As the Obama Administration draws to a close, I write to share reflections on the work of the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM).
During the last eight years, the number of refugees in the world has climbed to levels not seen since World War II. Some flee because they’ve been targeted for persecution; many flee devastating conflicts. In response, using funds provided by Congress, PRM has nearly doubled contributions to life-saving aid operations in crisis zones. We have worked closely with colleagues at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to coordinate refugee, disaster, and food aid of $7 billion annually. We’ve encouraged other governments and the private sector to contribute, and are adopting efficiency and transparency measures to ensure that more aid goes directly to help people in need.
In addition to being the world’s leading donor of humanitarian aid, we have worked to ensure the rights of conflict victims — including women and girls, the elderly, the disabled, minorities, and LGBTI persons — are respected. We have also backed efforts to use both humanitarian and development resources to help societies that host large numbers of refugees so their citizens do not suffer from overburdened hospitals and overcrowded classrooms. We supported No Lost Generation on Campus, an initiative at U.S. universities (at last count, there were 52 chapters) for students who want to make a difference in refugee education.
Over the last eight years, we have welcomed more than 500,000 refugees to the United States, while updating features of the program to give refugees a better reception in this country. These updates included improving communication between resettlement agencies and municipal authorities and the process for vetting refugees. Since 2011, security enhancements in the refugee screening process made refugees the most heavily vetted of any traveler to this country, while efficiencies have ensured that the number of admissions could continue and grow. All refugees, very much including those fleeing terrorism, are every bit as likely to become productive, patriotic Americans as any other type of immigrant we welcome to this country. As Secretary Kerry says, “We have made clear that we can live our values and protect our people at the same time.”
Our efforts related to aid, diplomacy, and refugee resettlement were central to discussions in September, when the United Nations (UN) devoted a full day to discussing refugee and migration issues and President Obama hosted the Leaders’ Summit on Refugees. The Summit rallied world leaders to articulate new commitments to respond to the global refugee situation. The UN can now use the list of commitments to ensure more funding, more countries sharing responsibility to bring in refugees, and more opportunities for refugees to work legally and to have their children attend school.
The past two years have brought attention not just to refugees but to others on the move: economic migrants, young people fleeing criminal gangs, and people displaced by climate change. We have been very involved in international and regional efforts to do a better job at managing these flows of people. As a nation of immigrants, we speak out against abuses of migrants and insist that migration can be a positive phenomenon. We were influential in the decision to make the International Organization for Migration a part of the United Nations, improving international cooperation and preventing the growth of redundant offices. When the Obama Administration launched a government-wide effort to respond to the rise in unaccompanied children from Central America crossing into the United States, we set up new programs to get more people, especially children, to safety.
Looking back, we recognize that much remains to be done. In too many places around the world, people are on the run — in some places fleeing attack by their own governments — and humanitarian principles intended to protect and aid civilians during wartime have been flouted and ignored.
We look forward to the day when attacks stop and refugees can go home in peace and safety, and are deeply grateful for the cooperation of humanitarian organizations and for the support of so many Americans who care about refugees. Speaking personally, it has been a great privilege to lead PRM in President Obama’s historic Administration.