Remarks at the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Ministerial on the 60th Anniversary of the Refugee Convention
Secretary of State
I would like to congratulate UNHCR on its own anniversary last year. Mr. High Commissioner, celebrating more than 60 years of service demonstrates clearly the importance of your mission. I want to thank you, the staff, and the humanitarian partners that help so many millions of refugees and persons of concern around the world. And we must acknowledge, as we draw to the end of this year, that the humanitarian work done by UNHCR can be dangerous, as we saw this past October with the tragic shooting deaths of three local staff members in Kandahar. We share your sorrow, and we honor their sacrifices.
My country is a nation of immigrants, and we are proud to have welcomed so many refugees to our shores. This year alone, we welcomed more than 56,000 refugees from more than 60 countries. And we are equally proud to be UNHCR’s largest financial donor. We support this work, we understand its importance, and we honor those who do it.
The conventions we celebrate today laid a marker for human compassion on a global scale. They enshrined and guaranteed the rights of refugees and stateless persons and created a system for protecting them. That system endures today, and its values can be measured in the generations of people who have found new lives and futures, thanks to resettlement, local integration, and voluntary repatriation.
But we are here at a time when there are so many refugee crises afflicting the globe, and we have a lot of work ahead of us. The scale of the challenge has expanded in ways that no one foresaw. Tens of millions of desperate people have fled conflicts and crises in a steady flow. Their numbers and populations have grown increasingly mobile that they now are viewed as a fluid but permanent presence. Millions continue to be uprooted by wars or victims of persecution because of race, tribe, religion, political opinion, or sexual identity. Many are internally displaced persons, disempowered within their own countries.
And so we have to ask ourselves what are the most effective forward-looking policies for us to employ in this century. That means, in some cases, training immigration judges or border guards on how to treat asylum seekers with efficiency and compassion; making counseling services available to refugees who are also victims of gender-based violence; providing civic education to young people, so they might learn democratic practices; help to better girls, women, and children, who are especially vulnerable to violence, sexual exploitation, and other forms of abuse during crisis and upheaval.
The needs of refugees don’t respect our bureaucratic divisions, so we have to coordinate across governments. Justice and health, foreign affairs and national security, immigration – each brings unique perspectives and capabilities, but we have to do a better job of breaking down barriers, both within our governments and between our governments and with multilateral organizations.
If we do what is necessary today, we can alleviate a lot of the suffering. The benefits of doing so are clear and extend beyond resolving the crisis of the moment. We won’t only help people return home in safety and with dignity, but begin new lives in resettlement countries. We also have to do more to help host countries, such as Kenya, that have shown great compassion and concern, often at the expense of their own security and needs.
Protecting and assisting refugees is among my government’s highest humanitarian priorities, and the pledges we are making today will be an important step in helping the 12 million people who wake up every morning stateless, belonging nowhere at all, and the more than 40 million who are displaced. Later today, Acting Assistant Secretary Robinson from the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration will speak in some detail about the 28 pledges that the United States is delivering. I want only briefly to mention one that is a particular priority for us and for me personally. It concerns one of the major causes of statelessness, which is discrimination against women.
At least 30 countries around the world prevent women from acquiring, retaining, or transmitting citizenship to their children or their foreign spouses. And in some cases, nationality laws strip women of their citizenship if they marry someone from another country. Because of these discriminatory laws, women often can’t register their marriages, the births of their children, or deaths in their families. So these laws perpetuate generations of stateless people, who are often unable to work legally or travel freely. They cannot vote, open a bank account, or own property, and therefore they often lack access to healthcare and other public services. And the cycle continues, because, without birth registration or citizenship documents, stateless children often cannot attend school.
In this compromised state – or no state, better put – women and children are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, including gender-based violence, trafficking in persons, and arbitrary arrests and detention. That hurts not only the women and their immediate families, but the larger communities. When you have a population of people who are denied the opportunity to participate, they cannot contribute.
The United States has launched an initiative to build global awareness about these issues and support efforts to end or amend such discriminatory laws. We want to work to persuade governments – not only officials but members of parliament – to change nationality laws that carry this discrimination to ensure universal birth registration and establish procedures and systems to facilitate the acquisition of citizenship for stateless people. I encourage other member-states to join this effort, and I want to thank the High Commissioner, who has signaled his support. I encourage UNHCR to work with UN Women, UNICEF, UNDP, and other UN partners to achieve equal nationality rights for women.
There is so much more governments can do, and even ideas we haven’t thought of, to help these and other vulnerable groups. So let’s challenge ourselves in the 60th anniversary time to ask: What new strategies can we adopt to better serve the refugees who come to our borders or empower the stateless people within them? How can we expand and broaden the scope of our efforts?
With us here today is Fatima Elmei, whose life during the past 20 years is clear evidence of the wisdom of investing in women. When civil war broke out in her native Somalia, she applied for asylum and was granted it in the United States. She settled in Minneapolis, Minnesota with her daughter and worked as a volunteer, helping other refugee mothers and daughters adapt to life in the U.S. A few years later, she joined the Lutheran Social Service Agency, where for the past 15 years she has helped new refugees find employment and build their own futures.
Now, her story is just one of millions that I could share and that you could share, stories of refugees who have found new homes, forged better lives, given back to communities they’ve joined. We can all write more stories like these, and we can do so by making pledges that really will bring about better opportunities to the Somali family stuck in a refugee camp in Kenya, or the Afghan girl, who wonders when her family will be able to return home after three decades of war, and so many others.
So we welcome your commitments, and we pledge to turn our pledges into action, and we pledge to work with each and every one of you and with UNHCR to turn all of our pledges into action. We look forward to many more years of partnership on behalf of refugees around the world. Thank you very much. (Applause.)