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Briefing on U.S. Humanitarian Assistance in Response to the Crisis in Rakhine State

Special Briefing
Simon Henshaw
Acting Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration
Palace Hotel
New York City, NY
September 20, 2017

MS NAUERT: Well, welcome. Thank you so much. It's not always that often that we get to bring some good news to you. So we're happy to talk a little bit about what we're doing in Burma. And I'll be sitting next to you, Simon. And I want to introduce you to my colleague, Acting Assistant Secretary Simon Henshaw, who is with our PRM Bureau at the State Department, and he can talk with you a little bit more about Burma. We have a transcript here, so I'm just going to provide a little – quick little readout and formal introduction for those who don't have the benefit of being here.

The State Department announced today that we would be providing nearly $32 million in additional humanitarian assistance to address the urgent needs of Rohingya fleeing violence from the Rakhine State in Burma. The aid will go help Rohingya who've fled to Bangladesh, internally displaced persons in Rakhine State, and host communities. The new funding brings U.S. humanitarian assistance to internally displaced persons in Burma and refugees from Burma in the region to nearly $95 million in Fiscal Year 2017. It reflects the U.S. commitment to help address the unprecedented magnitude of suffering and urgent humanitarian needs of the Rohingya people.

To tell us more about the announcement of the good work that money will do, we have Simon Henshaw, acting assistant secretary for the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration. And I'll turn it over to you, sir.

MR HENSHAW: Thank you very much. Good afternoon. This funding brings U.S. humanitarian assistance to Burmese refugees, including Rohingya and internally displaced populations within Burma, to nearly 95 million this fiscal year, Fiscal Year 2017, and reflects U.S. leadership in addressing the unprecedented magnitude of suffering and urgent humanitarian needs in the region.

The assistance we're announcing today comes from appeals from various different organizations of which we are funding generally at 25 percent, and we're looking for other nations to follow us and participate in funding these appeals as well. So we're not just giving a significant amount of money, but we're also hoping to lead so that other countries join in and we get other contributions.

We'd like to applaud the Government of Bangladesh's generosity in responding to this humanitarian crisis and commend the continued generosity of the Bangladeshi people for hosting Rohingya refugees. We continue to call on the Burmese Government to grant access to international humanitarian organizations to assist displaced and vulnerable populations in Rakhine State. It's imperative that security forces cease operations against civilians and ensure the safety of communities being threatened by vigilante groups. We welcome Aung San Suu Kyi's announcement yesterday during her state of the union address that committed the government to welcoming – actually that's the day before yesterday – the government to welcoming those who fled Rakhine State back to their homes. We encourage the government to act quickly on this commitment while ensuring the safety and wellbeing of returnees.

MS NAUERT: Okay. Shall we take some questions?

MR HENSHAW: Yes.

MS NAUERT: All right. Who'd like to start? Oh, come on, you're more curious than that. Come on. Okay, go right ahead. If you could just please tell Simon your name and your news organization.

QUESTION: Sure. Alicia Rose with NHK. I wanted to ask whether you can confirm that this is the first time for the U.S. to announce humanitarian assistance since the recent outbreak in the violence on August 25th? If so, how – if not, how much total has the U.S. provided since the 25th? And could you specify who specifically the assistance will be going to, whether it's the Burmese Government, Bangladeshi Government, or just NGO partners?

MR HENSHAW: Sure. No, thank you for that. So for the first half of your question, yes, this is our first announcement since August 25th, but we have been supplying organizations with funds to support Burmese refugees since the beginning of the year and that total was the number I just gave which was 95 million. The UNHCR also used some of its emergency funds since August 25th, which we had previously supplied to them. The – PRM works – does not work through governments. It works mostly through international organizations and through some NGOs as well. So today's funding that we're announcing is going to the International Organization for Migration, UNICEF, UNHCR, some NGOs, and a few other organizations that we work with.

MS NAUERT: Okay. Hi. Nick from Bloomberg.

QUESTION: Hi. So, I mean, can you tell us – I mean, do you think that Aung San Suu Kyi's comments, which you noted, went far enough in sort of condemning what's happening to the Rohingya refugees, and does the U.S. have any more plans to sort of speak with her and try to get a sense for why there seems to have been sort of equivocation on her part in the crisis in Myanmar?

MR HENSHAW: Yeah, I'm not going to characterize her remarks. I work the humanitarian side of the house. I'll leave that to my political colleagues. But I will say that we – we are urging the Burmese Government to control the violence in the area, to cease attacks against civilians, and to create safe conditions so that the Rohingya that have fled feel safe to return.

QUESTION: Can I just ask a follow-up?

MR HENSHAW: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: The Journal reported I think yesterday or the day before that on the issue of refugee admissions that there's now a discussion of a figure between 40 and 50,000 refugees for 2018. Can you comment on where things stand with that number and how many refugees the U.S. plans to allow for next year?

MR HENSHAW: I'm not going to comment on the internal debates within the U.S. Government. The President will decide what number of refugees we will bring in next year, and we will bring in that number that he decides. I would say that the large amount of our support from PRM has always gone to refugees overseas. The resettlement program is a small but important part of our program which we use to support and encourage other governments to house refugees, to take in refugees as well and keep their borders open.

MS NAUERT: Okay, anybody else? John Hudson from BuzzFeed.

QUESTION: Thanks so much. Do you think that the events in Rakhine State – I mean, as you look back on the decision to the U.S. getting involved in the opening of Myanmar, is there any sense that the U.S. might have been too optimistic going in – this was obviously under the Obama administration – and maybe it wasn't executed in the way – in hindsight, in the way that it should have been and maybe just too much optimism put in the powers of Aung San Suu Kyi?

MR HENSHAW: I mean, I wouldn't characterize us as ever being too optimistic. I think we always knew that this would be a very difficult road to follow, and it has proven to be so. We certainly continue to support democracy in Burma and will continue to work in that direction. I'd also add that the Rohingya problem is a longstanding problem in Burma of which we have long urged previous and current Burmese governments to take steps to solve. The former UN Secretary-General Annan has recommendations which we feel should be followed and lay out a good roadmap for the direction the government should be going.

MS NAUERT: Kylie, from CBS here, and sir, we'll get to you.

QUESTION: Was the aid contingent upon Aung San Suu Kyi speaking out? Did she have to speak out in order for that U.S. aid to come?

MR HENSHAW: No. Most of this aid actually goes to the Bangladeshi side to support the refugees as they're coming in there. A small amount of it will go to the Burmese side to support internally displaced persons. But this was in reaction to the crisis.

MS NAUERT: Okay. Sir, you're with which outlet?

QUESTION: My name is Mushfiqul Fazal. I'm representing a Bangladeshi outlet, Just News BD. The day before yesterday, the Bangladeshi prime minister had a conversation with the President Donald Trump in a session. So she – after that, she made a statement or she gave an internal (inaudible) and she said President Trump is not willing to solve this problem and she – and she said, well, I'll ask the President Trump to resolve this. So is – is there – actually is there any meeting between President Trump with the Bangladeshi prime minister? How she could make this statement in front of the media outlet like Reuters can only – and can you comment on this issue?

MR HENSHAW: Well, first of all, I'd like to thank the Bangladeshi Government and the people for their warm response and their strong response in supporting the Rohingya who have come across the border. Bangladesh, as we all know, is not one of the richest countries in the world, and for a country which has its own struggles to open its arms to the Rohingya is really remarkable, and I think will be long remembered. I can't really comment directly on the prime minister's words, but I will say that President Trump has strongly supported our efforts to help refugees overseas, both verbally and budgetarily, if that's a word, and we have clear support from the White House in going forth with the support.

Now, Vice President Pence this morning spoke about it. In my pile of paper I have something here in which – oh, so the Vice President spoke this morning. He said that U.S. President Donald Trump is urging the United Nations Security Council to take strong and swift action to bring Myanmar's Rohingya crisis to an end, and Pence reiterated the call for military – for Myanmar's military to end the violence immediately.

MS NAUERT: And the White House issued a statement about a week and a half ago on this, and we've spoken out about this a lot at the State Department, issuing statements ourselves.

So --

QUESTION: Hey, Conor Finnegan with ABC News.

MS NAUERT: ABC News.

QUESTION: You said you have the support of the President budgetarily. One of the things that his budget proposal – initial budget proposal for the State Department included was cutting all emergency refugee and migration assistance funds. If you need to increase the amount of aid to Bangladesh or to the Rohingya in Myanmar, do you have the funds that you need?

MR HENSHAW: Yes. We absolutely have the funds that we need. The account you're referring to is a tiny, tiny part of our overall allocation from the White House and Congress, and if you add that account and our main account together and compare it to the main account this year, they're the same. So we haven't lost any funding.

MS NAUERT: Okay. Nick from Fox News.

QUESTION: Thanks. You said that most of the money is going to Bangladesh and that a small portion is going to Burma to assist the displaced.

MR HENSHAW: Right.

QUESTION: Can you be a little more specific (inaudible)?

MR HENSHAW: Yeah, the breakdown is – it's a little bit more than 28 million for Bangladesh and the rest for the Burmese side.

MS NAUERT: Okay. Reuters, please.

QUESTION: Thank you. Regarding what the Vice President just said, should we expect the U.S. to draft a resolution or what (inaudible) exactly expecting from Security Council --

MR HENSHAW: I can't answer that. I'm just following the humanitarian side of it, and I'm not – I don't – can't talk about our plans there.

QUESTION: And also, you mentioned Suu Kyi said that the returning refugees have nothing to fear. Does the U.S. think that the security conditions are there for them to return?

MR HENSHAW: Say that again. I'm sorry.

QUESTION: Are the conditions there for refugees to return?

MR HENSHAW: Not yet, no.

MS NAUERT: Okay. John.

QUESTION: The Secretary made some clarifications about the plans for the redesign recently, and made clear that there was not immediate plans to move the consular affairs over to DHS. But one of the – it's been widely rumored that PRM could move to DHS. As somebody who obviously has a deep understanding of that bureau, do you think that would be a wise move?

MR HENSHAW: I just – I will follow the Secretary's instructions on any redesign plans.

MS NAUERT: Nothing yet. All right, guys. We got to leave it there. Thank you so much.

MR HENSHAW: Thanks.

MS NAUERT: Any follow-up questions, let me know if we can answer them.



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