Samuel M. Witten
Acting Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration
National Geographic Society
Washington, DC
June 19, 2009

First, I would like to relay to all of you Secretary Clinton’s regrets that she could not be with us today. She was planning on joining these proceedings for World Refugee Day to express her personal commitment to the plight of refugees and reaffirm the U.S. Government’s support for UNHCR and the other organizations serving refugees.

On behalf of the Secretary, and the State Department, I want to thank the National Geographic Society for hosting World Refugee Day. I want to express our appreciation to Ann Curry for hosting us today, and for her commitment to journalistic excellence and for reporting on conflicts and the displaced all around the world. And I want to thank and acknowledge Angelina Jolie for her tireless efforts as Goodwill Ambassador for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). She has done fabulous work to help increase international attention to the needs of refugees and other persons of concern to UNHCR, thereby providing a voice to those whose plight often goes unheard.

World Refugee Day is an opportunity to reflect on the lives of millions of refugees who have been forced to flee tyranny and conflict. It is also a time to honor their courage and resilience, and to recognize the contribution of those who have been able to return to their communities or have sought new lives in their country of refuge or resettled in a third country.

The theme of this year’s World Refugee Day is “Real People, Real Needs,” and the posters of three young people here today tell the story better than I can.

On this day we also salute the courage, the determination and the resilience of refugees. Today we will hear from Kagendra and Ganga Baral, Bhutanese refugees resettled in Phoenix. They will tell the story of their flight, their struggles as refugees, and the new life they now have in the United States.

We will also hear from Rose Mapendo, a resettled refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo and a founder of Mapendo International, an organization that protects vulnerable African refugees and resettles them to the United States. Rose survived 16 months of imprisonment in the DRC.

I want to end my brief remarks by paying tribute to UNHCR and its staff for their amazing efforts to improve the plight of humanity by assisting nearly 32 million refugees and others of concern around the world, often putting their own lives at risk. Much of UNHCR’s work takes place in difficult and dangerous places. We note with sadness the senseless loss of life of UN humanitarian workers in Pakistan this month, including from UNHCR. While refugees continue to face challenges throughout the world, some languishing in refugee camps without a solution in sight, it is encouraging to see the progress being made by the international community in resolving longstanding refugee situations in places such as Liberia, South Sudan, Burundi, and Bhutan.

I’m very proud that the United States is the world leader in supporting UNHCR, and am grateful for our wonderful partnership with High Commissioner Antonio Guterres and his terrific staff. We are proud to be UNHCR’s strongest donor and supporter, covering approximately 25% of UNHCR’s budget. In Fiscal Year 2008, we contributed over $500 million in support of UNHCR programs.

The United States is working hard to enable those who have fled to return home in safety and dignity, and to provide those unable to return home either an opportunity to locally integrate in their countries of asylum or to start their lives anew in the United States. Our commitment to resettling refugees remains strong, with our history of resettling the largest number of refugees per year.

Finally, I would like to recognize and congratulate the winners of the poster competition and welcome them to Washington. We appreciate the fine work of UNHCR, the participating schools, teachers and children for raising awareness of the needs of refugees around the world – including the needs of refugee youth. This effort by American school children to reach out to children less fortunate than themselves is in the best tradition of America.

[This is a mobile copy of World Refugee Day]

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