It was only five years ago that David Miliband looked destined to become a future British prime minister. Young, intelligent and eloquent, he had the likes of Hillary Clinton gushing over him. However, after unexpectedly losing the battle for the leadership of the Labour Party, Miliband stepped away from politics in 2013 and moved to New York City to lead the International Rescue Committee, an organization dedicated to helping refugees.
At the time it seemed like a step down in ambition for Miliband, but it made sense for him on a personal level: He's the son of Jewish refugees who fled to London during World War II (Ralph Miliband, his father, went on to become a well-known Marxist academic). And in hindsight, the younger Miliband's move turned out to be prescient. Over the past year, desperate refugees and migrants have flooded into Europe, turning a slow-burning problem into a full-blown international crisis.
Speaking in Washington this week, Miliband was keen to emphasize that he feels the IRC is uniquely positioned in this crisis. The organization, which was founded at the request of Albert Einstein in 1933, is the only one working with Syrians within Syria, in neighboring countries and inside Europe, as well as helping resettle Syrians in the United States.
With few signs that the crisis is abating, the IRC recently launched a campaign calling on the United States to resettle 100,000 Syrian refugees in 2016. In an interview with WorldViews, Miliband explained why he thinks the crisis isn't a blip but a long-term trend — and why America must play a bigger role in helping to resettle the world's refugees.
WorldViews: First off, I was kind of curious to know whether you think there has been a real surge in interest in refugees over the past month or so — and whether you think that surge in interest has been positive?
David Miliband: I think there has been not just a surge in interest but an inflection point in the debate. The inflection point, sad to say, was triggered by the terrible pictures of Aylan Kurdi. Organizations like mine have been talking for a long time about not just the moral, but the geopolitical dangers of the increasing numbers of people fleeing conflict and disaster. But it has taken the image of a boy who could be anyone's son to suddenly break the complacency — to break what the pope called the "globalization of indifference."
Now I think the truth is that some of it has been very positive, in that it means that corporations and individuals are suddenly saying, "What can I do?" They are volunteering at our office around the U.S. They are donating to our efforts. That's good, but equally, what's dangerous is that there's a bit of a maelstrom around refugees and immigration. We know from our experience in the U.K. during the '90s that when immigration and refugees get confused, it's dangerous. You end up eroding the integrity of the status of a refugee, which I think is really important to try to protect.
WV: Do you worry that there's a danger of people becoming bored of the subject?
DM: It depends on the commitment of The Washington Post to follow important news stories versus not important news stories. People are looking for responses. They're looking for responses that are both short-term and medium-term. They're looking for responses that are personal and individual, but also that are addressing the overall situation. And, so, I actually think that there's life in this story yet.
WV: We're coming to winter now. Do you think that the numbers of people we have seen trying to make the journey to Europe will continue?
DM: Look, we had 6,000 a day arriving in Lesbos last week. Six thousand people a day arriving! And it was 200 a day in June. What's horrifying is that as the winter is setting in, the waters are becoming more choppy, let alone cold, and yet these numbers are still coming. I think the U.N. have said they expect 20,000 to reach Lesbos in December. That's unprecedented and incredibly dangerous.
DM: Yes. There is always that danger. I think that there are two points: One, is this a trend or is this a blip? I think it's a trend, because there are three forces that are driving this rise in the number of people fleeing conflict: an implosion in the Islamic world, weak states that can't hold back different ethnic and political differences, and a weakened international system. Those are secular trends, not short-term trends, so I think point one is that this is likely to be a trend, not a blip.
Secondly, is there a danger of a backlash? People want compassion and competence, and if you have compassion without competence, then there is a danger of a backlash. It's hugely more difficult for the European authorities now because they are playing catch-up. To be fair to [Italian Prime Minister Mario Renzi], he was saying last year: This is a massive issue that sits along the Ukraine and the euro crisis. For God's sake, get a grip! And no one really did. And so, playing catch-up makes it really much more difficult.
WV: Germany became known for its open attitude to refugees, but there is talk now, in Germany, of tightening asylum laws. Do you think that's an acknowledgement that Germany made a mistake in being so open?
DM: I think we've got to say that [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel responded to a reality. There were already 300,000 asylum seekers in Germany when she made her announcement. Do you recognize reality or are you going to send them away? So she recognized reality. I think that she's obviously trying to get other Europeans to follow. It depends now on how the European plan gets implemented. My impression is that it's easy to accuse them of creating a pull factor, and there's no doubt that a lot of people want to go to Germany at the moment. Equally, she has done something that was morally and politically courageous. It's not, in my view, unmanageable both in terms of the absolute numbers and in terms of the actions that are necessary, in the neighboring states and in Syria itself, to try to stanch the flow.
WV: When we talk about refugees and migrants in Europe, we do focus on Syrian refugees. However, the reality is that many people are also coming from the Balkans, including Roma people. Most of these people are having their asylum applications, if they make them, rejected. Is that fair?
DM: The fact that they are having their asylum claims rejected shows the system is working. Remember the second-largest group is from Afghanistan. It's about 20 percent Afghanistan. There are also Eritreans who are fleeing conscription and persecution. Last year, Europe sent back 98,000 people. I'm arguing for the integrity of the refugee system and for the rights of refugees. I've got to maintain that someone who isn't a refugee can't be allowed to stay. It is very important that it's not a one-way street.
WV: Has the IRC had to move around funds or resources in order to deal with the crisis in Europe?
DM: We've not had to take resources away from Niger or Sierra Leone to put them into Europe. We had capacity, and we'd been building up our emergency team, actually, so that we can do four concurrent emergencies. We put the additional staff in, but we're also recruiting local staff quite quickly. Our model is to have locals, not expats.
WV: One of the arguments of British Prime Minister David Cameron is that we should be taking Syrians from camps in the Middle East, in order to deflate the pull factor. Does the IRC agree?
DM: We think it is important to do both. It's a position of perfectly reasonable integrity to say that there are people in Syria, in Lebanon, Jordan, or Turkey who deserve to be relocated or to be resettled, but there's also a relocation need within Europe. I think that the U.K. has had an exemplary record in its international development policy, and the support and the quality of the aid that Britain gives nationally. Equally, we're arguing very strongly that [Britain is taking] 4,000 a year in a situation where Italy is taking 120,000, with a similar population. No one is saying Britain needs to take 120,000, but its share of the European relocation package would be higher than 4,000 a year.
WV: Coming from the U.K. and moving to the U.S. — is there anything that is especially surprising about the different ways the refugee debate is framed in the two countries?
DM: This country has, as the pope said, has been built by immigrants. "Bring me your poor and huddled masses," as it says on the Statue of Liberty. I think that the appeal to the American leadership should be stronger.
I think that security concerns are much greater here than in Europe, much more ever-present than in the debate than in Europe. But people don't realize it's harder to get to America as a refugee than any other route, short of swimming the Atlantic. If you did want to come and cause trouble in the U.S., there are many other easier ways of getting in to cause trouble [than coming as a refugee]
WV: How has the campaign to increase the number refugees taken in by the United States gone so far?
DM: Well, it hasn't succeeded yet. We derive the figures from saying, "Look, America has traditionally taken 50 percent of the world's resettled refugees." In March of this year, the U.N. was saying there would be 130,000 by the end of 2016, so we said 65,000 of that. The administration moved slowly, accepting the idea of 10,000 Syrians, then John Kerry raised the total cap to 100,000 without specifying numbers the number of Syrians. Since then, the number of refugees has risen. The U.N. has said 10 percent of the 4 million [refugees] are most vulnerable and they need to be resettled over the next several years — that's how we get our figure of 100,000 over the next year for the U.S.
It would be ridiculous to claim that we've succeeded. We've got a long way to go. What I can say is that we've got offices in 26 U.S. cities ready to welcome people, and with communities there ready to take them. If the administration decided to, they can use routes other than the refugee route. There's something called the family reunification system. Where at the moment reunification families are just parents and kids, if you expand that to grandparents and to cousins, using DNA and other things, you'd be bringing people right into families and communities who want them. That would be a way to speed up the flow.
WV: Going into an election year in the U.S., do you have concerns about how that will affect the debate surrounding immigration?
DM: I hope that it will positive. The facts are on our side, and the morality is on our side. It would be good in the presidential debates if there are questions about this, if some of the fears are addressed. We say up-front: It's good to have effective screening. It's good to distinguish refugees from economic migrants. I have a sort of naive faith that actually opening up these issues is better than closing them down. Especially when you say, well, 1,800 Syrians have been allowed in here in four and a half years. No one can tell me that's the limit of America's capacity.
WV: Donald Trump said recently that he thinks all Syrian refugees should be sent back...
DM: It's not going to make America great again to send home refugees. What I would say to Donald Trump is that the history in this country in welcoming people from abroad, not as a burden, but as productive citizens is very, very strong. There is credibility and effectiveness in the security screening. There are communities here that are showing what it is to be a successful refugee. They are some of the most patriotic Americans – three and a half thousand Muslim Americans are in the armed forces. I think that there's a really positive story to tell here about people who are remaking their lives in an inspiring way. That's an economic story, as well as a social story, as well as a political story.
WV: Do you have dialogue with any Republican candidates about refugees?
DM: We are open to all sides, and I'm sure across our offices around the country we have certainly talked to people on both sides of politics. They've come to see my organization privately, so I wouldn't want to say whom. On both sides.
WV: You're known for having a relatively close relationship with Hillary Clinton. Do you speak to her about refugees?
DM: I'm not an adviser to Hillary Clinton. The people from both camps, on both center left and center right, have asked for the benefits of IRC's expertisem and we've offered it.
WV: One of the things you said earlier is that governments are playing catch-up to this crisis. What you think could have been done a few years ago to really change how this came about.
DM: There's really three things. One, a legal route to refugee status to undercut the criminal smugglers. They are making $60,000 coming across the Aegean. There are 80 or 100 boats a day. The second thing is much more substantial humanitarian aid for the neighboring states. The third point is that within Syria, on both the humanitarian and political side, there's been a terrible failure. The amount of the humanitarian aid going in the year after the U.N. resolutions went is less than it was before and the political process is nowhere.
WV: At this point, what do you think is the best-case outcome of that situation?
DM: The best-case outcome is a Lebanese-style power-sharing sooner rather than later.
WV: And the global refugee situation?
DM: The best thing is a realization that a neglect of a problem at the source doesn't just create misery as its symptom, it also creates great geopolitical instability. Anyone who goes to neighboring states in the Middle East can see there's a causal line, not just from political instability to humanitarian disaster but from a humanitarian disaster back to political instability.
WV: Do you worry about the worst-case scenarios?
DM: Yes, of course I do. Five years ago, if you'd described this current scenario to me, I would have said that's the worst possible! We've had chemical weapons, 260,000 dead, al-Qaeda, now al-Qaeda bested by ISIS [the Islamic State militant group], 4 million refugees, 12 million people in need — its apocalyptic. It's biblical levels of disaster. But, actually, the danger is we become inured to it and stop thinking how much worse it could get, because we've got to make this better.
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