And so Zaatari quickly went from being an emergency camp to really become more of a—of a city with shops, and commerce, and people wanting to live as much, like, a normal life as they would at home. And so the energy usage that you might have predicted for a refugee camp once upon a time was much, much, much different. So your interest in that, I think it’s an area that’s ripe for pursuing and looking more into.

In terms of the second point, about people making these difficult crossing of the Mediterranean, you know, this is one issue where governments are not shy. They come together and they want to crack down on smugglers. And I’ve seen it talking to Europeans. I’ve seen it talking to people in Southeast Asia. And, of course, we also have people who the U.S. Coast Guard picks up from flimsy craft that are in the Caribbean. So this really, truly is an international issue about people trying to get a better life and setting out to sea in really very dangerous conditions.

So there’s a general agreement to cut down on the smugglers. There is reluctance to do so much lifesaving that it actually then becomes seen by migrants as a safe thing to do. And this is where I feel particularly torn talking to some of—international experts. We want to make it a disincentive to get on those boats. You want to dissuade people from doing that. But certainly on the sea, you’re supposed to save lives. If any vessel sees people drowning or in danger of drowning, you’re supposed to save lives. So there’s a vigorous discussion going on—the U.S. Coast Guard is involved; you know, they—I have a great deal of admiration for them—trying to figure out how to put the best programs together.

I mean, the main—the real solution is to address the situations that these peoples are fleeing at the root, to look at the root causes. So that means poverty in stretches of the African continent, and parts of South Asia and the Middle East. And it also means persecution, conflict, and war in a different but sometimes overlapping set of countries.

FASKIANOS: Great, thank you.

We have about 10 more questions left, so we’ll try to get to as many as possible. So if you all could keep your questions concise, that would be terrific. So, next one, please.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Margaret Karns, University of Massachusetts.

KARNS: Thank you. Can you hear me all right?



KARNS: And thank you very much for your excellent introductory remarks and for being part of this call today.

I want to take you in a slightly different direction with two questions that may seem unrelated, but are not. Your remarks did not address the question of the so-called environmental migrants or refugees, which clearly poses an issue, in that international law has no provision for dealing with people whose very lives and well-being are tied to supplies of water, farm—arable land, et cetera, disappear with climate change. I’m wondering what thinking has been done with respect to addressing this issue, and to looking at the larger issue of both IDPs, refugees, as well as the environmental migrants and perhaps the economic migrants, in terms of the adequacy or the need for better, larger overall international infrastructure that might in umbrella sort of arrangements, which UNHCR would continue its duties, but you would have other organizations? The IOM has very little capability in this regard. So I’m curious if you would elaborate a little bit on your own and others’ thinking that you’re aware of on this.


The two countries that got out in front on this issue of environmental—quote, “environmental refugees,” unquote, were Switzerland and Norway, and they created the Nansen Initiative to look at what can we anticipate. And initially, the U.S. was staying outside of this because they were sort of focusing in Geneva, and it looked like an assault on the UNHCR, the U.N. Refugee Agency, that already didn’t have enough money to do all the things it was trying to do.

Then, of course, Secretary Kerry came in, and he was—made climate change and doing something about climate change and the oceans one of his top handful of issues that he really wanted to make a mark on in his tenure. And Todd Stern was the negotiator on climate change for the secretary. And Todd came to us and said, you know, we want the United States to be seen as caring about these issues and doing something on climate change, and here’s the Nansen Initiative without the U.S. involved. Can we get involved? And so for a very little, small—relatively small contribution, the U.S. became a friend of the Nansen Initiative so that we were not outside of this conversation, but instead part of it. That doesn’t mean that we now have all the answers, but it shows that we were willing to talk about these issues with other countries.

We’ve seen that, you know, people are moving for lots of different reasons; and that the refugees that I described, the five reasons, fits into international conventions and definitions, but that more and more people on the move don’t. And the understanding internationally is that economic migrants don’t have a special claim the way refugees do to stay or request a stay from being returned to their homes if they’re found entering a country. But more and more, we see really blurred lines.

You’ve mentioned the environmental consequences of change on the ground. And another example is the children the summer before last that came up from Central America, the families that continue to come, and then the numbers have gone up and down since the summer before last. But they’re fleeing criminal gangs. And so they’re not being persecuted by their government. They’re not being persecuted because of their religion or ethnicity. They are, however, under threat from elements in their society because of who they are, perhaps because they’re a youth who grew up in a certain neighborhood. So that—we’re finding that immigration judges in the U.S. are being sort of tested. Do those children count as refugees under our law, or not? And many immigration judges are saying, yes, they did. But that’s not the conventional definition, I think.

So some—in the international conferences I’ve been going to lately, some of the thinking is that we have to reopen the Refugee Convention. We would argue, no, leave the Refugee—(chuckles)—Convention alone; it works. We’re afraid that if we opened it, some of these governments that are anti-refugee and anti-migrant would actually weaken it. And instead conversations are, what can we do on top of what already exists to strengthen our response to these so-called mixed flows of people coming for very different reasons and fleeing very different situations?

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Maria Mendez, Alabama State Port Authority.

MENDEZ: Yes, thank you. I have basically two questions.

One is: What kind of screening is being done for diseases that have been eradicated and that are now coming more into light? And I’m going to be in the region, as a matter of fact, in Istanbul and Lebanon, in a week, and they’re talking about a flea—a sand flea that basically eats your skin alive. So my concern is, what is being done about diseases that could impact the greater population where those migrants are coming to?

And second, what is the administration doing for those Cuban migrants that started in Ecuador, went to Costa Rica, Costa Rica shut the door, went to Panama, Panama shut the door, now they’re in Colombia, and they’re coming? And I understand about 45,000 immigrants or migrants are coming from Cuba into the U.S.

RICHARD: Well, your question about the spread of diseases is key to a lot of the discussions we have internationally about how, you know, Americans can be threatened by things that don’t recognize borders, that just cross over borders. And, you know, disease is the perfect example of that.

And so we work very closely with the Centers for Disease Control. Every refugee we bring to the United States has to have medical exams. They get a medical exam to make sure that they’re free of tuberculosis and other communicable diseases, and that they have their inoculations. And then they often—if there’s any question, they get a little—I think a check, too, before they get on the plane to make sure that there’s no problems. And so we work very closely with the CDC, that’s headed, as you know, by Dr. Frieden, and we have a very strong relationship with them. So we do not intend to bring the sand flea to the United States from the places we’re interviewing refugees for resettlement. But again, it’s the CDC that we look to for advice on that. We wouldn’t—we wouldn’t come up with that on our—on our own. And, you know, another example from the Middle East is MERS—that Middle East I guess it was respiratory syndrome, is also something that people were very afraid would get spread and has been contained, but there’s still, you know, signs up at the airport—among all the many dangerous diseases that we’re all collectively fighting.

Cubans who approach U.S. borders by land can seek asylum inside the United States and get assistance to get—reside in the U.S. legally. Cubans who—I mentioned Cubans who try to reach the U.S. by water are discouraged from doing that, and we—if they’re found at sea and they have a credible fear of persecution, they are interviewed and we try to find a safe place for them to live other than the U.S. So, in that sense, we share this issue with other countries.

Now, the Cubans you specifically mentioned were people who were being moved in Central America, but I suspect that their goal is to get to the United States. So we can’t prevent other countries from transporting migrants towards the U.S. if they so choose to do that, but in terms of our own borders, our folks have a very clear guidance on Cubans.

FASKIANOS: Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question will come from Terry Babcock-Lumish, Islay.

BABCOCK-LUMISH: Thank you, Anne and Irina, for this very important conversation today.

We know immigration has become a very contentious political issue in this presidential election, but we’ve also had state governors stating their opposition to refugees settling within their borders. So, political posturing aside, I’d welcome your thoughts from a State Department perspective on the consequences of domestic leaders trying to bar refugees.

RICHARD: Yeah. Thanks, Terry, for that question.

That was one of the surprising things post Paris bombings in November. The following week, which you’ll recall was between November 13th and Thanksgiving, 30 U.S. governors, or 31 U.S. governors, came out concerned about refugees being resettled in their states, meaning 20 did not object. And what we found is that the people who are most comfortable with the refugee resettlement program is mayors, because mayors are working at that city level and meeting refugees, and they have sense of what refugees bring to their city. So, if you—there’s the mayor of Baltimore, the mayor of Detroit, who are very pro-immigration and pro-refugee, and want to—are actively seeking more resettlement of refugees as a way to make sure that their neighborhoods have people living there who are motivated to maintain their homes, to find jobs, to make it, and to give back.

So the governors, not all of them knew a lot about the program. And since they spoke out, we have had a series of phone conversations, led by the White House, to talk to governors, and—first on the phone calls that the White House put together, and then also through the State (sic; National) Governors Association. And we’ve also talked more to the press to get the word out about how we run the program, the precautions we take, the serious, heavy-duty vetting that refugees have to undergo before they’re allowed into the United States.

So I think part of the problem was that there wasn’t a lot of information out there, not a lot of good understanding of what the actual process is. And so we have tried very hard to get a lot more education pushed out to state capitals so that people understand that this—we’re not—we’re not running a reckless program that is taking risks.

FASKIANOS: Well, Assistant Secretary Richard, I am afraid that we must end the call. We are at the top of the hour, 3:00, and one of our Council rules is to end on time. Thank you very much for this hour conversation from your schedule. It really was insightful.

We appreciate all the comments and questions from the group. And I hope that you will follow the State Department’s Twitter. It’s @StatePRM. Is that correct, Anne?

RICHARD: Yeah, that’s for our bureau. So if you’re interested in refugee issues, @StatePRM should be the Twitter feed you follow. Thank you.

FASKIANOS: And is there any other—are there any other resources on the State Department you would suggest that people go to for further information, to your website, or?

RICHARD: Well, website has a lot of material, and we have a webpage, as well, on it. And I think that the Twitter feed and the Instagram photos are the most popular things that people follow.

FASKIANOS: Wonderful.

Well, thank you again. We really appreciate it. And thanks to all of you.


Top Stories on CFR

Global Governance

The planet is on fire, the pandemic smolders on, and the global recovery is faltering. The G20 was created for just such challenges, and the Rome summit offers it a chance to rise to the occasion. 


The coup in Sudan shows that the military members of the transitional government were never truly committed to implementing democracy in the manner sought by protesters who forced Omar al-Bashir from power in 2019.

Climate Change

Experts have warned that time is running out to avoid climate catastrophe. Will the global climate conference spark action?