Letter to President Obama in Advance of the 2011 State of the Union Address

January 20, 2011

Barack H. Obama
United States of America
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
Washington, D.C. 20500

Refugees International Open Letter to President Obama in Advance of the 2011 State of the Union Address

Dear Mr. President:

On behalf of Refugees International, I write to highlight the continued plight of refugees, stateless, and internally displaced people (IDPs) and to urge you to showcase U.S. leadership on critical humanitarian assistance in your upcoming State of the Union address. We respectfully ask you to call on Democrats and Republicans in the 112th Congress to work together to strengthen America’s global standing by continuing critical humanitarian engagement and investments. This would embrace America’s values of generosity and compassion by honoring the U.S. commitment to assist and protect the world’s most vulnerable people.

Many Members of Congress have called for a reduction in non-security spending to Fiscal Year 2008 (FY08) levels. If enacted, these cuts would have drastic consequences for people beset by conflict and the horrors of natural catastrophe. They would also harm America’s ability to lead the international response to new displacement crises. The State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM), would be forced to suffer a 40 percent reduction, deny critical assistance to 30 million refugees and conflict- induced IDPs, and limit U.S. refugee resettlement efforts. The budget for USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) would be cut by some 50 percent, greatly reducing the amount of U.S. humanitarian relief and reconstruction assistance to foreign countries affected by calamitous disasters, such as Haiti after the earthquake.

The total FY10 budget for PRM and OFDA is less than one tenth of one percent of total U.S. spending. Nevertheless, PRM and OFDA have an outsize positive impact. These two agencies have attracted bipartisan support in the past not only for the lifesaving assistance they provide to millions of people, but for their power to promote stability by helping vulnerable people rebuild their lives. Refugees International recognizes the urgent need for Congress to address the suffering of Americans – many of whom have lost their jobs and homes – and to rein in the federal deficit. Yet, American interests would be clearly undermined if overseas humanitarian assistance were substantially reduced.

The peaceful conduct of the historic referendum on southern independence in Sudan was a clear expression of democracy in one of the world’s poorest and most conflict-prone countries. While largely the product of the determination and commitment to peace by the Sudanese people, it is also the product of U.S. leadership on international diplomatic and humanitarian efforts over the last several years. Continued high-level U.S. diplomatic and humanitarian support will be essential for assisting the fledgling government in the South to meet the basic needs of its people.

Likewise, a stable Pakistan is critical to U.S. national security interests and the future of Afghanistan and the region. A strong civilian-led government in Pakistan is fundamental for meeting the needs of millions of Pakistanis who have been driven from their homes by conflict, the recent floods, or both, and are struggling to access food, water, shelter and health care. At a time when the United States is mounting pressure on the Pakistani military for more aggressive offensives against the Taliban, al-Qaeda militants and their affiliates, it is imperative that the United States continue to demonstrate its support for the Pakistani people through the provision of humanitarian assistance.

Refugees International is also concerned that cuts to the foreign assistance budget will limit the United States’ ability to respond to natural disasters. 2010 had the second highest number of recorded natural disasters since 1980, leaving millions homeless. The poorest and most vulnerable will be hit hardest by floods, cyclones, heatwaves, droughts and other climate-related extremes in countries like Pakistan, Colombia, Sri Lanka and across Africa. To the extent that some of the world’s most climate-vulnerable countries are also conflict-prone – like Afghanistan, Somalia, and Yemen – neglected natural disasters could exacerbate security situations of U.S. concern.

And finally, there is perhaps no more important place than Iraq for the United States to showcase that humanitarian assistance and development is an equal pillar to defense and diplomacy in U.S. foreign policy. After almost eight years of war, over 1.5 million Iraqis remain displaced inside of the country, 500,000 of which live as squatters in slum areas. It will take several years before the benefits from a newly built oil infrastructure can be enjoyed by the Iraqi public. As the U.S. Government works to complete its military to civilian transfer in Iraq, development and humanitarian budgets must be maintained.

As agencies continue to monitor and improve the effectiveness of their U.S.-funded humanitarian assistance programs, the value of this assistance to the world’s 70 million refugees, IDPs, and stateless people cannot be denied. Moreover, the American people’s generosity and commitment to alleviating suffering and saving lives abroad is unwavering, even during times of severe domestic hardship. This was demonstrated by the outpouring of U.S. donations and goods for the victims of the Haiti earthquake.

The upcoming State of the Union is an occasion to reflect on the social, economic and security challenges facing the United States and to emphasize America’s leadership role in achieving a more secure and prosperous world. On January 25th, you have an opportunity to remind the American people and the 112th Congress that U.S. humanitarian and development assistance for the world’s most vulnerable people helps move all of us towards this goal.

Refugees International welcomes the opportunity to work with your Administration and Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle to ensure that U.S. humanitarian policies and budget contribute to a safer world and reflect the bold and generous American spirit.

Thank you for your consideration.

Michel Gabaudan