Organized by North South University’s Center for Peace Studies (CPS) in Partnership with the Canadian High Commission
August 24, 2020
(as prepared for delivery)
As-Salamu alaykum. Good morning.
Thank you to North South University for hosting a discussion on the Rohingya crisis again this year, and to my friends at the Canadian High Commission for co-sponsoring today’s webinar to reach the widest possible audience.
On the eve of the third anniversary of the current Rohingya refugee crisis we face unprecedented displacement and humanitarian crises around the globe. In 2020 there are nearly 80 million people forcibly displaced worldwide. And the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbates their vulnerability.
The United States remains the largest single provider of humanitarian assistance worldwide, providing $9.3 billion last year, and nearly $70 billion in overseas humanitarian assistance in the last decade alone.
Since the COVID-19 outbreak, the United States committed $1.6 billion globally in emergency health, humanitarian, economic, and development assistance for pandemic relief efforts. That includes more than $56 million and counting in Bangladesh.
We work with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the International Organization for Migration, the United Nations Children’s Fund , the World Food Program , and other international and non-governmental organizations to help those most in need. We work with our magnificent partners in the Government of Bangladesh, a nation that has set an example for the world of humanity and decency by opening its heart and borders to almost one million displaced Rohingya.
Nothing I have done in over three decades as an American public servant gives me more pride, or is more important, than working with these selfless dedicated partners. They are truly the best of us.
When you visit the Rohingya camps one can be heartbroken by the inhumanity in Burma that caused this crisis. But one can also be inspired by Bangladesh’s response and the nations that support you.
Working together American assistance reaches tens of millions of displaced and vulnerable people worldwide.
It provides life-saving food, shelter, healthcare, access to clean water, education, livelihoods, child protection programs, women’s protection and empowerment activities, and more. This unwavering commitment to the world’s most vulnerable remains a critical component of U.S. national security policy. It remains a top priority of the U.S. Embassy in Bangladesh.
Because these numbers, these tens of millions, represent our fellow human beings. A beloved mother, father, sister, brother who once had a home, livelihood, were perhaps young students, all striving and hoping, as we all do, for a better future for ourselves and families and loved ones yet to join us on this vulnerable world we are privileged to share.
We are working with our partners in the Rohingya refugee camps every day, tirelessly, on the COVID-19 response. We are stabilizing food insecurity, distributing disinfectant supplies and hand sanitizer for communal areas and health centers, installing hand-washing stations in public places and entry points, and distributing masks produced by Rohingya from IOM livelihood programs.
In March, at the launch of the 2020 Bangladesh Joint Response Plan, the United States announced more than $59 million in additional humanitarian assistance for the Rohingya crisis, nearly $55 million for programs inside Bangladesh.
The United States is the leading single contributor of humanitarian assistance in response to the Rohingya crisis, providing more than $951 million since the escalation of violence in August 2017, nearly $799 million for programs inside Bangladesh. More than $22 million is for COVID-19 prevention efforts in Bangladesh, including in Cox’s Bazar Rohingya refugee camps.
Critically, U.S. government assistance also supports Bangladeshi host communities and others affected by ongoing violence in Burma.
But as we all know, resolving this crisis is more than just humanitarian assistance.
People are more likely to return and reintegrate successfully in their countries of origin if they have access to education and livelihoods, portable skills. This should continue to be a priority, in my view, even in the context of COVID, to prepare Rohingya for voluntary repatriation to Burma once conditions allow. This also reduces the risk of radicalization, criminality, and other anti-social behavior.
Beyond Bangladesh’s borders, it is also up to the international community to take action. We must continue to press Burma to respect human rights, allow unhindered humanitarian access, adhere to the ceasefire, and engage in political dialogue to pursue peace. Such action must take place in New York, Geneva, The Hague, and here in the region.
We must continue to press Burma to establish conditions to allow for the safe, voluntary, dignified, and sustainable return of refugees. And insist on renewed efforts to implement recommendations from the Kofi Annan-led Advisory Commission on Rakhine State for the structural changes necessary to address institutional discrimination and mistrust.
The United States has taken strong action to promote justice for Rohingya victims and accountability for those responsible. We sanctioned top military leaders linked to gross violations of human rights, strongly supported UN investigation mechanisms, and encouraged participation in ICJ proceedings. We appreciate the sustained commitment of Australia, Canada, The Gambia, and the European Union, in particular, to hold perpetrators to account.
Bangladesh is not alone in tackling this crisis. We all bear a responsibility to mirror the generosity of the Bangladesh government and people in hosting Rohingya refugees. We can do that through continued humanitarian support and unequivocal diplomatic support.
Before I conclude, in the spirit of exploring ideas, let me pose several questions for consideration:
- What can be done to ease the plight of the refugees in the short term? Is it possible to restore uninterrupted Internet access, protection services, livelihoods work, and education programs, even in the time of COVID?
- To ease the Government of Bangladesh burden, should there be a consideration of resettlement to third countries on a larger scale? Perhaps as an alternative to moving refugees to Bhasan Char?
- Noting the elections in Burma this fall, what more can the international community be doing to pressure that government into positive action to resolve this crisis?
- And what more can we be doing in the region to share the burden with Bangladesh of hosting almost one million refugees? Of rescuing and not turning away and pushing back to Bangladesh desperate people at sea?
The United States will continue to be a leader in providing humanitarian assistance, applying diplomatic pressure, and serving as a catalyst in the regional and global response to the Rohingya crisis. But, as we all know, this has to be an effort by the global community. I hope gatherings like this one truly amplify the appeal for every responsible and right-minded nation to join us in finding a solution to the Rohingya crisis. Every right-minded action counts. Every right-minded action saves lives. We have seen it the past three years. We know it to be true.