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Anne Richard on 'humanitarian diplomacy' and dealing with anti-refugee sentiment

Why a former State Department official is speaking out against the Trump administration’s refugee policies

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Chief Innovation Officer, International Rescue Committee
Director of Innovation Strategy, International Rescue Committee

Is the United States Losing Its Humanity?” Anne Richard, the former head of the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration—known as PRM—asked in May. “By ignoring the urgent needs of refugees and immigrants within and outside its borders, the Trump administration is … driving policies that are anything but humanitarian,” she wrote in The New York Times. This week, we’re speaking with Richard about why PRM’s mission is central to supporting refugees around the world – and why the current administration’s attempts to dismantle the bureau could spell trouble for the 25 million refugees and 40 million displaced persons around the world.

Combining aid with diplomacy means that aid can have a direct and rapid impact on refugees’ lives. That’s the idea behind PRM, which disburses $3.4 billion a year – that’s about half the US Government’s annual humanitarian budget – to agencies like the UNHCR, ICRC, UNRWA, and smaller NGOs focused on assisting people in refugee crises.

Beyond the immense amount of work you can do with $3B, PRM’s position in the State Department is unique because it can wield the tools of what today’s guest, Anne Richard, calls “humanitarian diplomacy.” Richard served as the head of PRM in the Obama Administration from 2012-2017.

Part of that diplomatic mission is “informing top foreign policy officials in the administration when they met with foreign governments about what the humanitarian needs were of people in those countries,” Richard tells Grant and Ravi. “Or we would give them requests to deliver to other countries; that they would let refugees across a border, or that they would treat refugees better. Or if they were wealthy countries, that they give more to the UN or other organizations that were responding to crises around the world.”

Anne Richard, former head of the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, alongside UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Antonio Guterres. Photo: Eric Bridiers/U.S. Mission Photo

In 2015, for example, PRM’s overseas assistance programs gave Secretary of State John Kerry the leverage he needed to persuade Kenya not to close a refugee camp hosting 350,000 Somalis who had fled from their war-torn home country. And this week  on the show, Richard reveals how PRM worked with Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon to help sculpt the architecture of those countries’ responses to the Syrian refugee crisis.

Political realities in those countries, as well as in the U.S., are complicating how we respond to refugees, Richard said – making it more expensive and less effective. Government officials in Lebanon told Richard that “we know the refugees aren’t going home anytime soon, but we don’t want to say that publicly,” she tells Grant and Ravi. “Politically, if everyone at the top is saying, they’re going to leave soon, you keep everything on a short-term emergency footing. That’s not a smart use of resources. It’s much better to work with reality.” Education policy was one arena where PRM fought for refugees’ rights in host countries. “It was very tricky pushing governments to go to school when it meant that the regular school day for local children was going to be shortened when they moved to double shifts, or in some cases triple shifts,” Richard says. “These local issues about who gets to use the facilities, who gets to benefit from tax dollars, get controversial very fast.”

To some in Washington … this is a numbers game. For me, I think about those tens of thousands of people, the families, that cannot live or thrive where they are. ... All of these folks could start their lives over and be in a much safer place and thrive in the United States. But they’re going to be kept out because of this bias against refugees. It will affect real people, real lives."

This is an important moment to dive into the workings of PRM and U.S. refugee policy. Since Donald Trump has assumed office, he has sought to paralyze PRM. His administration has twice proposed dismantling the bureau, splitting its functions and funding between USAID and the Department of Homeland Security. Recently, they cut US funding to the Palestinian relief agency UNWRA, which is dispersed through PRM, by $110 million.

And the administration is welcoming fewer refugees to the US than at any time in the last 15 years — we expect only 20,000 or so refugees will be resettled in 2018, down from an average of 75,000 or so in the 15 years previous, and the administration recently announced a cap of 30,000 refugees for 2019. This means that some resettlement offices across the country have been forced to close due to lack of caseload.

Related Resources

Is the United States Losing Its Humanity? – The New York Times, Anne Richard

How to Tackle the Refugee Reform Dilemma – Center for Global Development, Jeremy Konyndyk

White House Weighs Taking Refugee Program Away From State – Foreign Policy, Dan de Luce and Robbie Gramer

Kenya Steps Back from Threat to Expel Somali Refugees – The New York Times, Isma’il Kushkush

‘He’s Cruella de Vil’: State Department Nominee Meets Fierce Resistance – Politico, Natasha Korecki

America’s System for Resettling Refugees Is Collapsing – The Atlantic, Priscilla Alvarez

Trump to Cap Refugees Allowed Into U.S. at 30,000, a Record Low – The New York Times, Julie Hirschfeld Davis

Let Me Count the Ways, Act Four: Now IRC Me, Now You Don’t – This American Life, Zoe Chace

Opinions and views expressed by guests are their own and do not reflect those of the International Rescue Committee.