Meeting the Needs of Internally Displaced and Refugees in FY 2008

Testimony of Kenneth H. Bacon, President
March 29, 2007
Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs
Committee on Appropriations, US House of Representatives

Madam Chairwoman and members of the Subcommittee, I appreciate the opportunity to submit my testimony urging you to make an appropriation of $1.2 billion in FY 2008 to meet the protection and assistance needs of refugee, returnee, internally displaced and conflict-affected populations. Regrettably the President’s budget has requested only $828 million for MRA and ERMA combined, a sum well below the projected level of humanitarian need. Failure to increase these accounts could have serious consequences for U.S. efforts to stabilize countries prone to conflict and to rebuild self-reliance for returning refugees and displaced persons. I also want to urge the Subcommittee to fully fund U.S. contributions to the international peacekeeping account to meet U.S. obligations to UN peacekeeping missions, particularly in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Lebanon, East Timor and Sudan, by providing an additional $1 billion for peacekeeping.

Refugees International is a nonprofit, privately financed advocacy organization that conducts fact-finding missions to situations of displacement and refuge around the globe. The world today has some 13 million refugees and over 22 million internally displaced persons, plus some 11 million persons who lack an effective nationality and are stateless. Many of these people depend on the work of the United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross and a network of international and national nongovernmental organizations for survival and hope. International peacekeeping is often now an important part of resolving forced displacement. Peacekeeping can help stabilize conflict ridden countries, increase the security of the people, promote the fair implementation of peace agreements and the safe return of refugees and displaced, enable increased humanitarian assistance and bolster regional stability. For these reasons, I see a direct linkage between international peacekeeping and ending displacement, which should be more widely appreciated as a major tool of U.S. foreign policy which deserves full support from Congress.

The Congress over the years has been more supportive of international humanitarian efforts -- efforts which literally save lives. It is perplexing that this year, despite compelling needs particularly in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and South Asia, the President has actually cut the funding for MRA overseas assistance by almost $100 million and eliminated the tiny $16.5 million for emergency food aid. This food aid account permitted the State Department over the years to deal quickly with refugee emergencies or unexpected breaks in the food pipeline that U.S. AID and the World Food Program could not otherwise fund. I urge that the Congress restore that food aid funding.

Many of you have visited refugee and displaced populations and know first hand that these families have lost everything, and must struggle to survive at subsistence levels. Housing is plastic sheeting, twigs and mud; water supplies are plastic jugs; blankets and mats have to be shared; shoes are rare; and dispensaries often lack even basic drugs. Education reaches only a tiny proportion of the eligible children, and even then there are few books, paper or pens and almost nothing for adolescents or adults.

Refugees and the displaced often must endure years of waiting for an end to the conflicts or the persecution that forced them to flee and for the chance to go home, to integrate locally or, for a tiny fraction (less than 1%), to resettle to a third country. The first priorities of international assistance remain food, water, shelter, sanitation and health care, plus physical and legal protection. The Congress fortunately has recognized the need to fund initiatives that can prevent and respond to gender based violence, a scourge that continues to plague so many refugee women and girls today. There is also a real need for more access to education for refugee children and livelihood skills training for their parents and guardians so that, one day, they can be self-supporting. If the President’s MRA request is not substantially increased, I fear such programs will reach few families and many displaced will receive less than even agreed minimum standards of care. Research and experience suggest that the cost-benefit ratios are favorable for efforts to prevent violence against women, to help children to become literate and develop life-skills, and to encourage refugees to become independent and leaders of communities rather than despoilers. But such programs take additional resources and political will.

Most refugees want to return home. Today, thanks to US and international diplomatic efforts, hundreds of thousands of refugees and displaced can return home, but often to villages where their houses, schools, water supplies and places of employment have been destroyed by the conflict. Without some international assistance to help with the return and reintegration, many displaced, particularly the most vulnerable -- the elderly, the handicapped, the traumatized, and some female headed households -- will not be able to return or reintegrate.

Today, more than 500,000 refugees and two million internally displaced want to return home to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. While the President has requested some assistance for Congo, more is needed for the displaced and returning refugees. My staff last December discovered returnee communities in Kasai Oriental Province that lacked seeds and tools to plant crops and had no food supplies to tide them over until harvest time. They reported that the Dutch agency Cortaid found 18.7% of the children in the northern area of the province suffered from acute malnutrition, but no programs existed to restore them to health. Roads that once tied these rural communities to markets, education and health care had fallen into impassable ruts, which vastly increased the costs of providing assistance and hindered self-help efforts. Schools were gutted. Survivors of rape and violence awaited health care, counseling, legal assistance and some financial support, but the international appeals for 2007 did not cover these needs. There are still 150,000 Congolese refugees in Tanzania awaiting a return to South Kivu, but without assistance they, too, would face similar serious, even life-threatening challenges, which could lead to failure and further disruption of their war-affected communities.

In Chad, 234,000 refugees from the Sudan and 50,000 from the Central African Republic also need assistance. An RI mission in February found that ethnic violence forced some 100,000 Chadians to abandon homes and livelihoods in the eastern part of the country, along the southern border with Darfur. These displaced are at risk of attacks by marauders crossing from Darfur, as well as of attacks due to ethnic conflict within Chad, and fear further displacement. They lacked aid, including the seeds and tools to plant crops before the rainy season in June, which means they will rely on international humanitarian assistance for more years, provided the World Food Program has the funding to stockpile food at near-by sites before the rainy season makes deliveries impossible.

In Darfur, international humanitarian assistance funded by the U.S. and other donors has reduced deaths and serious illness among the displaced. But continued insecurity and attacks on the camps for the displaced as well as harassment and restrictions on NGOs and the UN have hampered the world’s largest humanitarian operation for these victims of genocide. Both the UN and major relief agencies have warned that rising danger to their workers and operations may force them to pull out of an area with over two million displaced. But the humanitarian needs will continue to grow.

Meanwhile, in southern Sudan, a UN mission is seeking assistance for the hundreds of thousands of southern Sudanese refugees who want to come back home to the south, to areas still largely devoid of infrastructure and services. Both the Congress and the public have supported continued generous levels of U.S. assistance to Sudanese refugees and displaced. I urge the Subcommittee to continue this support, while at the same time not forgetting often overlooked refugee and displaced populations, like the 29,000 stateless Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, the hundreds of thousands of displaced Burmese and the 150,000 Burmese refugees living in overcrowded camps along the Thai-Burma border, the 100,000 Bhutanese in Nepal, and the thousands of refugees and IDPs in the Caucasus.

Last fall, RI was one of the first organizations to conduct a mission to look at Iraqi displacement and refugee flows. We found the world’s fastest growing refugee crisis, which largely had been ignored. Over two million Iraqis have fled to neighboring countries, many to live with family and friends. Syria and Jordan are rapidly becoming overwhelmed by the numbers of Iraqis seeking refuge in their urban centers. Jordan, Lebanon and Syria consider Iraqis as “guests” rather than refugees fleeing violence. None of these countries allows Iraqis to work. Although Syria is maintaining its “open door policy” in the name of pan-Arabism, it has begun imposing restrictions on Iraqis, such as charges for healthcare that used to be free. In Jordan, Iraqis have to pay for the most basic services, and live in constant fear of deportation. The Jordanian government, concerned about the risk of instability, has shut its border to young men, forcing families to separate. It is also becoming increasingly difficult for Iraqis in Jordan to renew their visas to be able to remain in country.

UNHCR appealed for $60 million to build up resources to register and assist Iraqi refugees in the Middle East and is organizing an international ministerial conference on April 17 to gather support for addressing and finding solutions for this refugee population, including the resettlement of particularly vulnerable Iraqis and Palestinian refugees who formerly lived in Iraq. Among the most vulnerable, according to UNHCR are Iranian Kurds now in Jordan, the Palestinians living in a no-man’s land between the borders of Syria and Iraq and Iranian Kurds similarly trapped between the border of Jordan and Iraq. Several Iraqi militia and sectarian groups have singled out the remaining 15,000 Palestinians for a collective “fatwa” – a death sentence.

Many refugee families in the region have exhausted their resources and cannot afford to pay for school, health care, or housing costs. There are also sizable Iraqi refugee populations in Lebanon, Egypt and Turkey. Among the refugees are former employees of the U.S., other coalition partners, international organizations, and the new Iraqi government. These former employees --- translators, clerks, drivers, etc. --- found themselves and their families at risk because of their jobs and their associations and fled. To date, the U.S. has offered to resettle 7,000 of the refugees, but expects to admit a mere 3,000 in FY 2007, with special consideration given to former employees. Yet the need is much greater. RI urges the Administration and the Congress to consider establishing a special immigrant visa or humanitarian parole with benefits and adjustment of status for former U.S. or coalition employees to speed their exodus. RI joins with other NGOs and advocates in urging the prompt resettlement of vulnerable Iraqi refugees and the provision of an additional $220 million in assistance to permit the overwhelming majority of Iraqis to remain in the region until conditions inside Iraq permit their return home.

Inside Iraq, over 600,000 persons have become displaced since the February 2006 attack on the mosque at Samarra and the resulting increase in sectarian violence. The total number of displaced is now over 1.8 million. UNHCR has suggested that if conditions continue to worsen there could be 2.3 million displaced Iraqis by the end of 2007. U.S. NGOs and others are providing some assistance to the displaced and have sought to double the size of their humanitarian programs in 2007 and subsequent years to reach more displaced people and to relieve some of the pressure on stable governorates within Iraq. According to NGO reporting, ethnic and religious minorities as well as stateless persons are extremely vulnerable, with the 15,000 Palestinians perhaps at greatest risk, as well as victims of violence, unaccompanied children, and those with serious medical conditions. RI urges the Congress to support substantially increased assistance to the displaced and to the governorates in which they have sought temporary refuge.

Madam Chairwoman and members of the Subcommittee, as this review makes clear, the real needs of refugees and displaced persons require a substantial increase in funding over the President’s request. I respectfully urge you to do whatever you can to add an additional $342 million to permit relief, assistance and protection to be extended to more of the world’s refugees and displaced in FY 2008.