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David Miliband on the global refugee crisis

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.

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.

Roy Jenkins, whom I quote in my book, was the Home Secretary in the 1960’s. He said, “I believe in integration, not assimilation.” Because there’s no such thing as a carbon copy that you’re trying to reproduce from generation to generation. But that work of integration is hard; there’s no point in pretending that it’s easy. If you’re arriving in a foreign country with a new language, new culture, that’s challenging. But it’s challenging if you’re a Christian coming from south Sudan as well as if you’re a Muslim coming from Jordan.

OR: Why do you think it is that in the 21st Century, after all the horrors of the 20th, refugees are still vilified when they’re really the victims?

Miliband: If you believe Stephen Pinker, it’s not happening. Which would be nice.

But it is of course a very deep question as to why people should turn a blind eye, or even participate in appalling acts, rather than do something about it. I went to Bangladesh and talked to some of these Rohingya who have been driven out of Myanmar. They’ve been the object of scorn at best and oppression and persecution at worst for a very long time. Yet the scale of their dislocation and oppression has not satiated the hatred that is felt towards them. On August 24th last year, 15 soldiers were attacked by a separatist group, and boom! You’ve got what the U.N. calls a technical case of ethnic cleansing. You’d have to talk to philosophers about why that’s happening. It makes you worry about human nature, doesn’t it?

OR: Do you feel that the European project is falling apart?

Miliband: I feel a constitutional obligation, a patriotic obligation, to say no to that. And I think you can make the case that Europe is being united by the attacks of the Trump administration and by the threat of Brexit. You can make the case that Europe has shown its stability in the last ten years, where Greece, Portugal, and Spain have had 30, 40, 50 percent unemployment among young people — and the system holds. You can take strength from the fact that Hungary doesn’t want to lose its European payouts. Neither does Poland. The Italian populace are running away from running against the euro.

I think the central question in European politics is obviously “Will the center hold?” By the center, one means the norms of liberal democracy. I think it will, but that’s not to say it’s going to be straightforward. The European Parliamentary elections in the next year are very difficult. The alt-Right is better organized than before and is just relentless in finding its targets.

But I think fundamentally, Europe has actually shown its strength in the last ten years, rather than its weakness.

OR: What do you make of Brexit?

Miliband: It’s appalling. It’s depressing. It’s degrading of British influence. And the great danger is that it’s not the end, that it doesn’t prick the populist bubble but it actually fuels the atavistic surge. It hasn’t happened yet, and its contradictions are legion. The government’s obviously in a desperate mess, trying to figure out how to deliver the political goal of secession without the economic damage of separation. And it hasn’t found a way to do that.

There is a scenario where the EU fudges a lot of the issues in its negotiations with the British government, to allow the government to get out. And some of the most savvy Brexiteers have realized all that counts is getting out, because once Britain’s a third country for European purposes, we’re in a new era. I think it’s very important that we don’t succumb to the sense of resignation that says we’ve got to get out in a blind Brexit.

I’ve said that the final deal that’s done should be put to the people who’ve said they want to buy it, because it’s evidently not what they were promised at the time of the referendum. I’ve likened the British approach to Brexit to the following scenario. If you’re in New York and you go to a restaurant and you order a meal and you don’t like the look of it, you send it back. Whereas in Britain, if you are in a restaurant and you order a meal and you don’t like the look of it, you then start eating it from the side, in a rather mincing way. I’m afraid that’s what we are at the moment doing. There is a sense that we’ve made our bed so we’ve got to lie in it.

OR: How do you see the power struggle among the Conservatives playing out?

Miliband: I’m obviously not the world expert on the Tory Party, but you can tell a story where they are being taken over in the same way that the Republicans are being taken over. It’s an aging and declining membership, and that membership has power in a leadership election. It’s empowered a bit like a primary system here. Equally, I think that the Tories have a governing gene, which doesn’t necessarily have a vision for the country, but does have a vision for itself —  and that vision is to be running the show. Those who are not in the Conservative Party should never underestimate its will to power and its will to manage. Now, there are some smart people in the Tory Party who think that they can withstand the kind of alt-right faction, but there is a bigger alt-right faction than one would guess. And you can see that by the knots that Theresa May’s sort of turned herself into. She evidently feels that she’s a prisoner of the alt-Right, even though she’s not a member of it.

OR: How did the Labour Party go from Tony Blair to Jeremy Corbyn?

Miliband: That’s a very long story. I think it went that way through a mixture of a betrayal narrative that was quite strong, through a complacency that thought austerity would necessarily bring a swing back, and obviously through organizational changes that disenfranchised the parliamentary party compared to party membership.

I think there’s another factor there is bigger than all those three, which is that post 2000’s, and certainly post the financial crisis the center Left, as opposed to the left of center, has got outflanked really, by, on the one hand, the scale of the challenge of the times — we live an age of extreme economic inequality — and on the other hand, a siren call from the hard Left that says, “We’ve got an easy solution!”

OR: Do you see the trans-Atlantic system going under?

Miliband: You could read that picture of Donald Trump with the G6 surrounding him was the end of the West, in a way — G6 plus one is the end of the West.

I don’t quite buy that. I think that the West is not functioning at the moment, but that doesn’t mean it’s a dead West. It’s sleeping, not dead.

The West is a political construct, not a geographic one, and it’s still relevant. It’s still about the best of human nature and guarding against the worst. And I don’t think we can afford to give up on it, but there’s no question that the shared values, the shared foes, the shared interests, and the shared institutions that define the West are not extant at the moment. They’ve been put into abeyance by the administration, and that’s very worrying.

OR: Can that system exist without American leadership?

Miliband: No. America has to be the leader of the West. The Trump Administration has redefined allies and enemies, friends and interests, in a very fundamental way. And so the institutions don’t function well at all without American engagement.

OR: Do you see a clash between the U.S. and China in the offing?

Miliband: I think that there is, clearly, long-term strategic competition for influence. Now, that doesn’t need to lead to Thucydides’ trap. I think that there has been a strategic decision in the Chinese government to make the multilateral system work, and I think there’s been a strategic decision to reach out to Europe, prompted in part by American withdrawal from Europe.

That carries perils as well as opportunities. But I think that China clearly feels itself affected by international relations and engagement, and I think that that needs to be matched with similar strategy. Take them seriously about win-win, take them on when it comes to intellectual property or other things where there’s good grounds for concern, but the truth is while the West can’t exist without America, the world can’t be governed without China. And India. And the Islamic world. That’s where the danger of being in a leaderless world is so pressing. Because the biggest risks today are really about the global commons, and the management of the global commons, from economic security to nuclear security to public health to the refugee crisis.

OR: On that last issue — what do we do to solve it under these circumstances?

Miliband: Running an NGO, you see the people and the danger is you lose the big picture; running a government, you see the big picture, and the danger is you lose sight of the people. We helped 27 million people last year through an NGO, but we don’t kid ourselves that we can do more than staunch the dying. We need politics to stop the killing.

We need to renew diplomacy to really get upstream. The pressure on countries like Bangladesh and Jordan is huge. Those are not weak states, but they’re pressurized states, pressure-cooker states.

And then you need leadership, and that is really not evident at the moment. So my narrative is: What do you do when government’s in retreat? NGOs and corporates have to step up. Civil society has to step up. And that’s what we’re trying to do.