Ambassador Power: Measures In Place To Resettle Migrants Safely
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
World leaders are gathering this week for the United Nations General Assembly in New York. The pope will address the assembly on Friday. On Monday, China's president, Xi Jinping, will make his first-ever speech before the U.N. And President Obama will be meeting with other world leaders at the assembly to discuss, among other things, the biggest migration crisis in Europe since World War II. That crisis is front and center for Samantha Power, one of Obama's closest advisers. She's also the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and she spoke to us from her office in New York.
Ambassador Power, welcome to the program.
SAMANTHA POWER: Good to be here.
MONTAGNE: I want to begin with a tweet that you sent out on Monday that said that the U.S. would admit 85,000 refugees next year, 100,000 the following year, 2017. Those would be quotas, clearly, but higher than the current quotas. But we have reported that when it comes to Syrian refugees, in particular, the U.S., so far, has admitted less than 2,000. I mean, considering the scale of the crisis, why is that number so small?
POWER: Well, it's a very fair question. I think for a very long time, of course, there was a hope that a political solution would be found and that these individuals and desperate families would be able to return to their homes. Unfortunately, the longer the conflict has gone on, that has come to seem more elusive. And, as you know well, refugees are voting with their feet from the neighboring countries - from Turkey, from Lebanon, from Jordan - and those countries themselves are completely overwhelmed.
MONTAGNE: And when you speak of refugees, what does it take for someone fleeing a years' long war, as in Syria - its civil war - to be legally admitted to the U.S.?
POWER: Well, of course, the population is overwhelming. There are 12 million people who've been displaced just in the Syria conflict itself. And then we have South Sudan and Congo and Iraq and just a whole host of other crises right now that are causing huge displacement. About 4 million Syrians are in neighboring countries, and so they are not displaced inside Syria. They then would go to UNHCR and describe what has happened to them - of course, the conflict has been so monstrous.
MONTAGNE: And when you say UNHCR, you're talking about the United Nations High Commission on Refugees?
POWER: Correct, and then we would look at, you know, the characteristics of those refugees - do they have family members in the United States, which might ease settlement, are they particularly vulnerable? And then, of course, there are a whole set of very intense security checks, particularly in light of the fact that ISIL and other organizations have been present, you know, in the region where the conflict is occurring.
MONTAGNE: That, I would think, might be a political issue - how much the fear that terrorists would be among these many, many tens of thousands of people fleeing Syria and other areas - Iraq maybe, Somalia.
POWER: Well, we, over the last few years, have been able to resettle safely about 20,000 Iraqi refugees each year. And so I think our system that have been put in place - and this includes enhanced security checks over the course of the last four, five years under the Obama administration - I think has put us in a place now where we feel good about our ability to achieve our dual goals - first and foremost, of course, keeping the American people safe - but we also have an amazing tradition in this country of opening our doors when people need it the most. And the whole country is built, in a way, on that tradition.
MONTAGNE: And I'm, of course, thinking to the very sad and famous photograph of the little boy from Syria, Aylan, whose family couldn't get into Canada, but it could've been here.
POWER: Absolutely. And again, the heartbreak that these families are feeling - it's just impossible to find words to describe it. I mean, the promise of getting to Greece or to Europe or to the United States, of course, is an allure causing parents to entrust their fates and the fates of their kids to smugglers who do not have the best interest of these people in mind. But one of the things we're going to use the coming U.N. General Assembly to do is to try to leverage our financial investments and our expanded slots, you know, for admissions to try to get other countries to step up as well, not just in Europe but in other parts of the world that have sort of viewed this from afar as someone else's problem.
MONTAGNE: And, Ambassador Power, you have launched a new campaign. It's called Free The 20. Tell us about that.
POWER: This is the 20-year anniversary of the Beijing conference, which many people remember for Hillary Clinton, then the first lady's, landmark speech where she said women's rights are human rights and human rights are women's rights. Coincidental, with the 20th, the government of China and the U.N. secretary general are coming together to mark the 20th anniversary to ask what progress has been made, you know, where can we take further strides. Unfortunately, at the same time, they'll be a fair amount of backslapping for some of the advances that have been made.
Women are being silenced who could add a tremendous amount to their countries. And so what we decided to do was to profile 20 such women who are imprisoned right now, and we're hanging the portraits of each of these 20 women on First Avenue just across from the United Nations, in the front window of the U.S. Mission to the United Nations. So that when heads of state are walking by that they will be reminded of the loss fundamentally of the disempowerment of women and the silencing of women and the crackdown on civil society that is really impeding development and progress.
MONTAGNE: And so far, you've chosen women from Egypt, Venezuela, Afghanistan. Several have been from China. And this, of course, is referring back to something that did happen in Beijing, but also China's president, Xi Jinping, is visiting the U.S. these coming days. He'll be at a state dinner. I'm wondering if you struggled at all as to whether to go to that dinner?
POWER: Well, I think the approach that the president has taken - and that certainly I take here as his ambassador at the United Nations - is to engage over differences and not to be shy about speaking our mind or speaking up on behalf of those who are being oppressed around the world, but also being very public about our concern about what China has done. In this instance, we're profiling three women from China, but those three women stand for a much broader crackdown on civil society that has occurred and really intensified over the course of the last year.
But by the same token, I work with my Chinese counterpart every day in the Security Council. China is getting more and more involved in U.N. peacekeeping and sending troops into conflict zones to try to stabilize those areas. You know, there are things that we will disagree about and be very vocal about and try to push for change on, and then, of course, we will continue to engage on issues on which we can cooperate.
MONTAGNE: Samantha Power is the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Thank you for joining us.
POWER: Thank you, Renee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.