Conversations With America: Helping the World's Refugees
Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Public Affairs
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration
MS. BENTON: Hello, and welcome to the U.S. Department of State. This is Conversations with America, a discussion between top State Department officials and a nongovernmental organization leader, where you can watch and participate in the dialogue. I’m Cheryl Benton, deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of Public Affairs.
In recognition of World Refugee Day on June 20th, today we will be talking about helping the world’s refugees. 2011 also happens to be the 60th anniversary of the United Nations Refugee Convention, so it is particularly fitting to discuss the roles the U.S. Government and civil society play in protecting, easing the suffering, and resolving the plight of persecuted and uprooted people around the world.
We have received questions and comments on today’s topic from around the world through our blog, DipNote, and have selected several for this broadcast.
Now let’s meet our guests. Eric Schwartz is the assistant secretary for the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration at the Department of State. He and his staff serve an important mission on behalf of the American people to provide life-sustaining assistance and, through its work with multilateral organizations, to build global partnerships, promote best practices in humanitarian response, and ensure that humanitarian principles are thoroughly integrated into U.S. foreign and national security policy.
Dr. George Rupp is president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, or IRC. Dr. Rupp oversees the IRC’s relief and development operations in over 40 countries and in refugees resettlement and assistance programs throughout the United States.
Welcome, Dr. Rupp, and thank you for joining us. Can you tell us a little bit more about the work that you do?
DR. RUPP: Well, let me begin by thanking you very much for inviting me to be here for this conversation. It seems to me especially appropriate in recognizing the World Refugees Day and the 60th anniversary to be here and have a chance to talk with Eric Schwartz. The Bureau of Populations, Refugees, and Migration and the International Rescue Committee are two of the only organizations in the world that are involved with refugees both in humanitarian emergency situations and in resettlement in this country. So it’s a real pleasure to be here and to offer this recognition of World Refugee Day with you.
MS. BENTON: Perfect. Eric, can you tell us just a little bit about what your work is in the bureau?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: Cheryl, likewise, it’s a real pleasure for me to be here, to be with George and to be with you, for this conversation. The Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, as you said, on behalf of the U.S. Government, we provide and promote protection and life-sustaining assistant to refugees, victims of conflict, stateless people around the world, on behalf of the American Government. As much as any part of the U.S. Government, our bureau is a very fair representation of the most noble values and principles of the American people.
MS. BENTON: Very good. Dr. Rupp, as our guest, can you launch our conversation? We have gotten participation from all around the world, but I know that our viewers and our listeners are anxious to hear from you.
DR. RUPP: Well, I would be interested in turning that and hearing from Eric, in the sense that it seems to me clear that you’ve had an extremely intense and productive couple of years at PRM, and I’d be very intrigued to hear firsthand your impressions from your travels around the world and your work here in Washington.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: Thanks, George. Why don’t I talk for just a couple or few minutes about the work of the bureau and what we’re trying to accomplish. I think for most Americans, maybe the historical experience that is most relevant or is very relevant to the bureau is the experience of the ship, the St. Louis. Prior to World War II, it was a ship of many hundreds of Jewish refugees that fled from Europe and was in great fear of persecution at the hands of the Nazis. And it went around the world looking for refuge and went to the United States, and the ship came in to the Port of New York and was refused entry. And as a result, ultimately, it returned to Europe, where many hundreds of those refugees ultimately perished in the Holocaust.
And that is a great stain on our country, on our government, and I think it’s the memory of the St. Louis that largely informs the work of our bureau. I think the American people, the American Government, want to be, first and foremost as an expression of our values, want to be responsive to humanitarian need and humanitarian suffering. And I think that experience informs the work of our bureau.
So what does our bureau do? As Cheryl said, it provides assistance and protection to victims of conflict, to refugees who are escaping persecution around the world. The bulk of our assistance is overseas and our assistance serves many purposes. First, again, it’s an expression of the values of the American people, which is why we get a remarkable, a really remarkable amount of support year in and year out from the Congress. The Congress supports the humanitarian mission of the U.S. Government almost unequivocally.
Second, it enables us – because of the magnitude of our support, it enables us to influence the behavior of other governments and to drive the development of responsible international action on humanitarian issues, to drive that development like no other government in the world. We are the leader, unquestioned leader, on these particular issues.
And then finally, in terms of our national security and foreign policy interests, it enables us to promote reconciliation, stabilization, in circumstances where despair and desperation of people who are in miserable circumstances, where that despair and desperation can ultimately result in challenges to our national security and our national interests.
Let me also say that this all done at a remarkably cheap price. If foreign aid is less than 1 percent of our overall federal budget, this particular part of foreign aid, humanitarian assistance to help those who are in most dire straits, is far, far less than 1 percent of our overall federal budget. So we’re promoting our objectives and our values very much on the cheap here.
In addition to this overseas assistance, as George, as you mentioned, we also play a major role in the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program. Last year we resettled 73,000 – about 73,000 refugees into the United States. And also we manage a range of international migration policies in which we work with other governments to determine how best to address in a humane and effective manner issues relating to migration.
Our focus, the focus of our bureau on behalf of the Department of State – we are the Department of State’s humanitarian arm – is the most vulnerable. And so I have to add before I finish, is the most vulnerable in many cases in refugee situations are women and children, and so much of our program is focused on empowering women. Because what we have discovered, what is well established, is investments in women around the world, especially vulnerable women, reap huge benefits in terms of development and in terms of our overall objectives.
Finally, let me say that we couldn’t do what we do without the partnership with civil society. What do we mean by civil society? It’s all those institutions and individuals who aren’t government but who play a critical role, not only as partners but also as critics, telling us what we need to do better, what we’re not doing so well, and reminding us that sometimes our rhetoric doesn’t always match what it is we’re actually doing in practice. And for that, I mean, the IRC has been a terrific partner of the State Department, of the government. And the organization was established in 1933, as George well knows, and has played a critical role in international humanitarian response over the years.
In that respect, George, I’d be really interested in your perspectives from the NGO side.
DR. RUPP: Well, I will be glad to give those, both the positive and, as you suggested, maybe even a criticism here or there. But first let me pick up on your historical narrative, because you mentioned that our origins also are working with refugees from Nazi persecution. But I think we should roll back a little further in U.S. history, especially on this day when we commemorate World Refugee Day, because the story of the United States with refugees goes back at least to the Mayflower, when the pilgrims fled Britain by way of Holland and landed here. So there’s a sense in which refugee is integral and interconnected with U.S. history from the very beginning.
But you mentioned the St. Louis and our origin in 1933. For us, too, the critical occasion to become aggressively involved with refugees was the persecution of Jews by the Nazis. And so we were started in 1933 at the suggestion of Albert Einstein that there’d be a – it would be valuable to have a committee of notables in New York who worked with counterparts in Nazi-occupied Europe to rescue refugees and then help them get back on their feet in this country. And it’s exhilarating work to do that. We focused initially really on the rescue of Varian Fry in Marseilles – they’re wonderful stories – before the United States was fully engaged with this problem in managing to get, through advocacy, admissions of refugees to this country and then helping them get on their feet.
And we’ve continued to do that now for almost 80 years. So we have 22 resettlement offices around the U.S. When the U.S. last year admitted 73,000 refugees, we resettled or worked with over 10,000 of those. And it’s exciting work to do. But as your description of PRM indicated, as exciting and exhilarating as it is, it can only address the problems of a very small fraction of the uprooted people in the world. There are, order of magnitude, 40 million plus uprooted people in the world. Even if we resettled 75-80,000 in this country, that’s two out of every thousand; or to put in the other way around, 998 out of every thousand need to get back on their feet somewhere else.
And that’s why PRM works around the world, that’s why your programs are larger abroad than domestically, that’s why our programs are very substantially large internationally than they are in this country. And the good news is we’ve worked very closely in both of those settings, and we relish that, and we celebrate the advances that I think PRM has made in recent years in beginning to grapple more effectively with these problems.
And you know the achievements that have been won. Let me mention just a few. On the domestic side, there was a perennial problem of having waves of refugees come at the very end of the fiscal year and therefore have to have just a massive push to try to resettle them. PRM has worked very hard to smooth out that flow of refugees. This illustrates what a frustration it can be to work in a complex organization, because just as you had solved that problem, then this year there were new security procedures that led to a slowdown, and so now we’re hoping there will be a rush of refugees at the end so we don’t fall way short of our numbers.
But nonetheless, the systems were addressed in a way that hadn’t been before. Through your leadership, the Reception and Placement Per Capita Grant was doubled, which is a major, major – of major importance in trying to more adequately deal with the needs that refugees have.
We’re making progress under your leadership on orientation and language training prior to resettlement so people can hit the ground running. We have – we’re beginning to address both the IRC and PRM, the health – special health challenges that refugees have and so on and on. There are many achievements in the few years that you’ve been in this position and I want to thank you very much for all of those on behalf of the NGO community.
MS. BENTON: I was just curious, Eric. You had mentioned you were just recently in Bangladesh. Tell us a little bit about what you found there, what PRM will do there, and perhaps is that integrated in with any of the work you’re doing there or abroad? How does that all mesh together?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: Sure, be happy to, Cheryl.
First, let me emphasize that we do an enormous amount of our work through – not only in cooperation with nongovernmental organizations, but through international humanitarian organizations established by governments. And that’s based on a very simple proposition, which – if you got a lot of other governments doing what you want to be doing, it makes – it lightens your load, right? So for example, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, that’s the organization that is responsible for refugees and internally displaced persons around the world, people who have been displaced primarily by conflict. And – but we only – we don’t provide them a majority of their funds. We provide them, of their budget, probably about a quarter of their budget, which is commensurate with our contribution to world gross national product.
But with that contribution, others come in with much more, and we can leverage our support. So we work in large measure through international humanitarian organizations, and they’re very well regarded. UNHCR and the other humanitarian organizations are – they’re kind of at the top of the game in terms of how international organizations are perceived. That --
DR. RUPP: And they’re implementing partners, of which we’re the largest.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: That’s right. I mean, they do a lot of their work with the NGOs, so that’s the first point. So in Bangladesh, right, there, we got – it’s a government that we want to work very closely with. It’s a poor government, but that has made enormous development strides over the years.
But there’s a wretched situation across the border in Burma, and in Burma, the Burmese Government there has a huge population of Rohingya, a predominantly Muslim group in western Burma, who are Burmese but the government there just doesn’t recognize that they are Burmese. They are, they’ve lived there, they have a right to Burmese nationality, but the government hasn’t recognized that, so they’re effectively stateless. It’s a huge problem, this problem of statelessness.
DR. RUPP: I know.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: So over the course of the past couple or few decades, about – hundreds of thousands of these Rohingya have fled into Bangladesh, and there are huge challenges for a poor country to accommodate up to maybe half a million Rohingya. We don’t even know.
And so I went there first to reassure the government of the commitment of the United States and the international community to support this humanitarian mission, but also to discuss with the government ways to better meet the needs of this refugee population in Bangladesh, this stateless population within Bangladesh, while at the same time being responsive to the government’s concerns about all these new people in their country. And I spent a lot of my time on the road, probably about a third of my time on the road, working on these sorts of issues.
It’s important, again, not only because of the humanitarian dimension, but also we have interests in stability and well-being in lots of countries around the world that are our friends and our allies, and also countries that aren’t so friendly, but we nonetheless have this interest in sustaining stability. And so I spent several days there working on these issues, and hopefully we’ve made some progress.
MS. BENTON: Very good, very good.
DR. RUPP: Well, Burma – the mentioning of Burma and Burmese refugees is – suggests places where we also work very closely together. It happens not with the Rohingya in Bangladesh, but on the eastern border of Burma with Thailand. There are similarly longstanding displaced populations, Karen and Karenni for the most part, and we have worked with them now for over 20 years.
And it’s, in many ways, a wonderful success story, because in just – in recent years, a very large number of those refugees on the border have been given permission to resettle in the United States and are now part of the American population, are productive – not yet citizens, but well on their way to being citizens. And it’s an example where we have worked with PRM both on the border with refugees when they were – first came across the border, and were stateless because the Thai Government did not give them a possibility of citizenship.
And then over time, we have run – what used to be called the Overseas Processing Entity is now called the Resettlement Support Center, which is funded by the U.S. Government as a way of trying to make sure that all of the language training, cultural orientation can take place before refugees are resettled. And that’s a work in progress, but there, we’re working very closely with PRM. And then when they arrive in the U.S., we’re actively involved in helping them get back on their feet. So it really – the Burmese, at least in our case on the eastern border with Thailand, are a population where we’ve worked very closely on all sides of the refugee equation with PRM and others.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: Maybe just to clarify for your – for the viewers and the listeners, in terms of what are we talking about here, who are these people --
DR. RUPP: Right.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: -- and – because the terminology gets confusing. But the simple way to think about the – kind of our – the populations of principal concern to us are people who are victims of persecution or conflict. And they come in a variety of labels. There are refugees who are people who are outside their country, right? They’re outside their country, they’re refugees – that’s the definition of refugees – and they have a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, membership in a social group, political opinion. And those are refugees, and I think the number is now probably in the order of 10 to 15 million around the world.
But then there’s a whole another category of people who have been displaced by conflict or – and these are people who are displaced and living in a wretched situation, but they never left their country, they’re – and we call them internally displaced persons. And those numbers, just in terms of people who are displaced by conflict – I don’t have the numbers on my fingertips, but we’re probably talking on the order of between 30 and 40 million people around the world. And then there’s another category of people who are stateless, for – like the Rohingya. Their governments just decide that because of their own concept of nationalism or ethnicity that they’re not going to give these people citizenship.
Now – and we can get caught up in the labels, but I think the easiest way to think about it is the United States Government has a moral commitment and a commitment that’s reflected in our interests to these people who have been adversely affected by politics, by conflict, by security. And again, to make the point I made before, it’s a pittance. We spend a tiny percent of our budget on this and it reaps enormous benefits in terms of our world leadership, in terms of our own feeling about who we are and in terms of a range of other benefits.
DR. RUPP: Can I just pick up on that last point, and also on the earlier comments you made about women and children, in particular, because a higher percentage is 80 percent of the uprooted people in the world are women and children. And I think all of us who have had experience working in humanitarian relief and development are complete – firmly convinced that the best way to build for the future is to invest in women. It is not that men are unimportant, but the investments in women almost always wind up building families and communities and supporting education of kids and building for the next generation in a way that is not nearly as predictable in the case of investments in men.
So one of the heartening facts about your description earlier on of what you’re doing in PRM is the way in which you highlighted the work with women and children, and that certainly is true for us and for other nongovernment organizations. CARE, in particular, has made that a major priority.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: Let me make one other point on this, because we often – when we talk about vulnerability, we talk about women and children in refugee and displaced circumstances, and because women and children both share the characteristic of vulnerability they are the ones who are often abused or neglected, who get the back of the hand.
The different, though, between women and children are that women – I mean, the children are – don’t have capacity; women do, and that’s the critical distinction.
MS. BENTON: Wow. That’s a good point.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: Because they’re not – women don’t have to be victims.
MS. BENTON: Right.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: They have the capacity to thrive in these situations. And the fact of the matter is, when they get the resources, they – I’m sorry to say, but the evidence suggest they do better things with them than men do. And so investing in women because of that capacity is absolutely critical. They both – women and children both have the characteristics of vulnerability in these refugee situations, but the capacity issue for women is critical.
MS. BENTON: Yeah. I think one of the things the Secretary says is when you invest in women, you invest in families, communities, neighborhoods, and the world. I mean, it just has a multiplier effect. And I think you’ve addressed that quite nicely in the work that you’re doing.
I’m curious – we have the conflict that has erupted in what we call, what, the Arab Spring, all over North Africa, et cetera. How has what you’re doing changed? Is it a lot more because we are now seeing lots of refugees from Libya, Syria – I mean, you name it, Yemen, they’re moving out all over the place, so your work is that much more critical I would assume, and the budget issues, I think, are that much more critical.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: They are. (Laughter.) I mean, I think the principle is that we’ve had to become sort of a bureau on steroids. We’ve amped up our level of engagement. My – the people who work in my bureau, the bureau that I have the honor to serve as a steward for – it’s not my bureau.
MS. BENTON: Right.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: They are – they’re more tired now than they were a year ago. They’re working harder. They’re working longer hours. But they are all happy – not only happy to do it, but they’re all very prepared to do it because it’s just a – we just see – in recent months, we’ve seen a higher incident – incidence of conflict. So for example, the Libya situation, we’ve had to not only provide – work at providing humanitarian assistance inside of Libya, but also support a massive repatriation operation. What does that mean? It means that Libya had a lot of foreign workers. And when everything kind of went south in Libya, when the conflict erupted, so many of them left, fled – Bangladeshis, Sub-Saharan Africans and other nationalities – and this created a huge logistical challenge in terms of getting people, largely from Tunisia, on the border of Libya, to their homes. Why was this so critical? Because Tunisia itself is going through a democratic transition, and the last thing it needs is a huge population of people who are unhappy about having to leave Libya and unhappy about not being able to get home. So the requirements of that operation became huge.
The United States has provided about $80 million overall for the regional response. That seems like a lot of money, but we’re probably less than 20 percent of the international total. So Americans need to understand while we’re doing our fair share, and happily because we do our fair share, we can sort of be leading the response, but we’re not doing the majority. As I say, in the case of Libya, we’re probably under 20 percent.
DR. RUPP: I would like to take just a minute to applaud the U.S. response in that case. We had teams on both the Egyptian border and Tunisian border of Libya. And the potential for really major long-term refugee situation was quite large. And by far the best way to address the situation was providing the logistical support that allowed the citizens who had fled to go back to their homes rather than to remain in camps on the border, and it was indispensible that there was the leadership there was to make sure that that transportation was provided with the result that there aren’t long-term refugees camps on the border of Libya because people have been able to go home, which is by far the best solution to these problems.
MS. BENTON: A question for both you. Actually, let’s start with you Eric. What do humanitarians mean when they talk about protection of civilians or protection concerns?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: That’s a great question because there’s all kinds of protection.
MS. BENTON: Right.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: There’s physical protection, which in some cases you really need, if I can say, cold steel, to accomplish. If you’re in a conflict situation and people are at risk of getting killed, sometimes you actually need military personnel. But protection is a very broad concept.
I – and this is kind of my back of the envelope definition, I think protection is the range of efforts that you take to safeguard the rights and the well-being of vulnerable populations. And so that can mean everything from ensuring that in a refugee camp there’s adequate lighting at night so that women who have to go off to take – to shower, aren’t at risk of being raped. So it’s sort of everything from how you design these places to ensuring that a refugee has access to a system of adjudication so that – or registration so that they can access resettlement if that’s an option, so that they can access certain kinds of benefits in a refugee camp.
So the way I define protection – again, it’s a back of the envelope definition – is efforts to ensure that the rights and well-being of vulnerable individuals are safeguarded. And to me that’s what it’s all about. That’s what – I mean, providing food and assistance is critical, but that’s a logistical challenge. That’s a logistical challenge.
MS. BENTON: Right.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: When you figure out the logistics and you know how to do it, you can get food. So the key issue is protection, is ensuring that people’s rights are safeguarded.
DR. RUPP: That’s a perfectly good and adequate definition, your working definition of protection, and I completely associate myself with it. I do think it’s important to see it, however, also with a valence forward so that real protection means for women training and livelihood so they’re able to support themselves rather than have to be protected from others; and for children, most crucially, that they have educational opportunities so that they can wind up becoming productive and able to support themselves. And that, too, is part of protection writ large.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: One of the – I was going to say, George, one of the biggest frustrations that humanitarians face is that we operate with this deep understanding that fundamentally humanitarian crises don’t have humanitarian solutions.
MS. BENTON: Right, right.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: In fact, they have political solutions. You can solve the problem of the displaced – of the stateless Rohingya in Burma when you have a government in Burma that respects human rights and democracy, and that’s true with all the situations. But that doesn’t mean that humanitarians can’t play a role in promoting those ultimate outcomes. How do we do it? First with a canary in the coalmine, right? You can be sure when the – when Qadhafi was marching on Benghazi, humanitarians in the government were pointing out to decision makers what the humanitarian implications were going to be if he got to take over Benghazi. So we have a role to play. And we need to play that role in government as advocates, saying, look, if this happens, here are the bad things that are going to occur. So we have that role to play. But also we have this role, as George has said, in humanitarian situations where the superficial view is, oh, you can only provide assistance. But you can actually provide people with the tools to empower themselves. And if so, they can then begin to help create political solutions as well.
MS. BENTON: Very good. George, if you – go ahead.
DR. RUPP: Well, I just want to say in the case of an outfit like the International Rescue Committee, we really insist on trying to integrate that whole spectrum. So when we first are involved in an emergency response, we from the very beginning look at ways to build local capacity in the populations that we work with, so that there in fact is a sustainable solution to the problem going forward rather than just an emergency response. It’s not always easy to do, but we focus on it. And it’s one of the reasons that 97 percent of our staff who work for the IRC internationally are local citizens, because we – in some ways, it would be easier on the front end to have lots of expatriates come flying in, but we really focus from the beginning on recruiting and training locals so that they will be able to sustain the momentum that we have that begins in the emergency but then has to go through to post-conflict reconstruction.
MS. BENTON: That’s great. And those country-led solutions, I think, are key to success in many of our endeavors across the world.
This has been a great discussion, but I wanted to get some questions in from our DipNote, and – which is our State Department blog. So we have Ryan H. in Massachusetts who writes, “Recognizing the huge shift in media attention to the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex people abroad, what do you think are the greatest challenges to identifying and recognizing LGBTI refugees?
George, I want to give that question to you to start.
DR. RUPP: Well, that’s become a great priority, I think, among the international actors. UNHCR, the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees, has made it as a major priority, and – as has some of the U.S. Government. Bob Kerrey, who is our vice president for advocacy on refugee issues, has, in particular, weighed in on that. And I think that the identification is less of a problem than the protection once such refugees are identified, and then the – working through the process of getting authorization for resettlement. But I think it has become an issue that has a kind of salience that it didn’t have even four or five years ago.
MS. BENTON: Very good. So we have now a question from Florida. Dr. Dhyana (ph) Z. writes, “What is the current policy on the number of refugees who will be permitted to enter the United States? Is the State Department partnering with the public and private sector to ensure that refugees can obtain employment and have access to other support systems to sustain themselves and their families?
Eric, I’m going to see if you can handle that one.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: I’d be happy to, but I can’t let the first question go unanswered by me, given the role that the Secretary of State has played in these issues of LGBT rights.
There is – this issue has received enormous attention by my bureau. We have pressed the UNHCR, the UN international organization that has responsibility for this issue, to put it much higher on its agenda. Why? Because nobody should be killed, tortured, and put at grave risk as a result of their gender identity or their sexual preference. It’s just basic, common – notions of tolerance and common sense. And throughout the world, in many parts of the world, they are. They are. And so if that’s the case, then we have to do much more to try to address that issue. And it’s tough because in some parts of the world, if you use kind of public shaming of governments to do that, you sort of publicize the issue, you actually can put members of this community at greater risk. So it’s a tough challenge. It’s a tough challenge, but we’re doing everything we can on it.
Now on the issue of refugee resettlement, great question. It’s a great question because, first of all, we all operate on the realization that if you’ve got 10 or 15 million refugees in the world, we’re not going to resettle all of them. It’s not going to happen. Most of them are either going to have to be integrated into the places where they’re staying or returned to their countries of origin, right? They’re not going to be resettled. But for a sliver of this population, a small percentage of this population, the durable solution has got to be third-country resettlement because they don’t have any other alternatives and they’re in desperate, desperate straits.
And so what is the magic number? I’m not sure we know what the magic number is internationally, although the UNHCR does have a process – the UN organization responsible for this has a process in which they come up with an idealized number, which is much less than the 10 million, 10 to 15 million refugees in the world. And the United States tries to do its fair share. And while part of us – and many have argued that we ought to have – be resettling much higher numbers than the 73,000 we resettled last year, we’ve got to be very careful because we have to be sure that if we resettle people that we’re not resettling them into miserable conditions and that we have the resources to support their resettlement.
So right now we’re in the neighborhood of about 73,000. Some would like us to do much more, but my feeling is our greatest responsibility is to do right by those whom we resettle. And with the help of organizations like the IRC – that’s why in one of my first acts as assistant secretary, I did double this Reception and Placement grant, which is the initial assistance we provide to people once they get here. Don’t anyone think for a second that this is a golden parachute for refugees. Life of a refugee is very difficult. When we say doubling, what we’re saying is we went from $900 per refugee to 1,800 for the first one to three and sometimes longer months that somebody gets here. That ain’t a lot of money.
But from my perspective, it’s the least we can do. Everyone’s got to make it on their own here – right? – when they get here. There’s no free lunch. But the least we can do when somebody gets off the plane and is in and – from a refugee camp, the least we can do is give people enough for the first several months that they’re here so that they have a roof over their head, they’ve got some food on the table, and they have the wherewithal to begin the process of engagement in the job market, language training, et cetera. From there, the Department of Health and Human Services provides very modest assistance to refugees over the longer term. But again, it’s – it ain’t a handout. It’s very, very modest, and refugees really, here in our system, very much have to make it on their own. Thank goodness we have organizations like the IRC that can give them a helping hand.
MS. BENTON: Good. That’s what I wanted to hear, how your organization interacted and dealt with those challenges that Eric just –
DR. RUPP: Well, I think in direct response to the questioner’s concern, the focus is very much on the kind of job placement that is indispensible. The Reception and Placement award works only if at least one member of a family is earning money within a couple of months. And so we have a very sharp focus on employment placement. We work with partners, as the questioner inquired, with employers. And fortunately, the refugees have an excellent track record in accomplishment, and so we have employers who will – “Can you get us some more of those refugees,” because they work from early morning to late at night for admittedly quite low wages, but – until they can get to the next rung on the economic ladder.
And it’s exhilarating work. We have offices across the country. In many cases, the employees in those offices are themselves former refugees, so they’re very accomplished at dispensing the kind of tough love that’s required, and to do exactly what Eric just described, to get people on their feet within a matter of months and then on the way to home ownership, to kids going off to college, to citizenship, all of which happens remarkably consistently and quickly.
MS. BENTON: Very good. We do have another question from Diane in Maine. She thinks that the current U.S. trend is toward greater restrictive foreign and domestic policies that hinder rather than encourage migration. The reasons often stated are the costs resulting in higher taxation to provide public services for newly arrived refugees. What actions would you recommend to help counterbalance this position and shift American public opinion toward more favorable policies? Any --
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: Sure.
MS. BENTON: Yeah. Okay.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: Well, let me just make a couple of points. First, we are a nation of immigrants, and it’s not just – it’s just not – it’s not just a slogan. We are.
MS. BENTON: True.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: The school that my daughter goes to in Montgomery County, I think I heard – I think they said that there were 43 different nationalities, something like well over 20 different ESL classes, English as a second language.
And that’s not new. We are a country that has been made strong by immigration. And in fact, our policies of migration have enabled us to, if not completely avoid, to a greater extent avoid some of the very difficult demographic trends that some of our friends and allies in Europe and elsewhere are now experiencing as they look at a declining labor market and restrictive immigration policies and a social security system that is going to have greater and greater challenges in supporting an aging population. We have largely – our immigration policies have largely enabled us, again, if not to completely avoid those challenges, at least to avoid them to a greater extent.
And I think that the direct answer to the question, in my view, is political leadership. Our political leaders have to remind, have to continue to articulate the importance, the values that our open society has helped to promote. And that’s why I think President Obama has done that time and again in terms of his commitment to comprehensive immigration reform. But it really is about political leadership, because when politics get nasty the easiest thing to do is to go after the foreigner. And political leaders have to be elevated in their discourse and their discussion about that, about these issues.
MS. BENTON: Very good. I wanted to take one more question from Milagros (ph) in Peru: “Overseas and in the United States, both physical and psychological medical assistance are a priority for refugees. Is there a close follow-up of these cases? If so, which institutions are in charge of this? Is that something that you can pinpoint?”
DR. RUPP: Well, this happens to be an area that PRM has been very much focused on and has enlisted the support of CDC and other parts of the federal government to try to deal with. The IRC, International Rescue Committee, also has been preoccupied with it because we’ve had an increasing caseload, especially of Iraqi refugees, who come with major physical and psychological disabilities that need to be addressed. And we enlisted the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative to do an in-depth study of the health needs of the refugees whom we’re resettling, and we’re in the process of developing programs that can address those so that we can be more effective in making sure they’re taken into account.
But as Eric – you maybe tell us in more detail – to have this all work, we need better medical records from refugees when they come from abroad so that they can – we can place them in settings where they will be able to get attention. And I think it’s fair to say all of that interlocking set of issues is now being addressed.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: Yeah. I mean, I think one of the things that I think Americans can be proud of, where some countries kind of cherry pick refugees, we don’t. Our position is that if we’re going to resettle people, it should be based on notions of vulnerability. But that means that in our system, sometimes we get challenging medical cases. And this is one area where we have to do better as a government. I think we’ve done a lot, which George has spoken about, but we need to do more at the federal level to provide the assistance that states and localities need to handle some of these more challenging medical cases. We haven’t done enough, and we need to do more.
MS. BENTON: Very good. You know what? This has been a great discussion and it’s moved very quickly. And this concludes our discussion and our conversation this morning with America. First of all, I’d like to thank Assistant Secretary Schwartz and Dr. George Rupp for sharing their work and their knowledge of this issue with us.
I’d also like to thank each of you for joining us. Please note that the video and transcript will be available on state.gov very shortly. We hope that Conversations with America will continue to inform citizens about the Administration’s efforts to address the challenges of the 21st century. We look forward to engaging with you again very soon. Thank you, Eric and thank you, George.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: Pleasure.
DR. RUPP: Thanks.
MS. BENTON: All right. Good.