The Syrian refugee crisis is not just a humanitarian catastrophe — it's also a staggering political challenge. Europe is struggling to find a way to absorb the hundreds of thousands of desperate people who have arrived on its borders in recent months, but with the exception of Germany, most EU nations have been reluctant at best, and openly hostile at worst. And although the United States runs the world's largest refugee resettlement program, it was not until Thursday that the US finally announced it would resettle anywhere near a substantial number of Syria's 4 million refugees, and even then only 10,000.
David Miliband is in a better position to understand those political challenges and how to solve them than nearly anyone else in the world. As the president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, a global humanitarian organization that has been working on refugee resettlement for more than a decade, he is well placed to understand the humanitarian response that's needed. But he's also a former UK foreign secretary and leading Labour politician, which means he has unique insight into the political challenges Western leaders face as they decide how to respond to the crisis.
On Wednesday, I spoke to Miliband about the politics of the refugee crisis. In a frank phone conversation, he explained what he thinks politicians need to understand about the crisis, and how a single change in rhetoric could help turn the tide of public opinion in favor of refugees.
But it was his policy proposal that struck me as most interesting. Although most analysts and advocates have been vague about what it will really take to stem the flow of desperate people dying as they attempt to reach Europe, Miliband was explicit: The US and Europe, he argues, must establish a large resettlement program for Syrian refugees directly from the Middle East.
Truly addressing this crisis, he said, "means making sure that people aren’t dying on the way to Europe. It means establishing legal routes to asylum and refugee status that undercut the position of criminal gangs that currently say they’re the only hope for getting to Europe."
Until there is a path to resettlement from the refugee camps in Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon, he explained, people will continue to attempt the dangerous trip on their own. There is no other way to save their lives — or to restore order to Europe's borders.
What follows is a transcription of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
Amanda Taub:People now realize that the global community urgently needs to find a solution to the refugee crisis. What will that require?
David Miliband: This is a moral crisis, and also a political and policy crisis in the Middle East and Europe. The evidence is in every newspaper headline and every picture.
It’s crucial to see that the morality needs to provide the fuel to political solutions. Because the truth is that for four and a half years, the Syrian crisis has been a neglected crisis.
The 4 million refugees who have been in neighboring countries have seen UN appeals for their sustenance underfunded. Only about one-third of the funding the UN has called for has been delivered, so the World Food Program was just last week cutting rations to refugees. And obviously the weakness of the political effort to bring the conflict to a close has been stark, with a divided UN Security Council, et cetera.
So the direct answer to your question is that it’s absolutely vital to act both on the humanitarian crisis in the neighboring countries and in Europe, and the US can contribute to that by offering resettlement to 65,000 of the most vulnerable people. The US, as the world’s leading refugee resettlement country and the world’s economic and political superpower, is in a prime position to show leadership.
Amanda Taub: There are 4 million Syrian refugees and 19 million refugees worldwide. Is resettling 65,000 of them in the US going to be enough?
David Miliband: The 65,000 number is derived from the US’s historical leadership position [as the global leader in refugee resettlement]. So when we published the call in March, we said that to maintain its leadership position, it should resettle half of the 130,000 that the UN was calling for.
No one is saying that resettling 130,000 people ends the suffering for 4 million. And no one is contending that it resolves the strife that is causing the conflict.
But as a measurable show of commitment, that is important substantively to those 130,000 people, and also important symbolically to the states neighboring Syria, most notably Lebanon and Turkey, who feel they are bearing the burden of refugee flows without any help from the international community on the resettlement front.
Frankly, 65,000 doesn’t look like a very large number compared with what the Germans are doing just this year. But given the fact that the US is currently at 1,534 and has offered to resettle just 5,000 more, you can see the scale of the task. [After this interview was conducted, the United States announced that it will increase its resettlement target for Syrians to 10,000 people by the end of 2016.]
Amanda Taub: Assuming that the US is going to make a commitment to maintain its role as a resettlement leader, what political barriers will need to be overcome here in the US to make that possible?
David Miliband: Of course people have concerns about security. But the US has some of the most enhanced security vetting procedures. It’s harder to get into the US as a refugee than under any other visa category.
Amanda Taub: It seems like security concerns are only part of the political issue, though. In the US and in Europe, there is a lot of opposition to increased immigration. You see that in the rise of anti-immigration political parties in the EU, and in the popularity of candidates like Donald Trump here in the US. How can governments overcome that?
David Miliband: It’s very important that the debates over immigration and asylum are recognized as being separate. In Europe the status of refugees has been undermined by denying them the name "refugees" and calling them "migrants." It’s been that process, the muddying of the waters by grouping in the so-called "migrant" category of those who are economic immigrants and those who are refugees, that has fueled the backlash.
Refugees, because they’re people fleeing persecution, have rights under international law, and there are obligations on states in respect of refugees’ flight. On the other hand, economic immigrants are not fleeing persecution, they’re seeking a better life. They don’t have the same rights under international law.
I think there’s no question that people who are fleeing persecution have a more immediate and popular call on public consciousness and conscience than people who are fleeing for economic reasons. It’s not that people fleeing persecution are good and people seeking a better life are bad — it’s that they are different, and they come with different rights and responsibilities for the individuals concerned and for the countries hosting them.
And that’s an important distinction to maintain. So we need to continue to preserve and maintain the integrity of the definition of a refugee.
Amanda Taub: There’s a fair amount of research that shows that when people feel economically insecure, they become very conservative on immigration. Can people be convinced to see refugees differently?
David Miliband: Obviously this is a time of enormous economic flux and social flux. That is disorienting and disarming for people. For every person who sees the blessings of change, there are people who are worried by it. And that includes cultural change.
That’s why it needs to be properly managed, and why no one argues for a free-for-all. But the numbers of refugees [who need resettlement] are small in comparison with the US population or the European population. And they are minuscule in comparison with the numbers of refugees who are now in Lebanon and Jordan. That puts the US figure of 65,000 into quite vivid perspective.
I think the point, which applies to both refugees and immigrants, is to remember that they are people who have positive contributions to make to society. So I think what host countries will see are positive contributions to the country that people are arriving in.
I think it’s very significant that in this country you’ve got a record of refugees going on to found companies and lead universities and run sports teams. And so the point I would make is that while people inevitably think of burden when it comes to refugees, they also need to think of contribution. I think that’s vital in this.
As it happens, Syrian refugees are one of the most middle-class refugee populations in the world. They are doctors and lawyers and teachers and accountants. Now, middle-class refugees shouldn’t have more rights than working-class refugees. But it so happens that the Syrian population that’s been displaced is a skilled and educated population.
Amanda Taub: As a former politician, you have some experience with how governments need to weigh their obligations and responsibilities in these kinds of crises. What do you think are the most important things that politicians and policymakers need to understand about how to deal with the refugee crisis?
David Miliband: I think the most important thing they need to understand is that conscience needs to be allied with competence. The public will not forgive lack of conscience, but they also won’t forgive lack of competence. It’s bringing the two together that’s essential.
Amanda Taub:And what will that look like in the context of this particular crisis?
David Miliband: It means proper welcome and hosting and processing when people arrive. We’re working in [the Greek island] Lesbos, and frankly there’s not proper toilets, there’s not proper sanitation, there’s not proper water, there’s not proper transport. And people are expected to walk 40 kilometers when they arrive on Lesbos, having had a traumatic journey across the Mediterranean. Certainly people need to be properly cared for. Then they have to be properly processed, with the range of refugee claims properly assessed, so that those who are not refugees are not given that status, and then they have to be shared out around Europe.
And it means making sure that people aren’t dying on the way to Europe. It means establishing legal routes to asylum and refugee status that undercut the position of criminal gangs that currently say they’re the only hope for getting to Europe.
Amanda Taub: What would a safer path that undercuts those smuggling organizations look like?
David Miliband: A safe path means effective registration in the country that they first land in in the Middle East. It means clear explanations of all the different options where people can end up. It means all the richer countries playing a role — so not just Europeans, but the US and, frankly, the Gulf as well. It means a properly ordered and organized process.
Amanda Taub: A process for resettlement, you mean?
David Miliband: Yes. That’s the only way to undercut these criminal gangs.
Amanda Taub: And what would be the scale needed for that effort? How many people would that kind of a global resettlement system need to take per year in order to stop refugees from making the dangerous journey to Europe on their own?
David Miliband: Well, I think that it’s invidious to throw out a number. We’ve got the UN, which has given us this 130,000 number, which I believe they’re now updating to 200,000. The point is not that 4 million people should be resettled in third countries. The fate of refugees is that a minority of them get resettled, the majority stay and are integrated within neighboring countries, and some eventually go back.
And so no one is saying that third-country resettlement is the answer, or the majority answer. And I think it makes sense to follow the UN on that.