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Mattis on Need to Help Venezuelan Refugees: Imagine Strain of Million Refugees Pouring Into California

Defense Secretary James Mattis shakes hands with Colombian Defense Minister Guillermo Botero during his visit to Bogota, Colombia, on Aug. 17, 2018. (U.S. Embassy photo)

Defense Secretary James Mattis said Americans need to put themselves in the shoes of the plights of refugees and Venezuela’s neighbors to understand why the United States is sending a hospital ship to handle the influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees who have fled the regime of Nicolas Maduro.

Mattis told reporters upon returning from a six-day South American trip that the U.S. is working with Colombia “in terms of the Venezuelan refugees and their destabilizing impact they have — probably a million or more that are in Colombia now, and you know about the thousands, tens of thousands, elsewhere, and it’s just an enormous challenge.”

The State Department is providing about $56 million in aid to the refugees. The United Nations estimates some 2.3 million Venezuelans have fled since June.

Mattis said the plan to send the USNS Comfort to South America to help out needs to be “refined” but Colombia is “enthusiastic” about the help.

“It is an absolutely a humanitarian mission. We’re not sending soldiers; we’re sending doctors. And it’s an effort to deal with the human cost of Maduro, and his increasingly isolated regime,” he added.

“I think our hemisphere’s democratic values are taking a firmer hold in our political cultures, and we see this, this measurable progress being made. And even right now, in the fact of economic headwinds, we see continued democratic embrace by the people of Latin America. And so it’s not just an idle vision to think that from Canada to all the way down to the tip of South America can be seen probably one of the strongest surges in democratic values in a world that last year took a real hit I think in terms of democracy, in some areas of the world,” Mattis said.

The Defense secretary stressed that “refugees are refugees.”

“I don’t know if you’ve ever been around them. I’ve been around them in Europe. I’ve been around them in Africa, Southeast Asia and the Mideast,” Mattis said. “It is difficult for those of us who live knowing we can flip a switch and turn on the lights at home, we can reach into the refrigerator and have chilled milk when we get up in the morning, to understand they have nothing, and they have poured over the borders. We know that the Colombia healthcare system, you can’t add a million people in the one part of the country, even as they start to filter through, and not upset the apple cart; it’s impossible.”

“So we’re going in, defining the problem that we’re — I think we’re doing — where best could the ship be employed, and that’s what we’re doing. I mean, this is a very clear — a very clear problem, and with a very specific to try to help our neighbors, who are doing their best, I think, to help these refugees,” he added.

“Can you imagine over a million refugees, right now, in one of our most populous states, California, and what that would do to that one state? Well, just put that on steroids down here, and you see why this is a time when one of our fellow democracies is in trouble; we have to come in and help each other.”