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David Miliband on politics, populism and the global refugee crisis

The IRC’s president on the political failures shaping humanitarian aid today

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Chief Innovation Officer, International Rescue Committee
Director of Innovation Strategy, International Rescue Committee

The global displacement crisis is profoundly shaped by two crises. On one hand, the changing dynamics of civil war in developing nations means people are displaced for longer, on average, than ever before. On the other, the rise of populism in the West means that fewer refugees than ever before are resettled in places like the United States. These trends, IRC president David Miliband says, are the result of political failures.

Speaking about the civil war in Yemen, where almost three-and-a-half years of blockades and bombardment have left 22 million people in need of humanitarian assistance, Miliband tells Ravi that, “the abiding image is not of tragedy, or relief – but of crimes. To call three-and-a-half million people on the brink of starvation a tragedy, or a disaster, somehow implies there’s something natural about it.”

“The reason I think it's a crime is that it's really a man-made disaster,” Miliband tells Ravi live at the Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility at the New School in New York City.

Miliband formerly served as the UK’s Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs 2007-2010, before he joined the IRC as president and CEO in 2013. David Miliband comes from a family of refugees fleeing Nazi Europe, and it’s this background that informs the argument in his 2017 book Rescue: Refugees and the Political Crisis of Our Time that the biggest question of the 21st century is about our duty to strangers. The global displacement crisis, directly impacting close to 70 million people, is a test of our humanity and our character. How we respond to it will determine whether we’re able to rescue ourselves and our values.

David Miliband (left) and Ravi Gurumurthy (right) at the Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility at the New School in New York. Photo: Ben Ferrari

Maybe strange to say, Miliband remains optimistic the refugee crisis is manageable – if we keep our chins up. “The biggest obstacle is not the scale of the problem,” he writes, “but a sapping, nagging fear that we can’t make a dent.” Individual actions can have a large impact in aggregate. And second, we need a new “grand bargain” with refugee-hosting countries, the top 10 of whom control only 2% of global GDP. That means increased aid flows from the west as well as a symbolic and substantive commitment on the part of Western nations to shoulder a limited amount of refugee resettlement themselves.

And it means granting refugees the right to work, wherever they are. A Center for Global Development review found that allowing refugees to enter the formal economy conferred benefits on both refugees, in the form of higher wages and more labor protections, and the host country, in the form of improved productivity. Uganda, which hosts more than 1 million South Sudanese refugees in unfenced settlements, has long been recognized as a leader in the field of refugee integration. “Refugee camps can be funeral homes for dreams,” Miliband says to Ravi today, “and what I think Uganda has recognized is that you can set up camps temporarily, but they end up becoming permanent.”

Three-and-a-half million people on the brink of starvation is easy to call a tragedy or a disaster – but that somehow implies that something’s natural about it. And the reason I think it's a crime is that it's really a man-made disaster, as a result of the war that has been plaguing that country for the last three-and-a-half years.

Join us for this wide-ranging discussion between two agile minds in the field on the roots of anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe, how to build smart resistance to populism and, of course, football (that’s … soccer for Americans).

Related resources

The West Can Still Shape The Terms for Peace In Syria – The Washington Post, David Miliband

Brother against brother – The Economist, review of Civil Wars: A History in Ideas, by David Armitage

Is Intentional Starvation The Future of War? – The New Yorker, Jane Ferguson

America Is Not an Innocent Bystander in Yemen – Foreign Police, Steven A. Cook

The New New Civil Wars – Annual Review of Political Science, Barbara Walters

Political science says Syria’s civil war will probably last at least another decade – Washington Post, Max Fisher

Refugees need not be a burden, if they are allowed to work – The Economist

Jordan, Lebanon Compacts Should Be Improved, Not Abandoned – Refugees Deeply, Cindy Huang and Nazanin Ash

Good Fences Make Good Politics – Foreign Affairs, Eric Kaufmann, review of Go Back to Where You Came From by Sasha Polakow-Suransky

How Europe Can Reform Its Migration Policy – Foreign Affairs, Alexander Betts and Paul Collier