Deputy Secretary Higginbottom’s Press Statements and Q&A on Lesvos, March 28, 2016

Deputy Secretary Heather Higginbottom answers questions from journalists (State Department Photo)
Deputy Secretary Heather Higginbottom answers questions from journalists (State Department Photo)

Good afternoon,

Since we arrived in Lesvos a few hours ago, we’ve met with local and national government officials, and representatives from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. We visited facilities involved in registering newly arrived migrants and we had a chance to talk with some young refugees.

First I want to start by saying thank you to the Greek Government and people and the humanitarian organizations who are working tirelessly to assist some of the world’s most vulnerable people. I’ve heard about, and now I’ve witnessed this beautiful town, incredible acts of kindness and generosity, the efforts to rescue people at sea, and to help shelter and feed them here in this community has provided a lifeline to hundreds of thousands of people.

The United States is a partner in this effort. I am here on my way to a conference in Geneva hosted by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. I’ll be representing the President and the Secretary of State, who back in Washington have this issue, both solving the crisis in Syria with a diplomatic solution, and addressing the migrant refugee crisis as a top priority of our administration.

But I wanted to come here first before heading to Geneva, to learn more about what is happening here and to express appreciation for all those in Lesvos and across Greece are doing for migrants that are arriving here. And I wanted to learn first hand how we can better support that work.

So I’m pleased to announce today that we are committing an additional 20 million dollars for efforts to provide protection, shelter, food and other life saving assistance to the most vulnerable refugees and migrants throughout Europe, including here in Greece. The 20 million dollars includes 17.5 million dollars for UNHCR, two million dollars for the International Federation of Red Cross/Red Crescent, and 500 thousand dollars for the United Nations Population Fund.

This new funding brings the total US humanitarian assistance for the regional refugee and migrant support effort to more than 43.6 million dollars since it started last year. The welfare of migrants and refugees, including those who are risking their lives in a desperate attempt to find safety in Europe is a top priority for President Obama and across our government.  We are strongly committed to supporting refugees through assistance to the region, resettlement in the United States and by working with other nations and organizations to increase global support.

Thank you and I’ll be happy to take a few questions

Moderator: William, you want to take the first question?

Question: Do you have any more clarity on what’s going to the migrants already here in Lesvos, the ones at Moria camp for example. Will they be processed and where will they go

Deputy Secretary: Thank you for that question. In our engagements today, at the Moria facility and in our conversations with the UNHCR we’ve been trying to learn more about what will happen, what the additional steps that will be taken by the government to provide some clarity, and I’m very eager to see these results. So I can’t answer that question now and I’d defer you to the Greek authorities but it’s a big part of the conversations and engagements that we were having today to try to understand how that will unfold and clearly the officials are working to do that.

Question: Deputy Secretary of State, you were able to enter Moria I understand

Deputy Secretary: Yes

Question: Can you speak to the conditions that you found there and your appreciation of them?

Deputy Secretary: Well, we had a very short,  brief tour and mostly engaged with officials to learn about the process and how some of the conversations that we were just referring to on what the process will look like, so I can’t speak to the whole center and we must –

Question: There has been criticism from the UNHCR about what is going on in Moria and how the implementation of the EU-Turkey agreement (inaudible.) From your impression are human rights violated or endangered?

Deputy Secretary: First, we think that the EU-Turkey deal is a good first step toward trying to create an orderly flow for migration, but there are still many pieces of it and aspects of it that are being worked out and that we were able to discuss today and are eager to see more details. We are very pleased that in the agreement there is refugee protection, there is reference to the EU and international law and we want to see that implemented very well. So that’s where our focus is.

Question:  Θεωρείτε ότι η ιμπεριαλιστική πολιτική των ΗΠΑ και οι επεμβάσεις του ΝΑΤΟ δεν είχαν αποτέλεσμα σε αυτές τις μετακινλησεις χιλιάδων ανθρώπων? Και τώρα θα κάνετε κάτι ώστε να αλλάξει αυτή η πολιτική ή απλώς θα περιοριστείτε στο να δώσετε μερικά χρήματα?

Moderator: Will the American policy be limited to just giving money or will there be something more in terms of negotiations and pressing for a deal?

Deputy Secretary: So, we are, as I mentioned in my comments focused on this issue at the various highest levels and we are looking across all of our tools and abilities to help address this. That includes resourcing: the United States is the largest humanitarian donor in the world. We’ll continue to invest resources and addressing this challenge. We’re very focused diplomatically in our engagements with our partners around the world, for them to provide more resources, to accept the resettlement of refugees. For those countries that are hosting refugees to provide opportunities to work and to go to school, so we are looking at this in a very broad and comprehensive way and understand that the real solution is in bringing more and more countries into the solution. President Obama will hold a major Summit around the United Nations General Assembly in September in which countries will make pledges in those three categories. So assistance is important but we are looking across all of our tools and toolbox to solve the problem.

Question:  I didn’t understand but you said regarding the details of the plan, what did you learn here with all these people that are on Lesvos being deported, did you learn the details of the plan?

Deputy Secretary: What we learned today is that there’s a lot of work still going on to determine how people will be processed and what that will look like. And we learned a lot about the way in which people are being treated now and have a sense of the ability of the government to provide additional resources where needed, whether it’s for asylum processing or some of the other, but as far as being able to state exactly what will happen, I think the government is still working through that and we are eager to see those details just as much as everyone else.

Question: Is it violation of human rights if someone is deported to Turkey if that person doesn’t want to go there?

Deputy Secretary: It really is a case by case determination. First I would say, about this deal, we need to see the details and how it will be implemented and what it would look like, but we don’t have all these details yet. The Parliament I considering legislation, there are all kinds of different pieces at play and it’s really a case by case determination, to determine whether someone has an asylum claim. We are very interested and focused on ensuring that the system that is set up has those protections built into it, so that the asylum claims can be considered and moved forward in a fair way. So that is where our focus is now.

Question: Just one more question. From my understanding it’s a rather unique measure by the UNHCR to pull out of a European camp and say we cannot agree with what is happening. So what is your perspective on that?

Deputy Secretary:  Well first, I don’t want to speak for UNHCR, they can do that. But they have a principle about a closed facility that they are abiding by. I think because we are in this interim period, when a deal was struck and details were being worked out including legislation, it’s a bit in limbo, and I don’t want to speak for UNHCR, but I think that’s their assessment of the current situation and will certainly look to the details just as we all are to see how they implement it.

Thank you very much.