Special Briefing on U.S. Humanitarian Assistance for People Affected by the Crisis in Libya
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration
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MR. TONER: Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to the State Department. It’s our good fortune today to have with Assistant Secretary for Population, Refugees, and Migration, Eric Schwartz and the U.S. Agency for International Development, Assistant Administrator for Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance Nancy Lindborg. They’ve just returned from a weeklong trip to Tunisia and Egypt and are here to brief you on U.S. assistance efforts to address the humanitarian situation resulting from the crisis in Libya.
But before handing them the podium, I just wanted to respond briefly to a number of queries that we’ve gotten regarding the possible return of former President Aristide to Haiti ahead of the second round of elections on March 20th. The decision to allow Mr. Aristide to return is up to the Government of Haiti. Under the Haitian constitution, he has the right to return to his country. However, former President Aristide has chosen to remain outside of Haiti for seven years. To return this week could only be seen as a conscious choice to impact Haiti’s elections. We would urge former President Aristide to delay his return until after the electoral process has concluded to permit the Haitian people to cast their ballots in a peaceful atmosphere. A return prior to the election may potentially be destabilizing to the political process.
The Government of South Africa has generously hosted former President Aristide and his family since he voluntarily departed Haiti in 2004. We encourage the South African Government as a committed partner to Haiti’s stability to urge former President Aristide to delay his return until after the elections. With that, I’ll hand it over to Eric.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: Thank you very much. Good afternoon. Nancy Lindborg, USAID’s Assistant Administrator for Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance and I traveled to Tunisia and Egypt between March 8th and March 12th. I think in this business we know that the most significant humanitarian crises don’t have ultimately humanitarian solutions. They have political solutions. But nonetheless, there is an enormous humanitarian challenge in the region. A – some 140,000 or more migrants and refugees have fled – mostly foreign workers – Libya into Tunisia. And the number for – on the Egyptian side of the border is over 110,000.
As President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton have indicated, we strongly support the efforts of the international community and the governments of Tunisia and Egypt to respond effectively, humanely to this humanitarian challenge, which in the first instance is really a challenge of getting people, in most cases, to their homes. We visited the Tunisian-Libyan border, the border town of Rasjdir. That’s R-a-s-j-d-i-r. And we visited many, I think, bewildered people in a transit camp at the border. But as difficult the challenge is that they face, we also witnessed excellent cooperation between the people and government of Tunisia and the international organizations, UNHCR or the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the International Organization for Migration, the World Food Program and many others, excellent cooperation between the government and the people of Tunisia and those organizations that are operating on the ground. We also traveled to Cairo. And in Egypt, we met with a range of actors, international organizations, and others. And the situation in Eygpt, there are about – well, let me just go back to Tunisia for a second and say on the Tunisian-Libyan border, there are now probably about 17,000 foreign workers.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: About 17,000 more or less. And there’s a camp on that side of the border for 20,000, and they are looking to build additional capacity as well. On the Egyptian side, there are probably about 5,000 or so. Again, the vast majority of these people are foreign workers who are looking and waiting on transport home. The Government of Egypt is working with international organizations on the border. We’re encouraging the Government of Egypt to – there are significant challenges there in terms of enhancing shelter in the border area as well as providing for the needs of those who have come across who may not be able to be – go back to their countries of origin because they’re refugees. And in light of those challenges and also future challenges which we may confront, we think that dialogue and cooperation with international organizations is absolutely critical.
The United States has been in the lead internationally in the effort to support these populations. We’ve provided to date about $47 million in assistance to international and nongovernmental organizations to provide food, shelter, medical supplies, both in Egypt and Tunisia at the borders, but also inside of Libya. We’ve transported Egyptians – U.S. military aircraft have transported Egyptians from Tunisia to Egypt to their homes. We have assessment teams in the region, and I can say that from the personal accounts that Nancy and I both received from the migrants in the camp in Tunisia, the expressions of appreciation and gratitude for the efforts of the international community in general, the Government of Tunisia, in particular, the efforts of the Government of the United States, I think, were very significant. People were very grateful for what it is we’re trying to do.
Finally, I’ll say that other donors that are concerned about the situation on the ground, we are encouraging them to do more. Others do need to do more. The challenges are still significant and substantial, and they will continue in the days, weeks – days and weeks ahead. With that, I’d like to turn the mike over to my colleague, Nancy, who will talk a little bit more, and then we’ll be very happy to take your questions.
MS. LINDBORG: Hi. Thanks, Eric, and hello, everybody. As Eric said, we were able to take this trip to better understand the humanitarian needs and the quality of the response to date. And while there, we were able to announce some of the additional funding that is now part of the $47 million that the U.S. has committed.
I want to say a little bit about the part of that commitment. The $10 million that we’ve given to the World Food Program is not only for assistance to those who are affected inside Libya – and I’ll come back to that in a moment – but for some portion of that for those most economically affected in Tunisia and Egypt. In Tunisia in particular, given such an integrated economy there, feeling the triple whammy of loss of tourism, loss of trade with Libya, and loss of the remittances and the workers who worked there. And yet, despite that, there is a tremendous outpouring of support by the Tunisian people themselves, as well as the government, to support those coming across the border.
We have mobilized, as Eric said, to provide assistance both to those who are coming across the borders and also to pre-position and to provide assistance inside of Libya. We’ve worked with international NGO partners and parts of the UN family to provide urgently needed medical supplies inside of Libya. We’ve given two UN World Health Organization emergency health kits, each of which provides primary healthcare needs for a population of 10,000 for three months. One of the greatest concerns inside Libya is, first of all, health needs, both urgent and just the regular primary healthcare needs, and ongoing food security challenges, which is why the emphasis for work inside Libya has been on the health and on the food security needs.
We have deployed a 15-member disaster assistance response team to the region. These are people who are civilian humanitarian experts, and they are working to ensure that we are fully coordinated and able to – fully coordinated with the international humanitarian assistance effort and to track urgent needs as they evolve.
We remain committed to working with all members of the international community. And as Eric said, as this is a very fluid situation, and needs continue to evolve, it’s important that we all work together on meeting the challenges of this region.
Thank you, and we’ll take questions.
MR. TONER: We’ll take your questions. Andy.
QUESTION: Just on that, on the 15-member disaster assistance team you said in the region, can you tell us where they are? And Mr. Donilon last week said that U.S. disaster relief teams were going to be going into Libya. Is there – are there U.S. personnel on their way into Libya, Benghazi, or anywhere else? How many, when, and what sort of security might they have if they go?
MS. LINDBORG: So it’s a regional team of 15 people and, as Mr. Donilon said, we are fully prepared and will go in as soon as the security situation permits us to do so. As you know, it’s very fluid and rapidly evolving.
QUESTION: So are they holding somewhere, like Malta or somewhere else?
MS. LINDBORG: I can’t go into those details.
MR. TONER: Sorry, Kirit, did you have a question or –
QUESTION: That was my question.
MR. TONER: Great. Go ahead, Josh.
QUESTION: In your op-ed before you left on your trip, you were very clear in pointing out that budget cuts for the international affairs budget could directly impact the work that we’re doing in Tunisia and Egypt and that you were sent to explore. Can you talk more about that? When you got there, what do you anticipate generally as the needs? How do you plan to go about getting those funds? And do the budgets in their current form, as we see them on the Hill, impair our ability to do this important work?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: Let me answer. I mean, in an urgent crisis like this, we will do everything possible to – and we will – to ensure that we have what we need to respond, and that means in addition to the resources that we have in our accounts and the support of our – of other parts of the government when necessary. It means also working very hard to secure contributions from other donors.
I think the best way I can answer your question is kind of take a step back more generally, because I think we are committed to respond to this particular situation with whatever is required. But we have, around the world, ongoing humanitarian responses to protracted situations, situations that are not emergency but are protracted and require our engagement, and we have emergency situations, and we have accounts for both. And it is the future funding of both of those accounts that are so seriously imperiled by some of these proposals.
QUESTION: So do you have enough money in those accounts to deal with these crises, or do you anticipate needing more money for the emergencies that you’re dealing with? And where are we going to get that money?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: I think in the immediate term, in the short term with this specific response, we will do what is necessary. But the concerns that were describe in the piece to which you refer have to do with what – in the grand scheme of things, what comes next. Because the cuts to which we referred are dramatic and would impact both these emergency accounts which have been put to use in this crisis as well as our regular accounts which also have been put to use in this crisis.
QUESTION: Do you support Kerry’s idea for an enterprise fund?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: I beg your pardon?
QUESTION: Senator Kerry proposed an enterprise fund to speed assistance into these two countries. Are you familiar with that? Is that something you support?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: I can’t –
MS. LINDBORG: Yeah, I don’t – I think that’s separate from the humanitarian situation. And I would just add one of the key points of the op-ed that we did together while we were there was to point out the important nexus of our values and our national security interests, and that it’s when these crises hit that we’re able to provide the kind of humanitarian assistance that is so fundamentally a part of who we were as Americans, coupled with why it’s so important to not let those needs go unmet in a region that’s undergoing an historic transformation.
QUESTION: Nancy, you talked a moment ago about trying to insert members of this regional team when the security situation allows it. Is there any larger concern that, depending on the course of events there, that help from the U.S. may not come as quickly as you would like? Is it too much to assume that those NGOs already in country are going to be able to pick up the slack, as it were?
MS. LINDBORG: Well, I want to underscore that we are already and have been for some time now providing assistance directly inside of Libya through our NGO and other partners. And we are able to continue that assistance, so especially looking at immediate health and food needs --
QUESTION: Would you be able to expand those operations as the situation seemingly continues to deteriorate, or is there an implicit hold pattern on what you can do?
MS. LINDBORG: It’s a very rapidly evolving situation, both in terms of the level and the kind of the needs and the security environment. So the imperative right now is to be ready to move in a variety of directions, and we will respond as the situation permits.
QUESTION: Yeah, I just wanted to follow up on – I was just looking through the transcript and I don’t see anything last week about the security situation being a contingency for these teams to enter Libya. So I’m wondering when that came into the situation. Mr. Donilon said quite clearly we’ll be sending teams very soon inside Libya.
MS. LINDBORG: I would just repeat what I said. Clearly, we always need to be concerned about the security situation of our civilian teams, and it’s a rapidly evolving situation.
QUESTION: So was there a decision made to not go in so quickly?
MS. LINDBORG: We’re watching this very closely. We have teams prepared, and as soon as the security situation permits, we will go in.
QUESTION: Was there any –
MR. TONER: Security is always an issue and it’s always a concern. It’s a paramount concern. I think Nancy just said that. But the --
QUESTION: No, it’s just that last week --
MR. TONER: I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive.
MS. LINDBORG: Right.
MR. TONER: I just think --
QUESTION: It’s just that last week it was, “We’ll be very soon sending teams,” and now it’s no timeframe at all.
MR. TONER: There is – we’re, again, going to do it as soon as we possibly can.
Go ahead, Kirit.
QUESTION: Actually, just a follow-up. Is there a timeframe at this point, or no? Do you have a period during which, if you don’t get them in, this doesn’t become feasible? Or –
MS. LINDBORG: I would just echo that security is paramount as an issue and we are continuing to provide humanitarian assistance. It’s not that that’s stopping.
MR. TONER: We’re looking to do it as soon as possible.
QUESTION: Okay. The question I was going to ask was whether you can expand on the aid that you are providing inside Libya – how that’s happening, what you are able to actually get in the country through your NGO partners, if you have a dollar figure, if you have a sense of what type of aid that is, where it’s going.
MS. LINDBORG: So the U.S. Government has provided a total of $7 million to the ICR – the International Committee for Red Cross and about $4 million to various NGO partners, international NGO partners. Part of the $10 million to the World Food Program is for food security. And the focus, as I mentioned earlier, has been particularly looking at the health needs. There’s been assistance to the World Health Organization. I detailed earlier the emergency health kits that provide primary healthcare needs. So it’s been primary healthcare, it’s been assistance for more trauma-related health and medical assistance, it’s been essential blankets, hygiene kits, water containers, and high-energy biscuits. So food, health, basic humanitarian needs.
QUESTION: And so that’s a total of $21 million. Is that all that – all that 20 million has gone inside the country? I just want to – I don’t know if you have the breakdown of how much has actually gone in or not.
MS. LINDBORG: The 10 million for the WFP is still – some of that is available to be used for some of the communities that are hardest hit on the borders.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: We can try to provide you with more precise information, but it’s really difficult to – I mean, it’s safe to say that millions of dollars of U.S. support has gone in to Libya to provide food, shelter, medical supplies, and other essential items. But because the nongovernmental and international organization to which we provide this assistance operate both in the border areas in Egypt and Tunisia as well as inside Libya, it’s going to be very difficult to break that down. But we can try to get you a little bit more precise figures, but I think it’s safe to say that millions of dollars of assistance are going in.
MS. LINDBORG: And I would just add that in these situations you want to always have flexibility so that you can scale up as the needs continue to evolve. I would just underscore once again this is a rapidly evolving situation. Humanitarian needs continue to change. And you always in these situations need to have the flexibility to meet those needs as they emerge and as they are identified.
QUESTION: Okay. My only little follow-up would be can you tell us where that aid is going inside the country? I imagine a lot of it’s – you said on the border regions. How far towards the center of the country has it gotten? And then you said that this is changing. Can you give us a sense of the trend line on – are you seeing an increased need now with the government offensive?
MS. LINDBORG: We had – it’s primarily in the east. We remain concerned about having better access in the western part of the country. And the – I think fortunately, because of the rapid mobilization of assistance, that some of the most immediate health and food needs were met. And we’re continuing to provide and watch as needs evolve and change.
QUESTION: And what about the trend line? Is it getting worse?
MS. LINDBORG: It’s – the health and the food needs, I think, are staying relatively – and we’re not seeing rapid increases of food and security at this point.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: We are concerned, however – I think Nancy is referring to the situation in the --
MS. LINDBORG: In the --
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: In the east –
MS. LINBORG: In the east. Yes.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: We are concerned about the situation in the west. Obviously, we don’t have a lot of information about what’s happening in the west, but we have some. We get it from people who have come out and can talk to us about it. We get it from some organizations that have spoken to people or who have some involvement inside the country. And the information we have there is that there are serious humanitarian issues in the west relating to medical supplies, relating to food security issues, and those concerns are – appear to be serious and substantial. In addition, you all will have seen the reporting about basic human rights and humanitarian issues in the west. And all indications are that those are extremely serious as well.
MR. TONER: We have time for just a couple more questions. Charley.
QUESTION: So, please, I’m just a little hazy about the aid inside Libya. So does that include the emergency health kits provided by the United States? Are those now inside Libya?
MS. LINDBORG: Yes.
QUESTION: In addition to the humanitarian supplies directly provided by the United States – the high protein biscuits, the blankets, the shelter – that U.S. material has gone into Libya?
MS. LINDBORG: Much of it has, but not all of it has gone in yet. Part of what any kind of response of this nature is that you bring it in as the needs are identified. And we’ve got – in cooperation with the international humanitarian community, there are supplies that are staged and positioned along both borders.
QUESTION: And your level of confidence is high that it is being properly distributed to the people who need it and not being diverted by –
MS. LINDBORG: Our confidence is high, as Eric said, in the east.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: You have to appreciate that the international and nongovernmental organizations with which we work – we have worked with for many, many years – they have established very careful protocols for the distribution of assistance, even in highly uncertain and fragile environments. So I think we can say with a high degree of confidence that the assistance that has gone in is going to good use.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) on this question of sort of who you’re talking to on the borders. Firstly, there was some suggestion last week that they were concerned that people were not being allowed to leave Libya. I’m wondering if you had any information to back that up. The trickle narrowed down. Why.
And the second question is: Are we seeing any change in the makeup of the people who are coming across and were they largely third-country nationals to begin with, and now we’re seeing more Libyans? Do you expect – are you gearing up for the possibility of more Libyans if what seems to be a civil war continues and people are pushed out for sort of political reason?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: Well, let me – you’ve asked two questions, and let me answer the first one first. There has been considerable concern, some reporting, and basically some firsthand accounts which Nancy and I got in the border area, that people have had difficulties in getting out of Libya. There are a variety of reports that we’ve heard and stories we know. First of all, people seem to be subject to confiscation of parts of their cell phones where they can have pictures, chips in their cell phones, I guess, or SIM cards. I don’t exactly what the technology is. They’ve been – people have been robbed. People have just generally had a hell of a hard time getting out.
But in addition, we’ve heard reports of the kinds of restrictions, such as many checkpoints and – that leave us very concerned that people have faced considerably obstacles and restrictions in getting out. So that is a source of very serious concern. In addition, we have also seen reporting of very grave and serious abuses of human rights and humanitarian principles in Libya, and that also is a source of enormous concern.
MR. TONER: Last question.
QUESTION: Have the NGOs run into any problems from the Libyan Government in trying to carry out their work throughout the past several weeks?
MS. LINDBORG: They’re – the international NGOs are operating primarily in the east.
MS. LINDBORG: I think --
QUESTION: And that’s all rebel-held, so they’re --
MS. LINDBORG: Correct.
QUESTION: Even the Red Crescent Society?
MS. LINDBORG: I think they’re mainly in the east.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: I think international NGOs are operating in the east. I just – I don't know the extent to which there may be local, if any, local organizations in the west. We do know that they’re very serious concerns about the humanitarian situation in the west.
QUESTION: Just one more out there that you can –
MR. TONER: Last question, absolutely.
QUESTION: On Japan, whether you can give us an update on what the U.S. aid teams that have gone in have been able to find their first day.
MS. LINDBORG: Well, I know there’ll be more thorough briefings on this. I would just say very quickly that within an hour of the earthquake we had a response management team set up to coordinate an interagency governmental response that’s been working 24/7 ever since then with 147 people on a disaster assistance response team deployed inside – in Japan. There are urban search and rescue teams with search dogs as well. And I know there’ll be a lot more specific detail on that later, so I’ll leave you with that. Thank you.
QUESTION: So is there an interim assessment? Could you say if there’s an interim assessment as of the 24 hours they’ve been there?
MR. TONER: We’ll get more to you, Kirit. I don't think they’re prepared to give you the readout now. But we’ll get back to you.
MS. LINDBORG: There – we’ll have details on that.
MR. TONER: Thanks everybody.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: Thank you. Thank you very much.