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David Miliband's remarks at the Facing History Benefit Dinner

I am especially honored to be here tonight, because the need to face history is so needed today. Facing history is not about masochism and darkness.  It is about renewal and enlightenment.  And the biggest lesson from history is that when governments are in retreat, then citizens have to step up.  That is what your mission inspires every day.  It is what your staff do every day.  It is what your supporters make possible every day.  And it is needed more than ever. 

It is also what the staff of the IRC do every day.  We work for people whose lives are shattered by conflict and disaster.  We have 17000 staff in thirty countries. We deliver life-saving health care; education; protection for the vulnerable; employment opportunities for those able to work.  I am so proud of the work we do.

Right now our health workers are in Eastern Ghouta, caring for civilians under attack from the Assad regime. In Yemen our mobile health clinics are treating some of the 2.2 million children who are malnourished in the country. In Bangladesh, our emergency responders are helping the nearly 1 million Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar prepare for monsoon season.

Here in the US we help refugees find a new home where they can rebuild lives torn apart by war. I’d like to acknowledge Karen Ferguson, the IRC’s Executive Director for Northern California, who was instrumental to the resettlement of more than 3,000 refugees in the Bay Area last year. Two of those individuals are here with us today. Rafi Amini was resettled by the IRC from Afghanistan in 2013 and now works with us as a Senior Case Worker in our Oakland office. His family also just had a baby boy in January. Khalid Eid was resettled by the IRC last May and now works for Apple as a videographer.

Sad to say we are a growth business in a growth industry.  More people have been displaced by conflict and persecution today than at any time since World War II.  The duration of displacement is now an average of ten years, and it spans generations in many cases.  The dangers facing displaced people greater than ever.

And we are challenged every day when the lessons of history are spurned not learned:

  • History teaches that civilians should be protected from violence in conflict.  But we are challenged by combatants in conflicts who bomb civilians in their homes and hospitals.
  • History teaches that civil wars are solved by power sharing and politics.  But we are challenged by a crisis of diplomacy in which military power is used as a substitute for the hard work of peace-building.
  • History teaches that education is a lifeline.  But we are challenged by donors who devote only 2 per cent of total humanitarian funding to education.
  • History teaches that women and girls are especially vulnerable in emergency situations, and especially important to survival and renewal.  Yet we are challenged because it is still the case that support for women and girls is a marginal not central to the humanitarian aid system.
  • History teaches that when there is a vacuum in international affairs, then it is filled by malign actors who neglect the rules of the international system.  But we are challenged by governments neglecting the basic point that in a connected world foreign policy has domestic consequences and domestic policy depends on foreign engagement. 
  • And history teaches that refugees are a source of ingenuity, endeavor, enrichment, not a burden to be kept at bay.  Yet we are challenged by governments turning their backs on history and turning their backs on the world’s most vulnerable.

Nowhere is that more significant than in the US, a nation built by refugees and immigrants.  After all who were the Pilgrims if not refugees from persecution?  The lesson of history is clear: from Einstein who founded the IRC to Madeleine Albright who became your Secretary of State to the founders of some of your great companies, refugees have been an asset not a burden to America.

In the last thirty years the US has taken around 95 000 refugees per year from around the world.  This year the President decided that you should take 45 000.  But the Administration is ensuring that only about 21000 are admitted.  Here are the figures:

  • Burmese admitted in 2017: 5,078.  In 2018: 1,818.
  • Congolese admitted in 2017: 9,377.  In 2018: 2,726.
  • Afghans admitted in 2017: 1,311.  In 2018: 401.
  • Iranians admitted in 2017: 2,577.  In 2018: 32.
  • Iraqis admitted in 2017: 6,886.  In 2018: 107.
  • Syrians admitted in 2017: 6,557.  In 2018: 44.

These people are ready to contribute to America being turned away by America.  But that is not the only result:

  • The countries hosting most refugees see your actions.  They face the simple question: “If America, with more wealth, turns its back on refugees why shouldn’t we?” 
  • Terrorist groups see your actions.  They whisper to Muslims around the world that America will never have their back.
  • Dictatorships see your actions.  They tell their own people that human rights and liberal democracy are a sham.

There is a better way.  And there is a lesson from history here too.

Germany took the extraordinary step in 2015 of saying that any Syrian asylum seeker arriving in Europe would be able to have their case addressed in Germany.  The announcement was not well planned.  The rest of Europe was not geared up to help.   One million people arrived in the space of two years.  Many were Syrian.  Some pretended to be.  But all cases have been processed.  New arrivals have their case now heard in 10 or 11 weeks. Those successful in their claim are being integrated into German society.  It’s not easy.  But it is happening.  Those who do not qualify are returned home.  Again not easy.  

But Germany is living out the lesson of its own history.  I have good reason to understand this myself.

At the beginning of last year I received an email from someone in Hailfingen, south western Germany, who wanted to know if my grandfather was David Kozak.  He was, and we had never known what happened to him, because he was a Polish Jew who perished in the Second World War, leaving a widow and two daughters, one of them my mother.  The email reported that definitive documentation of his transfer to a concentration camp near Hailfingen had been found by a local historical society, and he was now commemorated in a memorial and a mass grave.  So it was that last October I made a visit to Hailfingen to pay my respects.

The story of the local historical society bears repeating.   It was set up by a group of teachers who were troubled by an official report in 2001 that effectively whitewashed the history of the camp.  So local volunteers began to seek out the truth.  The forced work.  The lack of food.  The mass grave.  The 601 deaths of prisoners from 15 countries.  Slowly the truth came out - including through the visits of survivors.

The local teachers are part of a group “Gegen Vergessen - fur Demokratie”.  Against forgetting - for democracy. The truth does not absolve or restore but it does make it possible to move on.  Facing history is a passport to renewal.  And that historical society in Germany, like you, set an example for us all.

One of my favorite politicians was Willy Brandt, former Mayor of West Berlin at the time of the Berlin airlift, former Chancellor of West Germany.  He wrote that “Walls in people’s heads are sometimes more durable than walls made of concrete blocks”.  And he should know.  

The lesson of history is that we are one humanity, that we rise or fall together, that insecurity and injustice to one is a threat to stability and fairness for all.  Thank you for preaching that lesson, for making history in the image of the best of the past not the worst of the present, and for reminding Americans that they do have history, that it can be inspiring, and that it should guide their actions today.  

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.