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David Miliband on Our Duty to the Strangers in Our Midst: Refugees


Syrian refugees resting in the Keleti train station, Budapest, September 2015. David Miliband, who runs the International Rescue Committee, says the world’s refugees are victims of profound complacency. MSTYSLAV CHERNOV/CREATIVE COMMONS

David Miliband, a former British foreign secretary, has been president and chief executive of the International Rescue Committee since 2013, overseeing both the agency’s humanitarian relief operations and its refugee resettlement and assistance programs in several American cities. The son of European refugees from Nazi Germany, he just published his first book, “Rescue: Refugees and the Political Crisis of Our Time.” It is, he says, about our duty to strangers.

At a recent event moderated by Joanne Myers, director of the public affairs program at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs in New York, Miliband spoke in his opening remarks and in answers to questions from the Carnegie audience about what it means to be a refugee, why we should care and how we can make a difference. From war zones in the Middle East to peaceful suburbs in America, he explained the crisis and shows what can be done, not just by governments with the power to change policy, but by citizens with the urge to change life. He also explained why Europe took so long to react to the crisis in an organized way. — BARBARA CROSSETTE 

Edited excerpts from Miliband’s opening remarks and audience questions follow; to watch a video of the entire event, click here. 

DAVID MILIBAND: One of the purposes of writing this book was to take the refugee crisis out of a self-selected world of humanitarian experts and countries that are dealing with refugees, and occasionally the front page, and bring it into wider conversation. One of my diagnoses of this crisis is that the world’s refugees are a victim of a complacency; that somehow law and practice had been established after the Second World War to protect refugees, and they were properly looked after.

Just let me start with the facts: 65 million people displaced from their homes by conflict or persecution in the world today; [they are] not economic migrants, people who are choosing to leave their home and their country in order to seek economic betterment. There are about 250 million of those. These 65 million people are homeless because of war or persecution.

Of that 65 million, 40 million are still in their own home country, so they are what is called “internally displaced.” So seven million Syrians have been bombed or driven out of their homes, but they are still living within Syria. In northeast Nigeria, two million people have been displaced from their homes by the Boko Haram terrorist group, but they are still within Nigeria.

So, 40 million are internally displaced, about 25 million are refugees. Absolutely technically, 22.5 million are refugees, and three million are asylum seekers. Just keep in your head that 25 million people of the 65 million are people who have been driven from their homes by conflict or persecution, and they have gone into a neighboring country. The definition of a refugee is “someone who has a well-founded fear of persecution.” In other words, they do not feel safe to go home, and they are judged not to be safe to go home.

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One danger of this crisis and one idea behind the book is that 65 million feels like a dehumanized number. It is almost so big that it cannot be comprehended. It is actually one in every 110 people on the planet. It would be the 21st-largest country in the world if it was a country.

There are characteristics of these people, though, that I think are important to understand. One is that half of these people are under the age of 18. So half of the world’s refugees are children. If you think about the debate about Syrian refugees arriving in the United States, fully 47 percent of the Syrians who have been allowed to come to the United States are actually kids.

Sixty percent of refugees live in urban areas, not in camps. If I got $10 every time I am asked, “Do you work in camps?” I would be a rich man. The truth is that most refugees are not in camps; 60 percent of refugees are in urban areas. The challenge for them is different than in a camp setting. In a camp, you are pretty much guaranteed food, and if you are really sick, you will get some health care. In an urban setting, you are not guaranteed that kind of food delivery or the health delivery either. So we have an urbanized displaced population as well as a young displaced population as well as a long-term displaced population.

There are about 20 to 25 weak states around the world that do not have the political systems that can contain religious, ethnic and political differences. . . . The international political system is weaker and more divided certainly than at any time since the end of the Cold War, but in some ways it is weaker than any time since World War II.

None of those are short-term trends. Weak states, divided international system, huge debate within the Islamic world about its future and how it engages with the rest of the world, those are long-term trends, not blips. So what we are dealing with, I argue in the book, is something that is going to basically go on for the rest of my days. It is a long-term crisis, not something that is going to go away.

QUESTION: So you wanted us to talk about this question of democratic consent. To take what seems like a really vivid example of this in the West, in early 2016, Europe, led by Angela Merkel, reached what felt like a Faustian bargain with Turkey to basically block the onward movement of refugees into Europe. Merkel and other European leaders would have said, “If we don’t do this, we will lose the support of our own populations, who fear that we’ve lost control over our borders.” Should we think of that as a cynical act which ought not to have happened, or as a kind of necessary concession to the need for democratic consent for these difficult policies?

MILIBAND:  The argument in Europe was not that “we have to come to a deal with Turkey or we are not going to be able to contain the anger of our own population.” The argument was, “Unless we come to a deal with Turkey, we’re not going to be able to manage the problem,” which is a different point.

The question is, why was Europe in the position that it was not able to manage the refugee flow in an effective way? The answer to that is rather instructive: one, in 2012-2013, when the refugees first left Syria and went to the Middle East, Europe was focused on the euro crisis and then on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. So the European Union effectively ignored the refugee crisis until August of 2015, so it has been playing catch-up.

Second, because it is playing catch-up, it did not establish shared responsibility among the 28 countries for managing it. So the responsibility fell primarily to Greece and Italy, and then in Germany and Sweden, which were seen as the best places to go. The rest of Europe basically opted out, including, tragically, my own country [Britain]. It is only this year that Europe has a proper entry and exit system

QUESTION: Is there a future in convincing European publics that accepting immigrants is advantageous to their societies, fills their labor forces, which otherwise would not be filled? I am speaking because of the allure that politicians who are nativist politicians, who are anti-immigrant politicians, seem to have in places like Germany, the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, even Austria now.

MILIBAND:  The real paradox of this is that countries and communities that have the most immigrants are the happiest about it. The greatest backlash against immigrants is in communities, cities, towns and villages — and countries — that have the fewest immigrants. The Hungarian tragedy is an example of this, but so is the UK situation. The most integrated, diverse communities are the happiest about it. It is true here [New York] as well. The biggest backlash against refugees is in the places that have hardly any refugees. That is a long-winded way of saying I think it is an argument that can be won, but in any case it has to be won because the truth is that people are going to move, and the question is whether or not they are moving legally and in a documented way or illegally in an undocumented way.

QUESTION: You have not had a chance to address the Rohingya problem. The Pope went to Myanmar and was not allowed to mention their name, and there are so many of them, and they are affecting Bangladesh. What do you suggest can be done?

MILIBAND:  We have been working in Myanmar/Burma for 30 years. We are responsible for the health provision for 120,000 people in the Rakhine State, which is where this Muslim minority is, and we have to be very careful to serve Muslims and non-Muslims in the work that we do. Otherwise, we get into terrible difficulty. So the first thing that needs to happen is that our workers need to be able to go and do their work for the remaining Rohingya population, which they are not being allowed to do. That is a political dynamic within the government of Myanmar. But the Pope’s visit, I hope, behind the scenes is addressing this.

On the Bangladesh side, it is very difficult because I am afraid the history is that the Bangladeshis have not wanted to give refugee status historically to Rohingya who have been coming because there is an argument about whether or not they are Bengalis. It is sort of difficult. At the moment the government of Bangladesh is being very open to international help. It is not closing up, it wants international help, and they really need it. We are there, we have an emergency team in. We are trying to get registered, which is taking a bit of time, but it is a real time to mobilize to support the Bangladeshi government, the Bangladeshi people in dealing with this challenge.

QUESTION: In this country, I am sure you have seen that refugee equals Muslim, and the focus is on that issue. Yet we have an extraordinary number of refugees coming in here from true crises, in Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, right on our borders. I would be interested to know your take on that and what you are doing with that refugee problem.

MILIBAND: We have a team down in El Salvador at the moment doing some work because in that triangle of Honduras/El Salvador/Guatemala there are undoubtedly people who are fleeing for their lives, often kids, but not only kids. My very strong view is that they are as entitled to claim asylum, to claim refugee status, as anyone else, and they should be dealt with in an appropriate way. In the El Salvador/Honduras/Guatemala situation, criminal gangs are effectively terrorizing local populations.

QUESTION: But the background to this, which nobody seems to want to deal with, is that the world population is increasing.

MILIBAND:  What do we know about population growth? The thing that we know more than anything else is that the poorer you are, the more kids you have. It seems paradoxical or perverse, but it is the fact. It is important not to say Africa as a whole—Africa is a big continent. There are particular parts of Africa where there are massive population issues, and the population of Africa overall is growing very significantly. But it is trackable not just to countries according to their income, but also communities according to their income.

You then have a whole set of practices to do with family planning and birth control that are very vexed. in local culture, but I do not need to point out they are also very vexed here because one of the things the new [Trump] administration here has done is ban any family planning, abortion work, etc.

QUESTION:  The European Parliament is considering a 40 billion euro [$47 billion] Marshall Plan for Africa to help deal with the problem of migration. What do you think of that?

MILIBAND: Europe is very interested in how it conceives its development aid to different parts of the world, including Africa. If you think about the Marshall Plan, what was the Marshall Plan? It was not just a development plan. It was a political plan, and it was also a private sector plan. If the European Union means a real Marshall Plan that brings together different elements of governance.

The discussion that we are having with Europeans — I was in Brussels last week actually talking about this — there are two things that are incredibly difficult: one is the relationship between development and humanitarian aid; and migration objectives. Our argument very strongly is that you should not be using development money to run visa systems, frontier posts, security. We must not end up cheating the development budget to manage the migration issue.

QUESTION:  Based on totally uninformed speculation, I would assume that refugees at least have the means to escape political persecution and war, so they have some means, they are not simply shepherds and unskilled people. Is there any study that shows that they are in fact somewhat better prepared, educated and skilled to work than the average person in the country that is affected?

MILIBAND: There are plenty of shepherds and agricultural workers among refugees, if you are from Congo or elsewhere, so it is a very mixed picture. Some are dentists and accountants and fitness trainers, but others are very unskilled. We do, though, have evidence of how refugees do in the United States, and there is a government report — a suppressed government report, actually; it was leaked — that over a 20-year period, I have in my head [there was] a $63 billion dividend for the US economy.  So, refugees contribute more over a 20-year period than they cost in taxes and benefits. We do have good aggregate evidence. We can build up more of it.

I think the important thing for me is not to pretend, yes, everyone is going to be a software engineer, because it is not as simple as that, and obviously half of them are kids, so you do not know. But these are people who really know the cost of the terror that they have suffered, and they are prizing the opportunity that they have been given to restart their lives, and that makes them good neighbors and good employees.


Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.

Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”

Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.

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David Miliband on Our Duty to the Strangers in Our Midst: Refugees
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