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Taking on the plight of refugees — and the misperceptions

Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, says the tens of millions of refugees around the world should be embraced, not feared. But she also said it’s important for screening systems to be in place. She notes that more than 800,000 refugees have been taken in by the U.S. since the 9/11 attacks and none has been involved in domestic terrorism. Judy Woodruff sits down with Power.

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    Now to my interview with the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power.

    She was here in Washington yesterday to speak on the plight of refugees, now a record 65 million worldwide. I spoke with her yesterday afternoon at the State Department.

    Ambassador Susan Power, thank you very much for talking with us.

    SAMANTHA POWER, U.S. Ambassador to the UN: Great to be here.


    You are calling this situation right now the greatest refugee crisis the world has known since World War II. And yet you see this rising, enormous backlash in Europe, in the United States. It says that a lot of people, maybe most people, don't share your view about what to do. How do you deal with that?


    Well, I think there's a lot of latent public opinion that also doesn't necessarily get airtime during presidential elections, for instance.

    But there are fears. I think those fears are stoked. We have seen those in history at different times, whether it's on whether we let in Jewish refugees during the Second World War or Vietnamese refugees after the Vietnam War.

    So there's nothing new in that set of fears. I think some of the fears are warranted. People are wondering, could ISIL potentially sneak through? And we have to answer those fears. And I think we have by putting in place these incredibly strenuous vetting processes that have the FBI and the Center for Counterterrorism and the Department of Homeland Security at the table vetting the time it takes.

    But we also need to do a better job lifting up, I think, the voices of those people who, again, aren't necessarily running for office, but who have welcomed refugees into their homes, into their communities, or giving small amounts of money, donating toys. And I see that all over the place in going to meet with refugees around the country, is just how much generosity there is at the same time.


    But you also see, of course, the vote in the United Kingdom to leave the E.U., the Brexit vote. You see Chancellor Merkel in Germany facing growing, significant opposition.

    This has become a political crisis or problem, as much as a humanitarian one. How much harder does that make it for you?


    Clearly, there are difficult politics associated with this issue.

    I think we have to be a little careful to choose — to pull out of Brexit one thing and say, wow, those people voted that way because of the Syrian refugee crisis or because of displacement. I mean, there were concerns, of course, that we saw in exit polls and heard from people about immigration, so I don't dismiss the point at all.

    But, you know, I think that part of what is making people feel a little overwhelmed now, just by reading the newspaper, is a sense of an uncontrolled flow, just people tumbling over borders. And that's also where the security fears — people are asking, well, could — among that population of ISIL in Syria, couldn't they be smuggled into that very large number of people?

    And what we're trying to do is to say we have systems here. We have processes. In order for those systems to work, there has to be burden-sharing. It has to be more equitable. It can't just be falling to Turkey to take three million Syrians, and then have countries washing their hands of an obligation to take any.

    If there's a way to — and it's very difficult to do, but to sort of slow down the process, to make sure that the screening and the procedures are in place, to be sure that communities are ready to absorb refugees when they land, because there's nothing worse than the volatility of an unready community, you know, meeting an influx of families who have gone through so much.


    But it sounds like what you're saying is you're calling on leaders to go against the popular will in their countries, because there are these — as you just said, there are very real concerns in this country that so many of these refugees may be terrorists hiding or pretending to be somebody else.


    This is an issue that has proven divisive, there's no question.

    But I, again, draw on the number of mayors and local officials and school board heads who — and private sector CEOs who have gone out of their way in this country to say we want refugees. We have seen how refugees work. We have seen how they enrich our community.

    So, I think, again, we just — we just have to know that there's more beneath the surface than necessarily meets the eye.


    At the same time, Americans — many Americans are looking at this from a — frankly, a more parochial standpoint. They're thinking these people may be taking jobs away from us. They may be presenting a very real security threat to us right now.

    Can you guarantee the American people those things aren't going to happen?


    Well, what I can say is that, since September 11, we have taken 800,000 people into this country in our resettlement program and not one of them has been involved in domestic terrorism.

    What I can say is that our system for screening refugees is the most robust of any for anybody coming into the country, and that Syrian refugees get an added layer of vetting because of the proximity, of course, with a battleground and with ISIL.


    You're probably the person in this administration at a high level most identified with the humanitarian cause, certainly because of all the work you did on humanitarian issues before you came into the administration.

    How do you square that with what has to be, I mean, from your perspective, a disappointing response on the part of the U.S.? I guess the U.S. at this point has taken in just a few thousand…




    … Syrian — Syrian refugees out of over — of millions.


    Yes. Yes.


    How do you reconcile that personally?


    Well, I reconcile it in part because nobody is the more vocal champion of enhancing our support for refugees than the president I get to work for every day.

    So we have now increased the number of refugees we're taking this year to 85,000, including 10,000 Syrians. We are increasing next year then to 100,000. That is a 40 percent increase in just a two-year period of time. We have got to make sure the system is ready, and that we can do the vetting consistent with our primary responsibility, which is to keep the American people safe.


    Of course, the root cause of the most of the Syrian refugee crisis is the war ongoing there. And just recently, a number of U.S. diplomats wrote a letter to Secretary Kerry saying they want the U.S. very much to take a more aggressive military role in that war.

    How do you — what's your feeling about that?


    The views expressed in that cable are views and policy positions that have been taken in meetings I'm in, in meetings the president has chaired. I mean, he welcomes that kind of debate.

    If we were able to present something that makes a compelling case, where, you know, the benefits in terms of ending the Syrian war are going to exceed the costs, he's going to embrace that. And there's not an option that's been presented, again, that he hasn't embraced, you know, that if somebody presents it in a manner where it is compelling and actually looks like it's going to solve the problem, he's going to be all over it.

    And to this day, even with the short time left in his tenure, we are still looking to end the war, and we are still being encouraged to look under every rock.


    U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, thank you very much.


    Thank you.

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