Exposec-Defenseworld Conference, April 12, 2016

Ambassador Pearce delivers remarks at Exposec-Defenseworld Conference 2016 (State Department Photo)
Ambassador Pearce delivers remarks at Exposec-Defenseworld Conference 2016 (State Department Photo)

April 12, 2016

Athens Ledra Hotel

Good afternoon.

It’s a pleasure to be back here, today, with friends from the Hellenic-American Chamber of Commerce.

This past year has been a roller coaster – I don’t have to tell you that, you’ve been running businesses at a time of huge uncertainty.  For most people, taxes are up and profits are down.  Capital controls are on – for everyone.  So I commend you for sticking it out in a tough business climate.

The latest challenge for Greece, and for other countries in the region, are the nearly one million migrants who’ve arrived in the past year or so.  This is the biggest, most sudden arrival of migrants Greece has seen since 1922-23.

Some of these migrants are refugees, people fleeing violence and probable death in Syria or Iraq.  Others, from Iran and Pakistan for instance, are in search of a better paying job, or maybe any kind of job.

There have been others – a few others, a tiny group really, but we cannot ignore them – who are not refugees or migrants, but terrorists hiding among the migrants.  Some are, in fact, European citizens who have taken advantage of the chaos to slip in and out of ISIS-controlled areas of Syria and attack people in Paris and Brussels.

So, this is obviously a complex issue.  It’s an issue that demands both compassion and toughness.  It demands generosity and being smart.  In these past few days, the United States European Command, in cooperation with US State Department Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migrants has been able to offer material support to the Hellenic Armed Forces for their sustainment of refugee accommodation centers. More is coming, but I’m afraid no matter how much we supply, it’s not the remedy to the problem.

It’s an issue that demands clear thinking, clear talking, and good organization. I want to recognize that the Hellenic Defense Ministry, and General staff, and the Hellenic Police have made extraordinary contributions to the Hellenic Republic’s approach to receive and accommodate these migrants, and should be applauded for these efforts which are outside their normal expertise.

And it’s an issue that has to be handled at the national and regional level. One isn’t a substitute for the other.  It’s not just a Greek problem.  It’s not just a Turkish problem.  But nor is it just a European problem.  National governments must step up.    This is true for providing migrants with food, shelter, medical care, and other basic services.  It’s also true for eventual resettlement.

The US has historically been a leader in refugee resettlement.  This year Secretary Kerry has promised to admit 100,000 refugees, of whom 10,000 will be Syrian.  That’s on top of the approximately 600,000 people we take in each year as part of the regular immigrant visa process.

Now, before resettlement happens – before that can even be considered – migrants need to be screened.  When you hear the word “screened,” the first thought is security, and that’s essential.  The US government has provided Greece and other countries in the region with equipment and training so immigration authorities can identify and deal appropriately with individuals of concern.

But most migrants have nothing to do with terrorism.  Many of them are fleeing Assad’s attacks and the violence of the Islamic State.  Others, like I said, are in search of a better life, or have relatives in Europe they want to join.

What the UN High Commissioner for Refugees does – and this is an organization, not an individual – is talk to the migrant and assess his or her claim, to figure out if he or she is a refugee.     Is the person really threatened in his or her country?  Is that a temporary threat, or is it probably going to last a while?  The United States government is the biggest contributor to UNHCR, and I recently met UNHCR officials on the island of Lesbos.

When someone faces violence in his or her home country and escapes to another, he or she asks for asylum in that country.  Asylum claims are the responsibility of each country to adjudicate.  It’s important that Greece focus resources on its hard-pressed asylum service, so migrants aren’t stuck in limbo, unsure whether they can stay or will be sent back to where they’re coming from.  Information sharing, in Arabic and Dari especially, is also key.

On all these different aspects of the issue, we support the effort of the European Union and Turkey to work together for a fair solution.  We believe the agreement now in place between the European Union and Turkey is an important first step.  In In implementation, the key will be to find the right balance between security concerns and fair and humane treatment.

I’ll close out by saying a few things about what I’d argue is the most important thing.  Maybe I’m biased because of what I do, but the most important work is the diplomatic work, the effort to get the parties in Syria and Iraq to stop fighting, and to defeat the Islamic State.  Getting the violence to stop in Iraq, and in Syria, and in Afghanistan is what will encourage those left in those countries to stay put.  Stopping conflicts is what will get migrants now in Greece, Turkey, and other countries to start thinking about going home.

That’s why the President, Secretary Kerry, and the US military are working with our partners to address the root cause of the surge in migration.  This is the best way forward for a lasting solution. And something we must all work for.

Thank you.