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Press Releases: Background Briefing on the UN Meeting on Migration and Refugees

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So this is my fourth time coming to the UN General Assembly meetings, and so my portfolio hasn’t changed but suddenly this year our issues are sort of front and center. And so it’s not that – I’ve always run around and met with the UN agency heads, but all of a sudden the person next to you at the table is a foreign minister or the prime minister —


SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: — instead of the junior desk officer.

QUESTION: Who looks terrified at what’s happening.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: It’s clear that this has really seized the attention of all the senior leaders in Europe, because at this particular migration event we were just at there were more European speakers than any other part of the world represented. And migration is not just a European issue.

So what I thought I could do is just throw out some of the themes that came up from that. Are we talking about the whole week, or are we talking about the event we just went to? Because there are some similarities. In terms of the week, what we’ve done a lot is talk about humanitarian issues and specifically to Syria and the neighborhood around Syria, and then what’s – and how that is now overflowing the borders of – the borders of the Middle East, let’s say, and affecting Europe.

The big themes out of the event we were just at was that more action was needed and shared responsibility. Several people said over and over again that no one country is responsible for responding to this, even if it is the country next to a country in crisis —

QUESTION: I.e., the Jordanians?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: This might have been – there might have been several countries that felt this way.

QUESTION: Well, the king was pretty strong from what he said. Yeah.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So – but there should be international solidarity, international solutions. Several quoted the SDGs since that was very much on their mind from a few days ago, Leave No One Behind. And so suddenly the “no one” in danger of being left behind is the refugee or the migrant. Many in their prepared remarks referenced the photo of the body of the poor child who tragically was washed up on the beach in Turkey. So we need to mainly manage migration, link migration to development. There’s a lot all week long in terms of also humanitarian assistance being underfunded in appeal after appeal after appeal, of the sense that we need to do more than just give relief to refugees. We have to give development assistance to the societies that are hosting the refugees.

And so a lot of people are saying that what’s – for me, from a geek perspective, the interesting thing about that is this is – we’re sort of in the run-up to the fall World Bank-IMF meetings, which will be held in Peru this year, so there’s actually an opportunity for people to convert that idea into specific things there. But I don’t know if you just repeat it all.

QUESTION: In terms of funding you mean? Like —

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah, like getting financing out of the door to – so that – because Jordan and Lebanon are sort of discriminated against because they’re supposed to be middle-income countries, but they’re taking in all these people, and so maybe there should be a special category where that should somehow be factored in.

Many countries talked about cracking down on smugglers. I have found in working on both the Southeast Asia crisis last spring and now – because I went to Bangkok, went to Indonesia and Malaysia and here on the European one – the best – the part that countries are most comfortable with – because they have law enforcement agencies and they want to go against the bad guys. And no one speaks up on the defense of the bad guys – the smugglers and the traffickers.

So that part is often sort of articulated quickly. But what is harder I think for countries to come to grips with is how they treat people humanely. So there was sort of a strand of countries like – especially the leader, and I think with Germany and Sweden, that were talking about the importance of handling situations well. The German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, he quoted Emma Lazarus at the start of his speech, and we were a little nervous because we had the Secretary’s speech there quoting the same quote from Emma Lazarus. So Samantha Power came in and said, “The Secretary’s not coming.” We said, “Well, what do we do with this quote?” So she left in a reference to the huddled masses. I told her she should say, “Quoting Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who quoted a famous American.” But she ended up quoting the Pope, because when he talked to Congress he had said some powerful things about helping refugees and migrants and immigrants.

Let’s see. Several talked about the benefits of migration, which is really important because I don’t think that that gets enough attention.

QUESTION: What doesn’t? Say it again.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: The benefits of having migration, of having legal migration schemes and having migrants provide labor when, like in a country like Germany, they’re short on the labor force, or this country’s experience being a country of immigrants and refugees.

QUESTION: What about transport to those havens?


QUESTION: I mean, if you’re talking about legal migration or whatever you want to call it, the problem with Aylan was not what happened when he got there, it was how he was getting —

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah, the dangerous journeys. (Inaudible) so people want to do more in the region. That was a theme all this week: do more in the region so people don’t have to feel like they’re compelled to leave. And that’s been something that I have heard from both the countries that surround Syria and from the Europeans. And so part of me thinks it’s just – I expected the Europeans to say that. I was sort of surprised the neighbors said that, because they’ve been wanting people to take refugees and now they were saying, “Give us more money and then they don’t have to leave.” So I think that that was – that was a slightly shifted message there. But I guess the messages now are complementing each other. The key thing is, will people be – have opportunities in these neighboring countries? Will they get the right to work, which they don’t currently have?


SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Will they get sufficient aid? The Europeans just announced a big amount of money in the last couple of days for the world – for the UN, and I talked to the World Food Program guy today who’s the number two, who’s here in New York, and he said it’s going to make a big difference; they can pretty quickly start getting vouchers for buying food out there again and restore some of the food rations that people had been getting before.

So the frustration for me, I think, is the timing of it. Because it would have been great if they could have done that sooner, because then you wouldn’t have had this period where people lost their benefits.

QUESTION: Those are the benefits not just for people – not people in camps, but people who are within, like, the community in Lebanon as well?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Which is most of the refugees —


SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: — live outside of camps. So —

QUESTION: How much of a shortfall was there that affected the ability to —

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: You might actually know that, huh? How – the World Food Program had to cut back the (inaudible) —

PARTICIPANT: (Inaudible) 50 percent – I mean, it varies from country to country.

QUESTION: Sorry, 50 percent they’re short on donations, or what caused them to stop doing what they need to do with handing out these vouchers?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: They ran short of money, so what they did was instead of just stopping it for everyone, they targeted the poorest of the poor. But if you were merely poor and needy, you didn’t get your vouchers or food distributions anymore.

PARTICIPANT: So – and I think what might be useful —

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: But do you have any data on that?


SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: We have data somewhere. Yeah.

PARTICIPANT: We do have data.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: The reason I said you might actually know that is not because, like, she doesn’t know anything and she might actually know this. That’s not the way I treat people. (Laughter.) But because she’s our World Food Program person when she’s not running (inaudible) UNGA all week.

PARTICIPANT: What might actually, [Senior State Department Official] be helpful is WFP doesn’t – it doesn’t have a budget from the UN, so it has to fundraise cost of like – for its projects. So for example, I mean, every three or four months you’ll hear them putting out this desperate cry saying, “We are running out of money, we’re not going to be able to provide any more food come X month.”

For example, in Iraq right now they’re saying as – coming up in November, they have no more money. And so when they reach those – close to that point, then they have to weigh on balance, okay, how do we stretch what we have? And that’s when you see cuts coming in and reductions of up to 50 percent in rations or what they’re getting on cash cards, what refugees get on cash cards. And this is happening throughout the region.

QUESTION: So they can start it up again, you said when?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: They can do it very quickly.

PARTICIPANT: Soon as they have the money, yeah. Yeah. I mean, they have things prepositioned – food, commodities prepositioned – so it’s just a matter of having the cash to buy it, to pay for it.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I thought – as I was sitting there I was thinking how Ban Ki-moon was an internally displaced person in his life, and Samantha Power, who was speaking for us, was an immigrant from Ireland. And so I told her to say that, tell people migrants sometimes turn out okay. And she wouldn’t do it, but she did tell me she had done a naturalization ceremony this morning.

QUESTION: Yeah, I saw that on Twitter.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah. Yeah. So that’s pretty nice. And so there she did talk about being an immigrant to the United States and getting her citizenship.

QUESTION: Is there a concern of an increased need to flee the region, I mean, given not only the shortfall in ability to give people aid, but increased violence and airstrikes and the news of the day?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah. I think that what that shows is that it’s very hard to predict and it’s very hard to control because —

QUESTION: The movement of people, you mean?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah, because so many people were surprised, not that there is a movement, but by the scale of the movement, I think, and the fact that once it got started, it just caught on and caught on. So people now are trying to figure out what could stem the flow? Would it be winter? Or is there nothing that can stem the flow? Or is it some kind of contrary message going out? Which is worrisome.

The one thing I heard that I – that sounded – with a lot of the statements from people you kind of wanted to – in some cases, you’d want to go back and ask them, “Well, what are you doing in your own country? Let’s talk some more about this.” But the only person who said something that rang kind of false to me was the Hungarian prime minister, who also called for everybody working together and things like that, but he talked about – he said this was not a refugee crisis. He said it was mixed migration and that it involved migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers and foreign fighters. Now, I think he’s the only one in the room who would have described it that way. I mean, the foreign fighter element, if it’s there at all, is small. So it’s a not-helpful way to describe all these people who are walking for – looking for economic opportunity, a better life, freedom from war and persecution.

The – it was a very interesting thing that was said towards the end by Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson, who I’ve talked to a few times about migration and the – how the institutions we have right now, it kind of slips between the cracks a bit, because the International Organization for Migration is not part of the UN, and UNHCR is, but they do refugees, not so much migrants. He said he was – he came to this conclusion that there was a conversation going on that was a horizontal way to look at the issue, because he was hearing people talk about development – peace, development, human rights, rule of law, organized crime, organized crime being used by terrorists, humanitarian assistance. So there were all these different voices that made it a very broad discussion. Even the thing that had sparked the whole discussion was, I think in the high-level coming – was what was in the newspapers, this stream of people coming out of the Middle East.


SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: There were some references to Southeast Asia, because the Indonesian foreign minister spoke at the top and ASEAN spoke about law enforcement cooperation, stopping smuggling, trafficking in persons. But there wasn’t a lot – oh, and the Bangladesh foreign secretary spoke, and he used to be at the International Organization for Migration, so he prides himself on being a migration expert. And I could tell he was very frustrated. He only got like three minutes, but there was so much to say – the big moment.

Ban Ki-moon spoke with praise of both Peter Sutherland, who’s the Special Representative for the Secretary-General on Migration and also the High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres. And Guterres has been the high commissioner for 10 years. And so his 10 years is wrapping up, so that’s kind of interesting.

The Turks are hosting a global forum on migration development in mid-October that I’ll be leading the U.S. delegation to. And that’s another little sleepy conference that migration experts would get excited about, and you never would have heard of it by anyone else. And they want to really focus on forced displacement, refugees. And then they will also host the World Humanitarian Summit in May of next year. So their prime minister spoke, and he’s inviting everyone to come to Turkey. And so there’s a piece of this that makes – for me, it’s kind of a good thing that Turkey is the host, given that they are right in the crosshairs of a lot of these issues.

QUESTION: So was there any, like, agreement at the end of it for any kind of specific action? Or from the U.S. perspective, was there anything said about narrowing down the numbers, the breakdown of where some of these refugees were going to be coming from in the 85,000?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: No. Steinmeier said that we need a common European asylum system. And so there were a lot of calls among the Europeans to come together, but obviously what’s on their mind is their failure to coalesce around a plan successfully up until this point. And then the Icelandic (inaudible) prime minister said he echoed what Malta called for. Somehow I had missed the Malta intervention. And he said – which was a Bretton Woods conference.

QUESTION: What is that? Oh —

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Bretton Woods created the financial institutions —

QUESTION: I just heard you wrong.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So that Bretton Woods conference on these issues. And so that – for – like I say, for someone who’s used to going to the dusty, unused room and hanging out with the migration experts, the idea that there would be that level historic migration meeting – it’s just kind of shocking to me, that so much has changed —

QUESTION: But was the view then —


QUESTION: — because – the reason they feel strongly about it is because it’s in their backyards now. But are they viewing it as a humanitarian crisis or as a national security one? Or what are they viewing it as?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, I think a lot – if you read the statements, there was a lot of positive language. And the percentage of positive language – of coming together, working together, solidarity, humanitarian – the percentage of positive language to negative is very different than the actions we see on the ground. This has been very disruptive to Europe. So when we met with Europeans and talked one-on-one, they tried to impress upon us how this situation could spell the end of the EU. They feel very, very – and I regularly meet with people who work in ECHO, the European humanitarian office, and there’s like three different commissioners that work on different pieces of this at the EU. So for these people, I mean, they’re working as part of this EU project, and for them it’s just – they really seemed quite shocked at the idea and also afraid of it.


SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: And intent on impressing that on us, that this – “You Americans, this is not a – just a migration crisis. This is a – an existential crisis for Europe.”

QUESTION: Was there any – when you – can you go back to where you were talking about the prime drivers for migration? I mean, when you brought up the World Food Program, is that – I mean, how much responsibility do you think lies with that shortfall and the inability to take care of following through on promises to feed and clothe and do whatever else here? I mean, is it that or is it an event? What’s driving people to flee right now?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah, so I – we think that there’s several different things. One is people are fleeing the war and the horrors of ISIL, ISIS. But we also see people who have been outside for a while just deciding that their prospects are better in Germany or Sweden, and so they have to leave the place they fled to first.

QUESTION: Because their circumstances changed?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, if you brought savings with you out of Syria, you’ve run through your savings by now. And if your kids aren’t in school – that was sort of another theme all week. I went to several education emergencies conferences. Norwegian foreign minister was out there; Gordon Brown was – seemed ubiquitous, really pushing education, trying to raise money for education, particularly around Syria but globally too. And the Norwegian foreign minister said every day he had something on education somehow, that that was a real big theme – unofficial theme and just kind of – I think it’s a lot of like-minded people, and also maybe that this is what countries feel comfortable paying for is children to go to school. And other initiatives they may not feel – you can’t take a photograph of a nice sanitation system in Beirut; doesn’t really move people perhaps as much as saying, “We built that school and here’s the plaque and” —

QUESTION: So pledges to build these facilities in countries like Lebanon and Turkey and —


QUESTION: Is that happening —

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I met the Lebanese education minister. I met him in Lebanon and we’d go to a school together. He was there this week and we saw him a couple times, so he’s very grateful that people are paying attention and trying to help him.

QUESTION: Is that happening yet, or that’s just being planned for foreign countries to build inside —

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well we – we’re already providing funding through USAID in Lebanon and Jordan, and then I’m going to be in Turkey soon and cut a ribbon on a school that UNICEF built with U.S. Government funding. So we wouldn’t have a bilateral aid relationship with Turkey; it’s a prosperous country. But the Turks have come to the conclusion that they would welcome more involvement from NGOs and international organizations to help deal with parts of this problem, and four and a half years ago they would not have said that.

QUESTION: What’s the projection on the numbers —


QUESTION: — that are going to continue to move out? I mean, all these countries must have their own internal estimates for what they’re bracing for.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah. Well, UNHCR often has a number of what they fear to have by the end of the year, and I tend not to use them, because I’m more comfortable talking about what’s current, right? So we can get those. What you hear – and then we’ll use the number of registered refugees, whereas the country – these – Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon often use sort of what they suspect is the real number, because they’re including people who are not registered, which I actually – I don’t argue with them about that because it’s a lot of people no matter how you look at it.

But there are 7.6 million internally displaced people in Syria. So I keep thinking, what happens if they decide to leave Syria? So one of our goals is to get as much aid as possible into Syria, and partly it’s so that people who are trying to survive inside continue to survive inside. So that whenever – like, the Turks like to say they’ve only gotten $400 million in assistance. Well, we’ve given them 300-and-some-odd through these international organizations, so I think their number is old. But the point is not to give more – but what I always point out to them is but we’re getting all this aid into Syria so that people don’t have to leave. And then they always go, “Oh. Oh yeah, that’s good.” So —

QUESTION: And doing that through the UN, but that’s still at the mercy of the —

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Some of it’s through the UN and some of it’s through other channels.

QUESTION: Through local councils, you mean, in the areas that are —

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: No, no. The local council thing was not humanitarian. That was to stabilize the moderate opposition, so it doesn’t count as what my office does. My office and AID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance is working with NGOs to get aid in however they can get it in.

QUESTION: So into those whatever you want to call them —

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: We call it cross-border and cross-line.

QUESTION: — places not —

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So cross-line means you start in Syria and you’re delivering it somewhere else in Syria but you have to cross the battle lines. And cross-border is to get it across from Turkey or Jordan.

QUESTION: Right, but those are places outside the control of the Assad regime. To the NGOs, that’s what you’re —

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah. But we have – for years we haven’t made a big – we have used this phrase – we seek to get aid in using all channels, because we don’t want to get into the details of who gets it in and how across the borders. But I think it’s kind of an open secret now that NGOs are doing that. I think they eventually came out and took credit for what they were doing. At the beginning —

QUESTION: Well, you also had all the complaints about Assad not letting them in, including from the U.S. Government.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, that was that they didn’t have visas to work from Damascus out. This is NGOs trying to get aid into the area – that Assad would prefer the aid not get there.

QUESTION: So when you’re talking about trying to do more to get aid into Syria, you’re talking about through which channels?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I mean – I mean all of it. Because from Damascus out is important because that can reach a lot of people, especially if people – who aren’t necessarily siding with the regime but are seeking safety, flee to regime-controlled areas. And the problem with that has been that the regime is so difficult to deal with in terms of deliveries and permissions and visas. And from cross-border into areas that the regime doesn’t control is a trickier task, but also from a humanitarian standpoint you deliver it to people – innocent civilians in need. You don’t care about what side of the battle lines you’re getting to.

QUESTION: But now that’s going to be harder with the Russian strikes —

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Since the UN Security Council resolutions —

QUESTION: — hitting civilian areas.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Since the UN Security Council resolutions, it’s supposed to have gotten easier and it did not. It’s been consistently hard and —

QUESTION: But with – I meant with the Russian strikes hitting civilian areas —

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I know. I know. I wanted to say that first.


SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: And then yeah, if the Russians are striking civilian areas, I mean, people are going to have to move, and I don’t know where they’re – one of the things that’s different about this crisis is that there’s so much cell phone use and people find out information just from family, from relatives, from – they just try to figure out how to survive, or they’ll send some members of family out and some will stay behind. People are making these really, really difficult gambles and choices and tradeoffs.

QUESTION: Yeah. But it’s not changing who you’re going to fund and how you’re going to fund and where you’re going to target? I mean, what do you do for the people who are trying to deliver food into the Homs area?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, also NGOs are very brave and very courageous. But at some point if it’s too dangerous to be there, their bosses will say you’ve got to pull back, you’ve got to pull out.


SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: And so we haven’t – we haven’t seen people – I mean, we’ve seen people pull out – we’ve seen expats pull out of ISIL-controlled areas when they were starting to – they were taking hostages and killing people, obviously. But we haven’t – but there were still ways to get aid in sometimes using local networks and Syrians. I mean, there’s just a lot of brave Syrians. A lot of aid workers have been killed and most of them have been Syrians.


SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So I think that this – the European migration situation has concentrated the minds. Maybe it’s the culmination of the Iran agreement being settled for a moment and the European migration hitting the news in the – really, really picking up the second half of the summer and the picture of this child was a week before Labor Day, which was when Europeans officially come back from vacation, so that this has, I think, really concentrated their minds on trying to get at the root causes and looking specific – even though the flow includes people from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Bangladesh, I think that – and Horn of Africa – I think this has really focused their attention to Syria.


QUESTION: Thank you.

MODERATOR: That’s great. Thank you so much, [Senior State Department Official] for doing that. I appreciate it.

QUESTION: I appreciate it.