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TED2017

David Miliband: The refugee crisis is a test of our character

Sixty-five million people were displaced from their homes by conflict and disaster in 2016. That's 24 people every minute. It's not just a crisis; it's a test of who we are and what we stand for, says David Miliband — and each of us has a personal responsibility to help solve it. In this TED talk, Miliband gives us specific, tangible ways to help refugees and turn empathy and altruism into action.

Read the full video transcript

Video Transcript

Transcript:

0:11 I'm going to speak to you about the global refugee crisis and my aim is to show you that this crisis is manageable, not unsolvable, but also show you that this is as much about us and who we are as it is a trial of the refugees on the front line.

0:32 For me, this is not just a professional obligation, because I run an NGO supporting refugees and displaced people around the world. It's personal.

0:42 I love this picture. That really handsome guy on the right, that's not me. That's my dad, Ralph, in London, in 1940 with his father Samuel. They were Jewish refugees from Belgium. They fled the day the Nazis invaded. And I love this picture, too. It's a group of refugee children arriving in England in 1946 from Poland. And in the middle is my mother, Marion. She was sent to start a new life in a new country on her own at the age of 12. I know this: if Britain had not admitted refugees in the 1940s, I certainly would not be here today.

1:33 Yet 70 years on, the wheel has come full circle. The sound is of walls being built, vengeful political rhetoric, humanitarian values and principles on fire in the very countries that 70 years ago said never again to statelessness and hopelessness for the victims of war. Last year, every minute, 24 more people were displaced from their homes by conflict, violence and persecution: another chemical weapon attack in Syria, the Taliban on the rampage in Afghanistan, girls driven from their school in northeast Nigeria by Boko Haram. These are not people moving to another country to get a better life. They're fleeing for their lives.

2:30 It's a real tragedy that the world's most famous refugee can't come to speak to you here today. Many of you will know this picture. It shows the lifeless body of five-year-old Alan Kurdi, a Syrian refugee who died in the Mediterranean in 2015. He died alongside 3,700 others trying to get to Europe. The next year, 2016, 5,000 people died. It's too late for them, but it's not too late for millions of others.

3:07 It's not too late for people like Frederick. I met him in the Nyarugusu refugee camp in Tanzania. He's from Burundi. He wanted to know where could he complete his studies. He'd done 11 years of schooling. He wanted a 12th year. He said to me, "I pray that my days do not end here in this refugee camp."

3:27 And it's not too late for Halud. Her parents were Palestinian refugees living in the Yarmouk refugee camp outside Damascus. She was born to refugee parents, and now she's a refugee herself in Lebanon. She's working for the International Rescue Committee to help other refugees, but she has no certainty at all about her future, where it is or what it holds.

3:53 This talk is about Frederick, about Halud and about millions like them: why they're displaced, how they survive, what help they need and what our responsibilities are. I truly believe this, that the biggest question in the 21st century concerns our duty to strangers. The future "you" is about your duties to strangers. You know better than anyone, the world is more connected than ever before, yet the great danger is that we're consumed by our divisions. And there is no better test of that than how we treat refugees.

4:37 Here are the facts: 65 million people displaced from their homes by violence and persecution last year. If it was a country, that would be the 21st largest country in the world. Most of those people, about 40 million, stay within their own home country, but 25 million are refugees. That means they cross a border into a neighboring state. Most of them are living in poor countries, relatively poor or lower-middle-income countries, like Lebanon, where Halud is living. In Lebanon, one in four people is a refugee, a quarter of the whole population.

5:17 And refugees stay for a long time. The average length of displacement is 10 years. I went to what was the world's largest refugee camp, in eastern Kenya. It's called Dadaab. It was built in 1991-92 as a "temporary camp" for Somalis fleeing the civil war. I met Silo. And naïvely I said to Silo, "Do you think you'll ever go home to Somalia?" And she said, "What do you mean, go home? I was born here." And then when I asked the camp management how many of the 330,000 people in that camp were born there, they gave me the answer: 100,000. That's what long-term displacement means.

6:04 Now, the causes of this are deep: weak states that can't support their own people, an international political system weaker than at any time since 1945 and differences over theology, governance, engagement with the outside world in significant parts of the Muslim world. Now, those are long-term, generational challenges. That's why I say that this refugee crisis is a trend and not a blip. And it's complex, and when you have big, large, long-term, complex problems, people think nothing can be done.

6:39 When Pope Francis went to Lampedusa, off the coast of Italy, in 2014, he accused all of us and the global population of what he called "the globalization of indifference." It's a haunting phrase. It means that our hearts have turned to stone. Now, I don't know, you tell me. Are you allowed to argue with the Pope, even at a TED conference? But I think it's not right. I think people do want to make a difference, but they just don't know whether there are any solutions to this crisis. And what I want to tell you today is that though the problems are real, the solutions are real, too.

7:16 Solution one: these refugees need to get into work in the countries where they're living, and the countries where they're living need massive economic support. In Uganda in 2014, they did a study: 80 percent of refugees in the capital city Kampala needed no humanitarian aid because they were working. They were supported into work.

7:35 Solution number two: education for kids is a lifeline, not a luxury, when you're displaced for so long. Kids can bounce back when they're given the proper social, emotional support alongside literacy and numeracy. I've seen it for myself. But half of the world's refugee children of primary school age get no education at all, and three quarters of secondary school age get no education at all. That's crazy.

8:04 Solution number three: most refugees are in urban areas, in cities, not in camps. What would you or I want if we were a refugee in a city? We would want money to pay rent or buy clothes. That is the future of the humanitarian system, or a significant part of it: give people cash so that you boost the power of refugees and you'll help the local economy.

8:25 And there's a fourth solution, too, that's controversial but needs to be talked about. The most vulnerable refugees need to be given a new start and a new life in a new country, including in the West. The numbers are relatively small, hundreds of thousands, not millions, but the symbolism is huge. Now is not the time to be banning refugees, as the Trump administration proposes. It's a time to be embracing people who are victims of terror. And remember —

8:56 (Applause)

9:03 Remember, anyone who asks you, "Are they properly vetted?" that's a really sensible and good question to ask. The truth is, refugees arriving for resettlement are more vetted than any other population arriving in our countries. So while it's reasonable to ask the question, it's not reasonable to say that refugee is another word for terrorist.

9:26 Now, what happens —

9:27 (Applause)

9:30 What happens when refugees can't get work, they can't get their kids into school, they can't get cash, they can't get a legal route to hope? What happens is they take risky journeys. I went to Lesbos, this beautiful Greek island, two years ago. It's a home to 90,000 people. In one year, 500,000 refugees went across the island. And I want to show you what I saw when I drove across to the north of the island: a pile of life jackets of those who had made it to shore. And when I looked closer, there were small life jackets for children, yellow ones. And I took this picture. You probably can't see the writing, but I want to read it for you. "Warning: will not protect against drowning." So in the 21st century, children are being given life jackets to reach safety in Europe even though those jackets will not save their lives if they fall out of the boat that is taking them there.

10:31 This is not just a crisis, it's a test. It's a test that civilizations have faced down the ages. It's a test of our humanity. It's a test of us in the Western world of who we are and what we stand for. It's a test of our character, not just our policies. And refugees are a hard case. They do come from faraway parts of the world. They have been through trauma. They're often of a different religion. Those are precisely the reasons we should be helping refugees, not a reason not to help them. And it's a reason to help them because of what it says about us. It's revealing of our values. Empathy and altruism are two of the foundations of civilization. Turn that empathy and altruism into action and we live out a basic moral credo.

11:27 And in the modern world, we have no excuse. We can't say we don't know what's happening in Juba, South Sudan, or Aleppo, Syria. It's there, in our smartphone in our hand. Ignorance is no excuse at all. Fail to help, and we show we have no moral compass at all.

11:48 It's also revealing about whether we know our own history. The reason that refugees have rights around the world is because of extraordinary Western leadership by statesmen and women after the Second World War that became universal rights. Trash the protections of refugees, and we trash our own history. This is —

12:08 (Applause)

12:10 This is also revealing about the power of democracy as a refuge from dictatorship. How many politicians have you heard say, "We believe in the power of our example, not the example of our power." What they mean is what we stand for is more important than the bombs we drop. Refugees seeking sanctuary have seen the West as a source of hope and a place of haven. Russians, Iranians, Chinese, Eritreans, Cubans, they've come to the West for safety. We throw that away at our peril.

12:49 And there's one other thing it reveals about us: whether we have any humility for our own mistakes. I'm not one of these people who believes that all the problems in the world are caused by the West. They're not. But when we make mistakes, we should recognize it. It's not an accident that the country which has taken more refugees than any other, the United States, has taken more refugees from Vietnam than any other country. It speaks to the history. But there's more recent history, in Iraq and Afghanistan. You can't make up for foreign policy errors by humanitarian action, but when you break something, you have a duty to try to help repair it, and that's our duty now.

13:32 Do you remember at the beginning of the talk, I said I wanted to explain that the refugee crisis was manageable, not insoluble? That's true. I want you to think in a new way, but I also want you to do things. If you're an employer, hire refugees. If you're persuaded by the arguments, take on the myths when family or friends or workmates repeat them. If you've got money, give it to charities that make a difference for refugees around the world. If you're a citizen, vote for politicians who will put into practice the solutions that I've talked about.

14:13 (Applause)

14:17 The duty to strangers shows itself in small ways and big, prosaic and heroic. In 1942, my aunt and my grandmother were living in Brussels under German occupation. They received a summons from the Nazi authorities to go to Brussels Railway Station. My grandmother immediately thought something was amiss. She pleaded with her relatives not to go to Brussels Railway Station. Her relatives said to her, "If we don't go, if we don't do what we're told, then we're going to be in trouble." You can guess what happened to the relatives who went to Brussels Railway Station. They were never seen again. But my grandmother and my aunt, they went to a small village south of Brussels where they'd been on holiday in the decade before, and they presented themselves at the house of the local farmer, a Catholic farmer called Monsieur Maurice, and they asked him to take them in. And he did, and by the end of the war, 17 Jews, I was told, were living in that village.

15:39 And when I was teenager, I asked my aunt, "Can you take me to meet Monsieur Maurice?" And she said, "Yeah, I can. He's still alive. Let's go and see him." And so, it must have been '83, '84, we went to see him. And I suppose, like only a teenager could, when I met him, he was this white-haired gentleman, I said to him, "Why did you do it? Why did you take that risk?" And he looked at me and he shrugged, and he said, in French, "On doit." "One must." It was innate in him. It was natural. And my point to you is it should be natural and innate in us, too. Tell yourself, this refugee crisis is manageable, not unsolvable, and each one of us has a personal responsibility to help make it so. Because this is about the rescue of us and our values as well as the rescue of refugees and their lives.

16:43 Thank you very much indeed.

16:44 (Applause)

16:56 Bruno Giussani: David, thank you. David Miliband: Thank you. 16:59

BG: Those are strong suggestions and your call for individual responsibility is very strong as well, but I'm troubled by one thought, and it's this: you mentioned, and these are your words, "extraordinary Western leadership" which led 60-something years ago to the whole discussion about human rights, to the conventions on refugees, etc. etc. That leadership happened after a big trauma and happened in a consensual political space, and now we are in a divisive political space. Actually, refugees have become one of the divisive issues. So where will leadership come from today?

17:32 DM: Well, I think that you're right to say that the leadership forged in war has a different temper and a different tempo and a different outlook than leadership forged in peace. And so my answer would be the leadership has got to come from below, not from above. I mean, a recurring theme of the conference this week has been about the democratization of power. And we've got to preserve our own democracies, but we've got to also activate our own democracies. And when people say to me, "There's a backlash against refugees," what I say to them is, "No, there's a polarization, and at the moment, those who are fearful are making more noise than those who are proud." And so my answer to your question is that we will sponsor and encourage and give confidence to leadership when we mobilize ourselves. And I think that when you are in a position of looking for leadership, you have to look inside and mobilize in your own community to try to create conditions for a different kind of settlement.

18:30 BG: Thank you, David. Thanks for coming to TED.

18:33 (Applause)