The Great Displacement

An Interview with David Miliband

There are 65 million people around the globe displaced by conflict or persecution. 25 million of them are refugees. David Miliband, Britain’s former Foreign Minister and the current president of the International Rescue Committee, lays out the drivers of this crisis and what we can do to end it.

Octavian Report: Some observers draw a draw a parallel between the refugee crisis now and what happened in the 1930’s. Is that an accurate parallel, in your opinion?

David Miliband: I think there are many differences, the biggest difference being is that we've had the 1930’s behind us so we have that in our historical memory. And it's there as a chastening warning that we can use today. Secondly, I think that the shape of the world is very different than it was in the 1930's. You can try and draw parallels between how Russia feels it was treated at the end of the Cold War with how Germany was treated after the First World War, for example, but it doesn't really hold. I think that the geopolitics are different.

And I think that it's also the case that in various ways, the international system is much stronger than it was in the interwar period. So I don't think one should reach for those comparisons.

Yet there are some very obvious parallels. Above all, the demonization of people who are actually innocent victims, not malign perpetrators of evil. I don't like the attacks on the media, I don't like the attacks on the judiciary, I don't like the trends that one can see in parts of eastern Europe, in Turkey, and in some ways in the U.S., and I think it's serious enough without it being called the 1930’s action replay. There was an interesting article suggesting that it's more like the 20’s at the moment than the 30’s, and I think that's quite a powerful point. It's more like the age of Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover than the age of Roosevelt.

OR: Why do you think that, for the first time in decades, migration in general and refugees in particular have become such a hot button political issue?

Miliband: The confusion between refugees and immigration is a big part of the story of the public dissatisfaction with governments on these issues. We know from the U.K., in the 1990’s, that when asylum issues and immigration issues get confused, it's not good either for immigrants or for asylum seekers. And certainly in the U.S. the “11 million undocumented” trope created conditions in which the arrival of Syrians became almost an example of that, despite the fact that refugee resettlement is the most documented, most vetted arrival route into the U.S.

The second thing is that I think that the scale of the refugee and internal displacement crisis — with one in every 110 people on the planet being currently displaced by conflict or persecution — makes it frightening. It's easier to conjure up the image of a marauding horde when there are a lot of people, not a few people.

Thirdly, I don't think one should fall for economic determinism. But after the financial crisis, there's no question that the shrinking middle class creates a climate of fear where people are more vulnerable to political rabblerousing. I think those are all part of it.

I think there's a fourth thing as well: there was an element of complacency that somehow the case for refugee resettlement, in Western countries, had been won. Ronald Reagan resettled 200,000 refugees in 1981. George W. Bush restarted the refugee resettlement program two months after 9/11. I think there was a complacency that meant that the case wasn't made in a clear enough way. Put those four reasons together and you have the conditions for assault.

OR: Do you think that Angela Merkel’s decision on this issue was correct? Why do you think that Europe has had such difficulty in dealing with those refugees?

Miliband: I defend it, but there's no question it was not perfect. The original sin in European policymaking was to ignore the refugee crisis in 2012, 2013, and 2014. The systems for sharing out responsibility, for helping frontline states, were not put in place. And so by 2015 the system had already broken down. In a way what Mrs. Merkel did was recognize reality, that these people were in Germany. Because the frontline states were happy for them to transit using the Schengen internal movement arrangements. What she did was brave and principled. Technically, it's been shown to have been manageable. Germany has processed one and a half million asylum cases, it is integrating half a million people into its society, it is going through the process of removing those who don't meet the standard of a well-founded fear of persecution, which is the test of being a refugee.

Ironically, the political trouble in Europe is inversely related to the number of refugees arriving in Europe. So it's a much bigger political problem now in seven or eight countries than it was in 2015, when it was a bigger practical problem.

Turkey is bottling up people in the Middle East, and the Libyan system is stronger than it was. Now, none of that means that this is over as a roiling issue. And of course, I always say to people: when Europeans refer to a European refugee crisis or Americans refer to an American refugee crisis, people living in Uganda or Bangladesh or Lebanon have got good reason to laugh their heads off. They are dealing with many times the number of refugees in countries with many fewer fractions of the annual income. Bangladesh has just received 750,000 or 700,000 refugees from Myanmar this year.

The Rohingya are a good example. They are fearing for their lives, they're fleeing for their lives. There are 65 million people displaced by conflict or persecution, 40 million of them are internally displaced, 25 million of them are refugees, three and a half million are asylum seekers. You've then got two and a half million people on the move for economic reasons.

There are examples of mixed migration, but when you think about the biggest refugee flows at the moment — Rohingya into Bangladesh, south Sudanese into Uganda — you see they are conflict-related.