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Perspective

David Miliband, President and CEO of the IRC, gives Bucerius Lecture at German Historical Institute

Thank you for welcoming me today and thank you very much to Simone Laessig for inviting me to speak at this event. It is an honor to be at Berkeley and I appreciate the opportunity provide my perspective as a humanitarian, a policymaker, and a recovering politician to such an esteemed group of academics and rising scholars in the field of migration.

There is another person who I want to honor, who may not be here physically but is here in spirit, and that is Henry Arnhold. Henry was a close friend and supporter of the IRC and of refugees around the world. His support for displaced people was heavily influenced by his own personal story. He grew up in Dresden, Germany, where his family – all of whom were Jewish – were persecuted by the Nazi government. He and his family managed to flee Nazi Germany to Switzerland in 1937, but their reprieve was short – three years later Henry was caught by Nazi soldiers and held in a concentration camp for more than a year. When he was released, Henry – like many migrants before and after him – began a long, difficult journey that took him through Sweden and Cuba before eventually arriving in the United States.

Here in America he joined the army and served his new country in the war that had forced him from his native land. After the war, he stayed in the US and became a successful businessman and a loving father, but he never forgot about Germany and his family’s experience throughout his career. He used his relationships and influence, along with the money from his business, to help rebuild his hometown Dresden, strengthen German-American relations, and support others who had been displaced by war and persecution like him.

Henry was one of the IRC’s most valuable and reliable supporters, funding everything from our research and development team to our regional innovation hubs to our graduate fellowship program, but more than that I considered Henry a personal friend. I am grateful to Henry not only for his financial contributions to the IRC’s work around the world, but also for the work he did as a bridge-builder – between the US and Europe, between likeminded people and organization, and between the world of academia and the world of policy practice. For instance, Henry supported the IRC’s collaboration with the Zolberg Institute on Migration at the New School in New York and funded student and faculty research on migration in more than ten countries where the IRC operates.

For those of us like me and Simone that had the great fortune to spend time with Henry before he passed away this year, one of the most striking things about him, even at the age of 96, was his incredible optimism, hope, and belief in the good of humanity. If a man like Henry who had everything stolen from him by war and a genocidal government can keep that flame of hope alive, then it is incumbent on all of us to do so as well. So while I will speak at length today about the challenges facing refugees and other displaced people around the world, I choose to honor Henry’s legacy by discussing solutions, not just suffering. This lecture is dedicated to him

We are living through an unprecedented refugee and displacement crisis around the world today. 68 million people are displaced – 25 million of whom have crossed an international border, making them a refugee. That means 1 in 110 people on the planet is a refugee or displaced person, and unfortunately less than 2 percent of them went home last year.

This is not a problem that is going away any time soon – there were 16 million people displaced last year, that’s 44,400 people every day, and half of the displaced are children, meaning that many of them will carry the trauma of displacement with them through the rest of their lives. Perhaps most frustrating is the growing gap between the needs of refugees and the support offered to them by the governments of developed nations around the world. Despite the fact that 85 percent of refugees are hosted by developing nations like Pakistan, Uganda, and Lebanon, nativist politicians here in America, in Germany, in my home country the UK claim that we’re being ‘overrun’ by refugees and instead of offering refuge to these people, are offering border walls and draconian policies that treat migrants like criminals.

With this context in mind, my argument to you today is as follows: First, the displacement crisis today is becoming more complex as the reasons for movement multiply and more people find themselves in the grey zone between the traditional dividing lines of refugees and economic migrants. It is not just refugees under attack. The rights of all types of people on the move are under attack, whether they have crossed a border to escape conflict or they have moved to a new country for work. But our task is to keep in plain sight the most simple point: If we allow complexity to dilute the definition of a refugee, we will dilute the rights of refugees and immigrants alike. Second, as the threats to people grow – whether they are asylum seekers, refugees, trafficked children, people fleeing from gang violence or political meltdown – we need to live up to our promises to protect people on the move. “Protection” needs to be made a reality. Third, the central case is that periods of displacement are lengthening, so we need to shift our perspective from helping refugees survive to helping them thrive and that means serious change in the way the humanitarian sector works.

I run a global humanitarian charity called the International Rescue Committee with about 17,000 field staff in 200 locations in 30 countries around the world, helping refugees and displaced people whose lives have been shattered by conflict. Unfortunately we have our hands full. Last year we helped 26 million refugees, internationally displaced people, and host populations. In the past twelve months we launched emergency response programs to support the Rohingya in Bangladesh and Venezuelans in Colombia. We put infectious disease experts on planes within 24 hours of the first cases of Ebola being reported in the Democratic Republic of the Congo earlier this year. We are midst of launching the largest early childhood intervention in the history of humanitarian response, working in partnership with Sesame Street to combine social-emotional support to address trauma with basic literacy and numeracy for Syrian and Iraqi children displaced by the war there.

Here in the US we are fighting to save the refugee resettlement program, which is core to our mission. Most years our resettlement offices, such as the IRC office in Oakland just five miles from here, help more than 10,000 refugees resettle in the United States every year – that is until last year when the Trump administration began dismantling what had been until then a bipartisan refugee response.

The vast majority of the IRC’s beneficiaries are people who have been involuntarily displaced, including refugees. I think it is important to distinguish them from economic migrants because the legal, ethical, and moral responsibilities the international community has to people who have involuntarily migrated for fear of their lives is different than to people who have voluntarily migrated in the pursuit of a better life.

The distinction in theory is much fuzzier in practice, and in my view recent events have shown that this distinction is getting even fuzzier today. For instance, how should we consider the 2.3 million Venezuelans who have fled their country’s economic collapse? What about the Somalis who fled the 2011 famine that killed over a quarter of a million people? What about the increasing numbers of people fleeing from the effects of climate change, such as the people in Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands who are losing their land every day to rising sea levels?

These people are not the classical definition of a refugee with a “well-founded fear of persecution.” No army is shooting at them, no militias are attacking them, no government is oppressing them. But every one of these individuals can make a reasonable argument that while it might technically be safe to go home, it would be very unwise to do so.

It is tempting to say that the increasing number of people who do not fall neatly into the category of refugee or economic migrant mean that we should rewrite the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol, or even better replace them with a unified convention that covers the full spectrum of migration. Professor Michael Doyle at Columbia University argues that the current legal architecture should be replaced with an “international mobility regime” that spans the full spectrum of migration from tourist visas to permanent residents. I understand and respect this argument, but I think that reopening the debate on the legal rights afforded to refugees would actually cause more harm than good for migrants everywhere.

Notwithstanding the challenges it poses, the Refugee Convention remains a bedrock of the post-war international order and is one of the most important documents in international law. The Refugee Convention did four important things when it was ratified. First, it provided a concrete, if imperfect, definition of who constitutes a refugee. Second, it granted international legal rights and minimum standards of treatment of people with refugee status. Third, it established the UN High Commission on Refugees, a body that when it is working properly provides a critical voice for these people, and over the past 67 years has helped broaden the definition of refugees. And fourth, it established a mechanism for individual asylum and refugee cases to be assessed, different levels of status, and adjudication in a way that built flexibility into the system.

Consider the expansion of the definition of refugees to incorporate people fleeing war and conflict, not just those fleeing persecution. Even when not directly codified in the Convention, the legal architecture currently in place has provided a framework that countries and regional organisations have built on. For instance many countries recognise gang violence and in some circumstances domestic abuse as legitimate claims on asylum status. The United States was one of those countries until this June when Attorney General Jeff Sessions revoked those protections.

But most importantly, there are 146 countries signed up to the Refugee Convention or the 1967 Protocol. I promise you, if we re-open the Convention for debate, we will not get anywhere close to 146 countries to sign on to legal rights for migrants. The most likely outcome will be the dilution of the hard won rights of refugees. This is one of the hard political realities we have to grapple with – there are almost no countries on the planet where governments want to expand their legal obligations to refugees. The Refugee Convention, even in its imperfect and battered form, if one of the few legal shields left for displaced people around the world. So it is important for us to continue to defend the status of refugees and the legitimacy of the Refugee Convention, even as we continue to seek opportunities to update and expand our definition.

Legal protection is one thing, but turning words on paper into tangible physical protections for refugees is another matter. When I talk about protection, I mean addressing the risks and vulnerabilities faced by refugees and economic migrants alike that stationary populations do not have to deal with. These are people, whether by choice or by necessity, who are isolated from their support networks and extended families, are usually low on money because of the costs required to migrate, and are in a foreign country with potentially a different language and legal system. Many refugees and migrants have no documentation to prove their identities, others have no official legal status in their new country. More than 10 million people worldwide are stateless, meaning that they have no government that considers them a citizen.

These issues faced by people who are migrating make them uniquely vulnerable to being trafficked, defrauded, abused, and preyed upon by criminals. Even worse, their tenuous or unofficial legal status limit their options for legal recourse. For undocumented immigrants in the United States, who know that ICE is regularly arresting and deporting people in courtrooms and classrooms across the country, the benefit of telling the police you have been the victim of a crime is greatly outweighed by the potential risk that they might turn you over to immigration authorities. It is here that the world is failing to live up to its promises to protect refugees and migrants, particularly women and children – who represent the vast majority of the displaced and are particularly vulnerable when displaced.

The best example of protection in practice for refugees is the protection from the threat of being forcibly returned to your place of origin if you there is a legitimate risk to your life or freedom upon return. This principle of non-refoulement is a legally codified protection for refugees and asylum-seekers – one that I do not believe any government would extend to economic migrants. I cannot overstake how fundamental and essential this right is for Rohingya fleeing ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, for Syrians washing up on the shores of Italy and Greece, for Nigerians fleeing Boko Haram.

While it is notable that this protection against forced return is honored more often than it is breached, protections like these are being chipped away by governments around the world. Forced returns are on the rise, putting many refugees in life-threatening danger in places like Afghanistan, where 365,000 refugees were forcibly returned by Pakistan in late 2016. Meanwhile, people making a legitimate legal claim for asylum are being put in prison-like conditions, whether on Greek islands or the US-Mexican border.

The erosion of these protections is made easier by the demonization of refugees and the way they are frequently lumped in with economic migrants who have no legal right to non-refoulement. This is one of the places where the loss of US leadership on refugee rights is so damaging. For better or for worse, countries around the world take their cues from the US on issues like human rights, and as the US has increasingly violated these protection principles by separating more than 3,000 children from their parents at the border or revoking Temporary Protected Status for communities that face danger at home – such as the 59,000 Haitans living in the US under this status – other countries have followed suit. 

We don’t need a new Refugee Convention to fix these protection problems, we just need to live up to the protection promises we’ve already made to refugees. The most basic form of protection is physical protection from violent conflict, and robust UN missions and peacekeeping operations are critical to that effort. For instance in South Sudan, UN bases have been turned into civilian protection centers. UN peacekeepers play similarly important roles providing physical protection in places like the Central African Republic and Mali. But the presence of peacekeepers or even UN protection centers does not address the full range of risks faced by displaced people.

Here are a few simple ways we could significantly improve protection. First, global laws on family reunification need to be prioritized given that half of the displaced are children. Children separated from their parents, such as those at the US-Mexican border, can develop toxic stress, a form of early childhood trauma that stunts cognitive development, hinders a child’s ability to learn, and predisposes them to violent and aggressive behavior. Conversely, studies show that refugees who are resettled with their families integrate much better, are more economically productive, and have fewer mental health and stress issues. So, breaking up refugee families is not just wrong, it’s counter-productive to any possible public policy goal.

Second, governments should make the experience of people arriving in our countries more straightforward and efficient. We should ensure there are clear and consistent legal pathways for work visas, green-cards, asylum status, refugee resettlement, and citizenship so that migrants of all forms get the status and rights that are most appropriate for them. For people applying for asylum, we need to make processing faster and more efficient. On the island of Lesvos in Greece, some people have been trapped on the island for more than two years waiting for a final decision on their asylum application. By comparison, Germany’s experience with asylum processing has clear flaws, but it also shows that this can be done more efficiently with better outcomes for both host countries and migrants.

The only thing worse for migrants than being denied entry is being held captive in limbo with no means to support themselves and their families. When I speak to my IRC colleagues in Greece, one of the most shocking things they tell me is that 30 percent of asylum-seekers stuck in Lesvos have attempted suicide because of the endless wait in inhumane conditions for a decision on their application.

Third, labor protections should be extended to all migrants regardless of status and migrants who have suffered from labor or sex trafficking should not pay the consequences for the abuses of their traffickers. Because of the risks and costs of migration, economic migrants and refugees sometimes rely on smugglers to get them out of their country of origin, a process that leaves them vulnerable to economic exploitation or labor trafficking. This is compounded by the previously mentioned fear of reporting these abuses to legal authorities due to their tenuous or undocumented legal status. When trafficking is exposed, it is all too often the trafficked person who pays the hardest price – an outcome that serves the interests of no one except the trafficker.

Fourth, special attention must be made to the unique vulnerabilities of women and girls who are displaced, particularly when they are isolated from their families. One in five displaced women experience sexual violence. Worse, the threat of sexual violence and abuse sometimes comes from the people who are in theory charged with their protection – UN peacekeepers, refugee camp managers, Customs and Border Patrol agents, and sadly even some humanitarian workers.

Simple steps can be taken to reduce these abuses if we are willing to listen to and trust displaced women. For instance latrines at refugee camps should be properly lighted and have locks on their doors to help reduce assault. When UN peacekeeping missions include at least 5 percent women peacekeepers, sexual assault rates fall by 50 percent. Improving protection for displaced women and girls doesn’t have to be hard, we just have to prioritize it.

There is understandably a lot of focus on these questions faced by refugees and other migrants upon arrival. How should they be classified? What are our legal obligations to them? Which countries should accept them and how many? But to focus exclusively on the questions raised at the moment a person crosses an international border is to miss half of the problem.

Displacement today is an increasingly long-term phenomenon. Just 2 percent of refugees went home last year and the average displacement is now measured in years, not months. But most governments, UN agencies, and even many humanitarian organizations have not adapted to the new reality of long-term displacement. When refugees are displaced for over a generation, our responsibility must go beyond simply helping people survive. Instead we need to help these people thrive and regain control over their lives. The danger is that if we continue to use the old model of subsistence food aid and basic tents in camps to support refugees, we risk turning refugee camps into funeral homes for dreams.

At the end of World War II, refugee camps seemed like an obvious and humane place to temporarily host refugees until they could return to their homes. But the modern reality is that camps that were meant to be temporary have become permanent. In places like Dadaab, where the camps are all some refugees have known their entire lives, the restrictions on movement, the limited opportunities for economic livelihood, and the all too common danger of sexual violence against women and girls make these places feel more like a prison than a rest stop. 

Time and time again when I go to the field and speak with refugees, I hear the same thing: about power to make decisions, about economic independence, about kids and their opportunities, about the threats to women and girls. These are questions about agency, about giving them the opportunity to thrive, about letting them retake control over their lives. Responding to this new reality of long-term displacement means listening to what refugees tell us they need and giving them the tools to empower themselves and reestablish autonomy over their lives.

That means at least three things. First, it means giving refugees cash so they can make their own economic decisions. Cash matters because with it refugees are empowered to buy what they need, not what others think they need. Cash matters because it not only helps refugees, it also helps the economy of the communities hosting them.

Second, it means giving refugees access to work so they are not completely dependent on humanitarian aid. Refugees want to work. They want to and can be contributors to the countries where they stay, not a burden. Take Uganda for example, where thanks to a policy that gives refugees access to the labor market, 78% of refugees needed no aid, and only 1% are fully dependent on aid. Once you understand the long-term nature of displacement, the need to help refugees find jobs becomes obvious.

But this also requires engineering a new deal on employment for displaced people and the communities that host them. The countries where refugees are being hosted like Jordan and Bangladesh have employment problems of their own, so financial institutions like the IMF in cooperation with national governments and the private sector need to change the equation. This is true both in low and middle income countries, but also in developed countries like Germany or the United States – policies that support both the refugees and the people in their new communities will be the most sustainable ones.

Third, it means investing in education so children displaced during their prime schooling years do not become a lost generation. The most chilling experience is talking to refugees who say that they accept that their lives are over, but now they’re just fighting to ensure their children’s lives aren’t over. That’s what I heard earlier this year when I was in Iraq. Three-quarters of refugee children are not getting an education and many of them have deep social-emotional trauma. In Iraq, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon the IRC is partnering with Sesame Street specifically to address this issue by incorporating social-emotional learning alongside literacy and numeracy so that children can recover from trauma and learn more effectively in a supportive environment.

The field you have chosen is interesting to me not just because of my work with the IRC, not just because the policy questions are challenging, not just because the human stakes are high, but because the politics of migration and the policies of migration are so closely intertwined. None of the interventions necessary to make a significant impact at the global scale are possible without political leadership. There does not need to be a zero sum game between refugees, economic migrants, and stationary communities, though plenty of politicians would have you believe otherwise.

The responsibility of academic life is to probe the critical questions of our time through open, rigorous evaluation and learning, but it is also to speak truth to power and to tackle the myths and alternative facts that have become particularly prominent in the migration conversation. We cannot win the argument for the policies I’ve talked about today on technocratic grounds alone. We need to highlight the values they stand for alongside the practical gains they provide.

This isn’t about being partisan. After all, refugee resettlement in this country was a bipartisan issue until a few years ago, and President Reagan – a Republican – resettled more refugees than any other president. But we cannot be blind to the way politics has harmed these communities.

Henry Arnhold fled his native country when the ugliness of politics made good policy impossible. We should take that as a warning that the demonization of refugees and migrants is not simply idle political rhetoric – it is destructive and corrosive to our society writ large. How we treat the most vulnerable people in our communities like refugees is a test of our values. And while I am distressed by the political rhetoric I hear every day about refugees, the legacy of Henry Arnhold is that there are few things more powerful than doing the right thing.

About the IRC

The International Rescue Committee responds to the world’s worst humanitarian crises, helping to restore health, safety, education, economic wellbeing, and power to people devastated by conflict and disaster. Founded in 1933 at the call of Albert Einstein, the IRC is at work in over 40 countries and 28 offices across the U.S. helping people to survive, reclaim control of their future, and strengthen their communities. Learn more at www.rescue.org and follow the IRC on Twitter & Facebook.