November 8, 2017
Africa Regional Media Hub
OPERATOR: Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for standing by and welcome to the Humanitarian Assistance for Refugees conference call. At this time, all participants are in a listen-only mode, and later, we will conduct a question and answer session. Instructions will be given at that time. If you should require any assistance during today’s call, please press * and then 0. And as a reminder, today’s conference is being recorded. I would now like to turn the conference over to your host, Ms. Helaena White. Please go ahead.
MODERATOR: Good morning, Mr. Mehta and Lalit Jha, glad you could join us this morning. And good afternoon from London. This is from the State Department’s London Media Hub. I’d like to welcome our participants, who have dialed in from around the world. Today we’re joined by Mr. Simon Henshaw, who is our Acting Assistant Secretary for Population, Refugees, and Migration. Acting Assistant Secretary Henshaw will discuss his recent trip to the region, humanitarian and human rights concerns stemming from the Rakhine State crisis, and U.S. support for refugees in Bangladesh and the region. Acting Assistant Secretary Henshaw is speaking to us from Washington D.C. We will begin with remarks from the Assistant Secretary, then we will open it up to your questions. Please press *1 on your phone to join the question queue. If you are using a speakerphone, you may need to pick up the handset before entering *1. Today’s call is on the record and will last approximately 30 minutes. And with that, I’ll turn it over to the Acting Assistant Secretary.
HENSHAW: Thank you very much and thanks for joining. I led a delegation to Burma and Bangladesh to see firsthand what is happening with regard to the humanitarian situation and the impact of our assistance. Besides myself, the delegation included Deputy Assistant Secretary Scott Busby of the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor; Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary Tom Vajda of the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs; and Office Director Patricia Mahoney of the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs. Also, spokesperson Heather Nauert joined us for the final leg of the trip to visit Cox’s Bazar, Dhaka, and refugee camps in Bangladesh.
In Burma, we met with government officials and Rohingya and ethnic Rakhine community leaders, including a visit to a camp for people who have been internally displaced in Burma. We urged the Burmese government to act to restore the rule of law, protect local populations, investigate alleged human rights abuses and violations, and to hold those responsible accountable. We welcome the government’s plans for repatriation and encourage them to implement these plans as soon as possible, emphasizing the importance of creating safe conditions that would allow refugees to voluntarily return to their villages and land.
We then traveled to Bangladesh, where we met with government officials, international organizations, and NGOs, and visited refugee camps near Cox’s Bazar. What we saw in the camps was shocking; the scale of the refugee crisis is immense: more than 600,000 people displaced from their homes since August 25th. And the conditions are tough, with people in makeshift tents and shelters as far as the eye can see. People were suffering; many refugees told us through tears accounts of seeing their villages burned, their relatives killed in front of them; some recalled being shot at as they fled. Despite this trauma, many expressed a strong desire to return to their homes in Burma, provided their safety, security, and rights could be guaranteed.
I’d like to underline our appreciation for the generosity and commitment from the government and people of Bangladesh and our humanitarian partners who are operating on the scene there. But the situation requires a lot more work; the U.S. was the first one to pledge funds to support international organizations in this crisis, and our commitment has been followed by generous contributions from other donors. However, more is needed. The U.S. remains committed to addressing the needs of those impacted by the crisis, and calls on others, including in the region, to join us in our response. I’ll be happy to take some questions; thank you.
MODERATOR: May we start with Mr. Mehta, please. And will you please state your full name and affiliation before your question? Thank you.
MEDIA: Yes, hi, good morning to you and good afternoon to London. This is Manik Mehta. I am the correspondent of [UNCLEAR], which is a news agency based out of Kuala Lumpur. I am also syndicated. Now, the U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, has condemned the atrocities against the Rohingya and urged the Burmese government to take steps to redress the situation. However, I get the feeling that the government—the U.S. administration is drawing kind of a new end and is actually condemning the military forces in Myanmar while not saying much about the civilian government. What is your take on that, sir? Thank you.
HENSHAW: Well, the military is certainly responsible for the security operations and security as a whole inside Rakhine State, and we call upon them to take steps to restore security and stability and to investigate reports of atrocity, particularly by security forces. And we urge that any of those responsible for atrocities be held accountable.
MEDIA: And can the civilian government do anything about it?
HENSHAW: We’re in talks with the civilian government and urging them to take the same steps. You know, it’s tricky in Burma, there is a transition towards democracy, they’re in the transition process and we support that transition process, and we speak to both the civilian officials and military officials.
MODERATOR: Lalit, do you have a question?
MEDIA: Thank you for doing this. Did you sense kind of a tension between the Burmese and Bangladeshi government on this Rohingya issue, and what was that? How do you view the relationship between the two countries now? And secondly, can you describe in detail the role of the Bangladeshi government in addressing the Rohingya issues?
HENSHAW: Thank you for that. I’m not going to comment on relations between the two countries other than to say that we support their talks that they’ve already held and further talks on solving the Rohingya issue. We believe these talks should lead to the voluntarily return of Rohingya people back to Rakhine State, that the conditions in Rakhine State must be made secure and stable so that people are willing to return, and that people should be able to return to their land and that this process involve political reconciliation inside Rakhine State.
On the actions of the Bangladeshi government, we much appreciate and praise the efforts they’ve made to deal with this huge number of people coming into their country. I spoke with a number of different ministries when I was out there—we spoke, my delegation, it was—and we’re much appreciative of all the effort they’re making to support the large number of refugees.
MODERATOR: Mr. Mehta, do you have another question?
OPERATOR: If you have a question, please re-queue by pressing * then 1.
OPERATOR: His line is open.
MODERATOR: You can ask multiple questions.
OPERATOR: His line is open.
HENSHAW: Yes, hello.
MEDIA: Yes, can I go ahead with the question?
HENSHAW: Yes, go ahead.
MEDIA: Okay. Now, do you envisage the ASEAN group of nations playing a role in resolving the tensions between Bangladesh and Myanmar?
HENSHAW: I think it’s important that regional countries support the process and speak with both countries and help them, in this process, to move forward towards repatriation.
MEDIA: Alright, I’m sure you must have seen the statement which was brought out here in New York by the Philippine foreign minister, Mr. Cayetano, who issued a very limp kind of a statement, which was not directly a reflection of the enormity of the situation, that’s the criticism which was voiced by Malaysia. Is there something, in very concrete terms, the ASEAN could do, besides, you know, trying to resolve? Is there something you would like to see, from the American side?
HENSHAW: I think it’s up to them to make the decision on how best to be involved in the region. I think given the various ASEAN members’ relations with Bangladesh and Burma, that they can play an important role in bringing about a reconciliation of the communities and support the two countries in repatriation efforts. I also think that what they are doing and they should continue to do is support efforts to help the refugees, to provide assistance to the refugees, inside Bangladesh.
MEDIA: Well, I don’t have any more questions. Thank you very much indeed.
HENSHAW: Thank you very much.
MODERATOR: Manik, do you have any other questions from your side?
MEDIA: Yeah, I have one more question. You know, President Trump is headed to Philippines and Vietnam, where he will be interacting with the ASEAN leaders. Can you give us a sense if the President plans to [UNCLEAR] this issue with the ASEAN leaders and also if the [UNCLEAR] will get a chance to meet with them?
HENSHAW: I can’t comment on what the President plans to do, I’ll leave that up to him. I know he’s been well-briefed on the situation and I know the White House put out a statement about the Rohingya situation. I would point out that Secretary Tillerson is planning to visit Burma on November 15th and will meet with senior leaders and officials there to discuss the next steps in addressing the humanitarian crisis in Rakhine State.
MEDIA: Thank you.
MODERATOR: Okay, if there are no further questions, Assistant Secretary Henshaw, do you have any final words?
HENSHAW: No, just thank you very much.
MODERATOR: Okay, thank you; that concludes today’s call. I want to thank Assistant Secretary Simon Henshaw and thank all of our callers for participating. If you have any questions about today’s call, you can contact the London Media Hub. I believe Mr. Mehta and Lalit Jha both have my contact details. We will be transcribing this interview and will have that to you within 24 hours or less. Thank you.
HENSHAW: Thank you.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Ladies and gentlemen, today’s conference will be available for digitized replay after 11:30 AM eastern time today, running through midnight on November 10th. You may access the AT&T teleconference replay system by dialing 1 (800) 475-6701 and entering the access code 433331. For international participants, you may dial (320) 365-3844. Those numbers again are 1 (800) 475-6701 and (320) 365-3844, with the access code of 433331. That does concludes your conference for today. Thank you for your participation and for using the AT&T Executive Teleconference Service. You may now disconnect.