THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, WASHINGTON, D.C.
MODERATOR: Thank you, and I would also like to welcome everyone to this Foreign Press Center teleconference on World Humanitarian Day 2020. And as Greg mentioned, my name is Doris Robinson and I am going to be the moderator for today’s session.
I would like to introduce our briefers. First, we have Carol Thompson O’Connell. She is the Acting Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration. And we have Trey Hicks, Assistant to the Administrator of USAID’s Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance. Each will make opening comments and then we will take your questions.
And with that, I will turn it over to Acting Assistant Secretary O’Connell.
MS O’CONNELL: Thank you very much, Doris. Hello and thank you all for joining us to commemorate World Humanitarian Day 2020. I proudly join Secretary Pompeo in honoring the memory of humanitarian workers who have made the ultimate sacrifice answering the call to protect the lives and alleviate suffering for crisis-affected people around the world. The United States recognizes the tireless commitment of these individuals and all humanitarian workers who put the lives of others before their own, who persist in their live-saving work despite growing risks to their own health and safety.
Humanitarian workers must be able to pursue their work in safety and security. Attacks directed against health and other humanitarian aid personnel put not only the lives of those workers in jeopardy, but also threaten millions of people at risk by denying them the care and live-saving assistance those humanitarian personnel bring. Unfortunately, attacks on humanitarian workers are increasing even amidst a global pandemic.
Today, we repeat our longstanding call on all parties to armed conflict to comply with their obligations under international humanitarian law and work to ensure the safety and security of humanitarian workers. I remain deeply saddened and concerned by the killings of humanitarians, including those that have occurred in Niger, Northeast Nigeria, and South Sudan in the last several weeks.
According to the statistics released by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees on World Refugee Day in June, the troubling trend toward historic numbers of people forced to flee their homes continues with nearly 80 million people displaced due to conflict and crisis. The humanitarian needs are immense and have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The United States has a longstanding tradition of leadership in international humanitarian crisis response both in our diplomatic efforts – endeavors and in terms of our assistance.
On the level of diplomacy, my team in the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration – or PRM for short – has the institutional lead for the U.S. Government in working with and supporting the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the International Organization for Migration, and the International Committee of the Red Cross – humanitarian organizations that are at the forefront of most, if not all, of the world’s largest, most complex, and often most dangerous humanitarian situations. We also work with and through a number of other international and non–governmental organization partners.
The U.S. Government leads the way in promoting humanitarian access for our partners and other essential humanitarian organizations to enter areas, including during conflict, to provide live-saving aid. Our leadership builds on the deep-seated commitment of generations of Americans who have dedicated their lives to humanitarian work.
With regard to our assistance, the United States provided nearly $9.2 billion in funding for international humanitarian crisis response in Fiscal Year 2019 to help our international organization and NGO partners provide food, shelter, health care, education, safe drinking water, and sanitation that benefitted tens of millions of people, including many who have been displaced by conflict.
Each year, PRM is responsible for managing more than $3.3 billion of that humanitarian assistance through the Migration and Refugee Assistance account.
Perennially, the United States is the largest single donor to many of the world’s foremost humanitarian organizations. Over the past decade, the United States has committed more than $70 billion in humanitarian assistance globally. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, the United States has announced more than $1.65 billion in emergency health, humanitarian, economic, and development assistance specifically aimed at helping governments, international organizations, and non-governmental organizations fight the pandemic.
PRM has contributed to continuing this leadership as part of the global COVID-19 response by providing $350 million in supplemental MRA funding from Congress to our partners on the frontlines of new and existing international humanitarian crisis responses.
Our assistance includes support to promote the safety and security of humanitarian workers as they courageously care for the most vulnerable people in dangerous situations. It builds on the deep-seated commitment of the American people and our values that drive efforts to help those in need beyond official assistance provided by the U.S. Government. You can see it in the assistance provided by private American citizens, America’s vibrant civil society, including faith-based organizations, and America’s private sector.
The United States will continue to serve as a catalyst for international crisis response in both diplomatic engagements and humanitarian assistance. Our longstanding leadership is made possible by the humanitarian organizations and their selfless staff. We honor these humanitarians and their forebearers.
Thank you, again, for joining us this morning. I will turn the floor over to Trey Hicks, USAID’s assistant to the administrator for the Bureau of Humanitarian Affairs, before we take questions. Trey.
MR HICKS: Thank you, Carol. And good morning, afternoon, and evening to everyone on the call. Seventeen years ago today, 22 humanitarians died in a bombing in Baghdad. World Humanitarian Day commemorates their sacrifice and recognizes the courage of all humanitarians who risk their lives every day to help others.
Unfortunately, attacks on humanitarians have only increased since last – since then. Last year was the most violent year on record with at least 483 aid workers that were killed, injured, or kidnapped. And in the last month alone, humanitarian staff working with USAID partners in Niger, South Sudan, Cameroon, and Nigeria lost their lives while helping people in need.
Never has the generosity, courage, and sacrifice of aid workers been more evident or more needed than it is today. In Beirut, Lebanon, humanitarian workers haven’t stopped saving lives despite the recent explosions injuring co-workers and destroying their offices. Now with COVID-19 pandemic, it’s creating additional risks.
As Carol mentioned, the United States is leading the global response to this pandemic. As part of these efforts, USAID is providing $558 million in humanitarian assistance to 50 countries. We have provided medical supplies and training to health facilities. We’re supporting at-risk communication and community outreach programs to ensure that people know how to prevent the spread of COVID-19. And we’re providing emergency food assistance, hygiene supplies, and other live-saving aid as well.
This response builds upon our long history of helping people in need. Saving lives and helping people in crisis is what we do as Americans. It reflects our values, demonstrates our global leadership, and makes the world a safer place.
Carol mentioned that the U.S. provided nearly $9.3 billion in humanitarian aid last year. Nearly two-thirds of this funding, or more than $6 billion, came from USAID as we respond to dozens of disasters helping tens of millions of people.
USAID also deploys elite Disaster Assistance Response Teams, or DARTs, around the world to coordinate our response efforts. Earlier this month, we deployed a DART to Lebanon to help people affected by the explosions in Beirut. We have a DART deployed to the Democratic Republic of the Congo responding to the current Ebola outbreak. This team provided technical expertise and support that helped bring an earlier outbreak to an end. These elite disaster experts are also responding to ongoing conflicts in Venezuela, Syria, and South Sudan.
Today’s crises are larger, more complex, and go on for years at a time, and providing humanitarian assistance has become much more difficult. This is why USAID stood up its Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance on June 5th to lead and coordinate the U.S. Government’s disaster assistance overseas responding to natural disasters and manmade disasters. This new bureau unites and elevates USAID’s humanitarian assistance into one bureau that can better meet people’s needs and save more lives. As the world’s largest humanitarian donor, the United States is proud to support aid workers who are reaching the most vulnerable people to save lives and alleviate suffering. I’m personally proud to work with so many dedicated humanitarians around the world, and I’d appreciate the opportunity to make a moment today – to take a moment today to pause and recognize their tremendous service. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Greg. We will open for questions.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Ladies and gentlemen, if you’d like to ask a question, please press 1 then 0 on your telephone keypad. You may withdraw your question at any time by repeating the 1-0 command. If you’re using a speakerphone, please pick up the handset before pressing the numbers. Once again, if you have a question, please press 1 then 0 at this time. And one moment, please, for your first question.
You have a question from the line of Hadil Oueis from North Press Agency. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Yes, thank you. The World Health Organization is securing the needs of the Syrian regime in the light of the COVID-19 breakout in Syria, but the regime is not providing other areas in Syria with this aid. In northeast Syria, which is under the control of the SDF and that’s home for hundreds of thousands of refugees in addition to ISIS prisoners, it’s lacking the basic needs to deal with the spread of the virus and other humanitarian challenges. Also, northeast Syria – in northeast Syria, millions are dealing with sporadic water shortages that are crippling the health services along with the COVID-19 pandemic. Do you have any response plan for the virus in northeast Syria and other humanitarian needs?
MR HICKS: Oh, sorry, I was dealing with the mute button. I can respond first if you don’t mind. So first of all, great question. The United States is the leading donor of the humanitarian assistance for Syria, and we’ve provided more than $11.3 billion throughout Syria and the region since the start of the crises. That’s both State and USAID assistance.
First of all, we welcome the news of the UN Security Council vote on July 11th that reauthorized a UN border crossing from Turkey into northwest Syria for 12 months. But we also condemn the loss of another crossing into Syria which will add additional cost and complexity to the risks to the UN cross-border humanitarian operation. The border crossings are vital to the well-being of civilians in northwest Syria and the international community must have cross-border access to deliver the critical humanitarian aid that you have just mentioned, as well as the other parts of the response.
MODERATOR: Assistant Secretary O’Connell, did you have any comment?
MS O’CONNELL: No, not at this time.
MODERATOR: Thank you. All right, we can take the next question —
OPERATOR: Your next question —
OPERATOR: Your next question comes from the line of Alex Aliyev from Turan News Agency. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Yes, good morning. Thank you for doing that. My name is Alex Raufoglu from Turan News Agency of Azerbaijan. I have two questions. Madam Assistant Secretary, you mentioned the Secretary’s statement this morning. Can you please be more specific on how the pandemic is changing the humanitarian landscape in the conflict zones and the impact it has on the delivery of life-saving assistance right now?
And my second question is about the health and safety of those in the prisons and camps during the pandemic. The U.S. Government on different occasions urged the governments of Azerbaijan as well as others to release political prisoners due to humanitarian reasons. And it’s something that not only they refused to accept, but also we continue to see new imprisonments. So my question is: As the governments are primarily focusing efforts on the domestic response to the virus, how are you trying to convey your concerns in a way that can get results? Thank you so much.
MS O’CONNELL: Okay. We – I want to make sure – so the initial question: Is COVID response affecting humanitarian delivery?
QUESTION: Correct. In the conflict zones.
MS O’CONNELL: Okay. In the – okay. I mean, obviously, the – delivering humanitarian assistance under any circumstances in conflict zones is tremendously complicated and very dangerous. But we are continuing to work through our international partners to make sure that the people in need are actually getting the basic necessities, life-sustaining provisions, as well as food, water, shelter, et cetera. We have been doing a lot – for example, our – we’ve been supporting IOM’s Global Strategic Preparedness and Response Plan, basically coming in, again, bolstering resources and capacity for the existing humanitarian crises, especially in places where there’s large flows of vulnerable migrants due to the pandemic.
We’re providing additional humanitarian assistance. We’re certainly looking at raising communications on the disease, how to prevent its spread, try to support isolation and treatment centers, support for health and hygiene programs, trying to get hygiene kits to folks to make sure that they’re able to – and clean water to wash hands and things like that, to the best we can. There’s also support to the UN Global Support services to support the health of the actual staff and the actual workers that are providing the assistance.
We’re also looking at supporting vital health infrastructure – as I said, safe drinking water, hygiene practices – and try to prevent the spread of disease in places of detention. As you had mentioned, you talked about political prisoners. We’re working with the International Committee for the Red Cross, ICRC, and in many places the Red Crescent Movement as well, trying to provide – to be able – or trying to support them to be able to provide local responses and basically create a supply line that allows them to sustain activities that build resilience among the people and also as part of their communities.
I think there’s – I’m trying to – was there – was there anything else that I missed right there?
QUESTION: Yeah, I’m wondering in terms of the messaging, the U.S. Government to other governments, foreign governments, to release the political prisoners and not arrest people because of purely humanitarian reasons. But it sounds like they’re not listening. Is there any other way you’re trying to convey your message that they actually follow?
MS O’CONNELL: Well, I think the messaging has been – has been consistent and strong, and we look to our political leaders to focus on that aspect of it because while we’re pushing for – always looking for humanitarian concerns to be at the forefront in conflict situations, I think for today we’re going to stick with our humanitarian assistance delivery and support for humanitarian workers.
QUESTION: Thanks so much.
MS O’CONNELL: Sure.
OPERATOR: And you have a follow-up from Hadil Oueis. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Yes, thank you. So my question was about northeast Syria, not northwest Syria, because Turkey is helping northwest Syria where Turkey has control in the region, while northeast Syria, where U.S. continues to have a small number of troops, there is no access to that region, the region that has the Hol camp where it holds hundreds of thousands of ISIS prisoners, and also hundreds of thousands of refugees from other areas. It’s also dealing with COVID-19 situation, and also there is another problem of water shortages in northeast Syria. So my question was about northeast Syria and if you have any plans for that region.
MR HICKS: So just in general, we are responding to the COVID-19 in Syria. We have provided about $25 million of the COVID-19 supplemental to be used inside Syria to support both risk communication, disease surveillance, water, sanitation, and hygiene. So we are aware of the challenges, and we are doing our best to provide these programs country-wide in Syria.
MODERATOR: Thank you.
OPERATOR: If there are any additional questions, please press 1 then 0. And at this time, there are no further questions.
MODERATOR: Okay. If there are no further questions, I would like to thank Acting Assistant Secretary O’Connell and Assistant to the Administrator of USAID’s Bureau of Humanitarian Assistance Trey Hicks for briefing us today on World Humanitarian Day.
MS O’CONNELL: Can I – oh, we’re almost – we’re – can I just – Doris, can I just interrupt for one second?
MODERATOR: Yes, absolutely.
MS O’CONNELL: Okay. I just wanted to just give two examples, if you will, of the kinds of assistance and for – throughout the world.
One, in Colombia, I wanted to talk about basically that U.S. support is helping partners like UNHCR, IOM, and UNICEF, providing services such as health care and legal advice, hygiene kits, psycho-social assistance, and shelter to Venezuelan refugees and migrants. We’re also working with partners to provide protection to the most vulnerable Venezuelan refugees and ensure that they’re supported with life-sustaining assistance.
And similarly, in Turkey, with UNICEF, we’re looking at providing psycho-social kits for youths affected not only by displacement but really the isolation measures that are designed to counter the spread of COVID-19. The kids provide – are provided with puzzles and coloring books and educational tools to help maintain their overall well-being, and right now they’ve reached about 50,000 Turkish refugee families throughout this effort.
And I would say one last – in Syria, we’ve seen our assistance to UNHCR – have been working to support health workers as they go door to door to check on vulnerable elderly people. So there’s a lot of work. There’s work in Zimbabwe as well, doctor visits to Tongogara Refugee Camp to ensure that refugees and asylum seekers receive medical services at the camp and allow district and provincial medical facilities to remain focused on the critical cases that they’re caring for. So we’re working with ministry of health and – to strengthen COVID-19 awareness, et cetera.
So we’re really trying to, on this World Humanitarian Day, let people know that all aspects of humanitarian relief and support, especially in this time of COVID-19, that we’re focused and we’re delivering in the field, whether it’s through international organizations, NGOs, faith-based organizations, et cetera. Our – the funding is getting out there to help the most vulnerable people throughout the world. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Thank you. And Mr. Hicks, did you have any final words/comments?
MR HICKS: Nope, I’m good. Thanks.
MODERATOR: Thank you. And I would like to thank our briefers for taking the time to brief us on World Humanitarian Day, and with that, this briefing is concluded.
MS O’CONNELL: Thank you.
MR HICKS: Thank you.
MODERATOR: Thank you.