The Great Displacement

An Interview with David Miliband

Now, you've also got Venezuela exporting one and a half million refugees, and that's a much more mixed picture. It's partly political, partly economic. We're working in Columbia now. And obviously, it's different if you're a Venezuelan doctor leaving Caracas than if you're a Sunni baker being bombed out of Dera’a. It's a different situation.

OR: What do you think should be done? And how did you come to take up this issue after you left government?

Miliband: In a way the recipe for what needs to be done is easy to say and hard to do. So, one: the business of peacemaking has got to be restarted. Ultimately this is a crisis of diplomacy, that you've got 15 civil wars burning around the world and relatively weak peacemaking attempts. There needs to be a a quantum leap in the tools, the effort, the drive to stop the killing.

Secondly, the states that are hosting refugees need to be given far more support. Jordan is the second-closest ally of the United States in the Middle East, and it's not true to say that it's on its own. But it's on skimpy rations not adequate to the strategic nature of the challenge the country faces with a 15 percent increase in its population (and it is already a resource-stressed country). And all the evidence is that once refugees arrive, they stay. And so you need to think about it over 10 or 20 years, not just over 10 or 20 months.

Thirdly, I think richer Western countries have got to take seriously their responsibility. That’s as much for symbolic reasons as it is for substantive reasons. The case for the U.S. to take 90,000 refugees, not the 21,000 that it looks like the Trump Administration's going to let in, is not just that those are an extra 70,000 lives that get helped, but it's an act of standing in solidarity with countries like Jordan that are hosting the most refugees.

Now, all of that takes a degree of international coordination that is obviously not in the cards. What do I think will happen? The likelihood is that the trends driving the refugee and displacement numbers — weak states, a weak international system, roiling within the Islamic world about its engagement with itself and with the West — will continue. Those are trends, not blips. Two, beggar thy neighbor solutions are stronger than international coordination efforts. I always say to people: “What a tragic irony. The second half of the 20th Century was defined by tearing down walls, and we're in danger of the first half of the 21st Century being defined by building them.” And of course the point about walls is that however high they go, the more ingenious and the more expensive are the smuggling attempts to get around them.

OR: How do you make the case to populist nationalists for accepting refugees? How do you make it more generally, since as you say it needs doing?

Miliband: I think there are three elements of it. The first one seems to me to be undeniable wherever you sit on the political spectrum, the second of which should be common ground, and the third of which is much more contested.

The undeniable element, and for an American audience, I think this is especially striking: 50,000 d Iraqis have at various points worked for the U.S. government or military and have expressed the request to come to the U.S. because they fear for retribution in Iraq. There is a debt of honor to those people. Yet since October the first last year, 36 Iraqis have been allowed to come to the U.S. Wherever you sit on the political spectrum, the case for honoring the commitment to those people seems to me very high indeed. Not least because they have stood literally a yard from generals and ambassadors, and so have had to be security-vetted up to the gills. I don't care where you are on the political spectrum, you should be able to honor that.

Secondly, I think that there is a very strong cross-party case to say that under international law hard-won after the Second World War, people who have a well-founded fear of persecution need to be given due process and to be given haven. They shouldn't be returned home. That is not an immigration policy, that's a refugee policy, and I think that wherever you are on the spectrum, unless you simply believe that you don't want any foreigners in your country, you should be able to win that argument. And that’s one reason I think it's important to maintain the integrity of the refugee regime, for all of its gray areas (because there are gray areas).

Now, the third element (which is much more contested, obviously) is how much legal immigration is it good for a country to have, at what speed. There's room for different views on that. And within Europe, different countries have got different demographic needs, they've got different percentages of the population who are already foreign-born, and it seems to me you can have legitimate give and take on that. I don't believe in open borders. I don't know many people who do, for immigration.

OR: Why do you think there have been some problems with integration or assimilation of Muslim immigrants in European countries?

Miliband: It's perfectly legitimate to say the pace and scale of changes needs to be managed. All markets need to be managed. It's a perfectly sensible point. I do think it's really important though, not to pretend that you need to manage Muslim immigration in a different way than you manage immigration by other religions. You know, there are three and a half thousand Muslims serving in the American military. I'm a great believer that identity can be plural, not singular. That's the great gift of diverse communities.

Now, different European countries have got different experiences. It's ironic that the French commitment, which has been to assimilation, has on various indicators produced the least integration. So, the demand that new arrivals renounce all identities other than to be French has not actually made people more French. One doesn't want to generalize, but Trevor Noah's argument with the French ambassador about this is relevant to this. The French ambassador saying "We don't believe in hyphenated identities" highlights a danger: you don't actually get the sense of commonweal that is really important.