Spring 2020 Bulletin

The Global Refugee Crisis: What’s Next and What Can Be Done?

global refugees

“More people worldwide are being displaced from their homes for longer periods than ever before,” noted David Miliband, president and chief executive officer of the International Rescue Committee, at a gathering of Academy members and guests at the inaugural Jonathan F. Fanton Lecture in New York. Miliband, one of the foremost advocates for refugees and a leader in responses to global humanitarian and human rights crises, described the causes of today’s global refugee crisis and offered solutions, both simple and effective. An edited version of his remarks follows.

2090th Stated Meeting | February 4, 2020 | The University Club of New York | Jonathan F. Fanton Lecture

David Miliband
David Miliband is President and CEO of the International Rescue Committee. From 2007 to 2010, he served as the 74th Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs of the United Kingdom. He previously served as Secretary of State for the Environment and was a Member of Parliament for South Shields from 2001 to 2013. He was elected an International Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2018.
David Milliband


It is a pleasure to speak with you this evening at the inaugural Jonathan F. Fanton Lecture about the global refugee crisis. One of the challenges surrounding the refugee crisis is that the norms and laws of liberal democracy are in retreat. Since 2006, 113 countries have suffered what Freedom House calls a democratic recession, that is, a reduction in the score that they receive for political freedom: they have less free press, less free judiciary, and less free elections.

It is interesting to note that 2019 is the first year since 1900 when the world’s autocracies contributed more to global income than the world’s democracies. More than 50 percent of global GDP comes from countries that are not democratic. While there are countries in which we see reductions in political freedom, nothing quite compares to being a civilian or an aid worker in a war zone. The International Rescue Committee (IRC) is working on behalf of the refugees and the internally displaced, those who are displaced by conflict or persecution from their own home but remain within their country. But we also work in war zones. In Northwest Syria, for example, three hundred civilians have been killed in the last two weeks by the Russian-Syrian bombing campaign. The fact that civilians have protections under international law is beside the point, because this is the ultimate transgression of the liberal international order. We are in a period that I call the age of impunity.

What do I mean by that? Basically, the new normal in war zones around the world is that, contrary to international law, civilians are fair game for armed combatants, that humanitarian aid workers are an unfortunate but expendable collateral of military campaigns, that investigations and accountability for war crimes are an optional extra rather than a core part of the conduct of war. The age of impunity means that if you follow the laws of armed conflict, you are a fool. The new normal means that combatants in war zones think that they can get away with anything, and so they do everything. They use chemical weapons, they target hospitals, they target aid workers, and they besiege cities and starve the population. For most of the world’s seven and a half billion citizens, this is not the new normal. But if you are unfortunate enough to be caught in a war zone – and not just in Syria – this is the new normal for you.

Last year, for example, of the one thousand attacks on health workers, hospitals, ambulances, and patients in conflict zones, 250 of them occurred in Syria. The greatest harm, by the way, is to the most vulnerable: 140 million children live in active war zones around the world today. In those statistics, you get a sense of the changing nature of conflict, not just the impunity of those who are in the field but the role of non-state actors. It is not just states that are committing war crimes; it is also non-state actors that never signed the Geneva Conventions but are still obliged to live by them. It is striking to me that seventy countries are involved in other people’s civil wars at the moment. So the use of proxy and partner forces is a feature of modern warfare.

The purpose of sharing these contextual factors is that they explain in a significant way why we are suffering a global refugee crisis. And understanding what people are fleeing from helps us to understand why they are fleeing and what can be done about it. Let me share a few more pieces of data: 70.8 million people are displaced around the world by war, conflict, and persecution. That amounts to one out of every 110 people on the planet. We are not talking about people who are fleeing for economic reasons, but rather people who are fleeing because it is not safe for them to remain at home. The definition of a refugee is someone who has a well-founded fear of persecution. In the administrative law that has been developed by the United Nations and by member states over the last seventy or eighty years, a refugee is someone for whom it is not safe to be in their own home country. Of the 70.8 million people displaced around the world, approximately 30 million have crossed borders, so they are refugees or asylum seekers, and 40 million are internally displaced. If we consider the Syrian conflict, out of an original population of 24 million in 2011, there are about 6 million Syrian refugees living outside the country and about 8 million internally displaced inside Syria. In the northwest, about 3.5 million people live in the Idlib province at the moment. The original population was between 2 and 2.5 million, so there are about a million internally displaced, who have been shepherded into the Idlib province by the Assad regime.

This population–30 million refugees and asylum seekers, 40 million internally displaced–is larger than at any time since World War II. Half of all of those 70 million are children under the age of eighteen. Ninety percent live in poor or lower-middle-income countries. This is an important point because if you listen to the political debate you would think that it was Western countries, the richer countries, that are hosting most of the refugees. That is simply not correct. Most refugees are in countries such as Bangladesh, Kenya, Ethiopia, Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, which has 3.7 million refugees from Syria. Those statistics qualify the refugee issue as a “crisis.” Now crisis is obviously an overused word, but when we consider the length of displacement that refugees suffer, it rises to the level of a crisis.

Based on statistics from the United Nations, the average time refugees spend in camps is twenty years. So displacement affects generations. It is crucial to understand why this is a crisis, and not just a problem. If you are displaced for six months, that is bad enough; if you are displaced for six years, that is really tough. If you are displaced for sixteen years, it is a whole different ball game. From my point of view, the duration of displacement is closely aligned to another statistic: 60 percent of refugees do not live in camps; they live in urban areas. And that is the bitter reality for many of the people that the International Rescue Committee serves.

global refugees generations

The International Rescue Committee was founded by Albert Einstein in the 1930s. We serve refugees, the internally displaced, those in war zones, those who shelter refugees, and those who support refugees. When we run a health center, we make sure it is open to the local population, not just to the refugee population because some of the needs of the local population are as big as the needs of refugees. For example, if you live outside the Dadaab refugee camp, which is one of the largest refugee camps in Kenya, your life expectancy is lower than if you live inside the camp. And that’s why it is important that our health facilities in the camp are open to the local population. But there is a second reason. As I mentioned, most refugees live in urban areas. If you want to guarantee tension between refugees and a host population, then saying that health centers or employment programs are only for refugees and not for the host population is a recipe for real trouble. So by opening up these programs to those in need, we serve a practical purpose.

What are the causes of this refugee crisis? How have we ended up in a situation in which thirty years after the end of the Cold War, more people are fleeing violence than at any time since World War II? There are four factors at the root of this refugee crisis. One is that there are a growing number of fragile or failing states around the world. A fragile or a failing state, for my purposes, is a state where the political institutions are too weak, or even nonexistent, to be able to broker a political compromise. State fragility lies at the heart of this conundrum. There are fewer wars between states than at any time since 1945, but there are more wars within states than at any time since 1945. And the root of that is from the weakness of political institutions to be the fulcrum of compromise and political debate. When communities feel that they do not have a stake in the political system, then they resort to violence. And when there is violence, we end up with refugee flows.

The second driver of this refugee crisis is the shift in the global balance of power from an essentially post–Cold War unipolar world in which the West was dominant to a multipolar world. The consequence of this shift is that global political institutions are gridlocked on issues of war and peace. The Russians believe they have an interest in upholding the Assad regime. The United States believes it has an interest in upholding the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. But they also raise deep philosophical questions regarding civil war: such as whether a government of a particular country has the right to do what it likes within that country. And there isn’t a simple division between the democratic world thinking one thing and the autocratic world thinking another. To take an example close to home, the United States has always been extremely leery of international, legal, and other entanglements. Even the Convention on the Law of the Sea, which the United States abides by, hasn’t passed into U.S. law. Now obviously China takes as its founding idea of foreign policy the notion that external interference in internal affairs is a complete anathema. And so the second driver of the untold suffering that leads people to abandon everything and flee their country is gridlock in the international political system.

The third driver concerns religion. The International Rescue Committee was founded as a secular organization. Today, 45 percent of our work is in Muslim-majority countries. It is striking that the turmoil in parts of the Islamic world about theology, about governance, about engagement with the rest of the world plays a role in understanding why the Middle East is on fire in various ways. And if you look at the Central African Republic, with refugees in Cameroon, there is strife between the Christian and Muslim communities. And in the northeast of Nigeria, 1.2 million people are being held prisoner by a branch of the Islamic State that is out of reach of the Nigerian government and of international humanitarian aid organizations.

The fourth driver is climate change, which causes economic displacement. The climate crisis and the resulting resource stress it creates will obviously grow. None of these trends are short term. Neither the weakness of states nor the gridlock of the international system nor the roiling turmoil within Islam nor the climate crisis have short-term solutions.

So what do we do? Let me start with some good news. We actually know what to do if we want to treat the symptoms of the refugee crisis. What is the thing that most refugees lack? They lack cash because they have left everything behind. So the best thing that you can do is give them cash, which helps them and the local economy. We did a study in Lebanon in 2014, which showed that for every $1 you give to a refugee, $2.13 goes to the local economy because they buy from shops, and the shops in turn then buy more, and you create a positive economic dynamic. It is not difficult to give people cash in a secure way. You can give it to them on their mobile phone, you can give it to them through a card, you can give it to them in local currency. And it sounds obvious but the first question we ask is “Why not give them cash?” Many people say that we must give food aid. It is actually much better to give them cash rather truck the food to them. So policy solution number one is about cash. Policy solution number two is also embarrassingly obvious. Since half of the refugees and displaced people around the world are children, they need education. Yet less than 2 percent of the global humanitarian budget goes to education. There are generations of children who are being shortchanged by the failure to offer them the most basic education, whether in a schooling system, if it exists, or in community-based learning.

The challenge of providing education is understanding the trauma that refugees and war-affected children have faced. The brain science on this is amazing. You can track the brain trauma of children who have witnessed or experienced unspeakable cruelty, but you can also track the way in which the synapses of the brain recover when nurtured and supported in the right way. There is obviously basic learning, and then vocational and other opportunities.

The third part of the good news is that the policy answer for refugees is to allow them to work. Most countries that host refugees do not allow them to work, which of course drives them into the informal economy where they do not pay taxes and do not contribute to the country where they live. Now before we blame the countries that are not allowing refugees to work, we should recognize that if you are hosting a lot of refugees, like Jordan, you do not get credit with the IMF or the World Bank for the macroeconomic responsibility that you are shouldering. If you accept that hosting refugees is a global public good, poor or lower-middle-income countries are not currently being supported to do that. Now the World Bank has made some efforts in this area. They are putting about $2.5 billion a year toward this, but if we consider that Jordan’s debt to GDP ratio has gone from 55 percent to 94 percent since the start of the Syrian war, you can see that we are not making up for the burden that they are carrying. The unemployment rate for Jordanian adults is 26 percent. So there is a new bargain to be struck in which refugees get the chance to work and support themselves and their families, and the countries that are hosting them get macroeconomic support.

The fourth part of the good news is that refugee resettlement, which is the program designed for the most vulnerable refugees and their transfer to third countries, is a very good policy. It has been shown that people who arrive under a refugee resettlement program pay more in taxes than they receive in benefits over a ten-year period. They are less likely to commit crimes than the indigenous population. We have even tracked that they pay back their car loans more expeditiously than the host population.

Unfortunately, there is no political will to implement these solutions. In the crisis of diplomacy that we are seeing around the world, there is no political desire for the kind of engagement that is necessary to resolve these crises in the first place, which is obviously the only real answer. According to David Armitage, since 1989, there have been on average twenty civil wars around the world at any given moment, approximately ten times the global average between 1816 and 1989. And that is a really powerful demonstration of what we mean by a crisis of diplomacy. In addition, these twenty civil wars that have been occurring since 1989 last three times as long as wars in the first half of the twentieth century. David Armitage’s research also found that nearly every new civil war in this century was a resumption of an old civil war. The most likely product of a civil war is another one. Second, the absence of political will and ingenuity is contributing to the gap between humanitarian needs and humanitarian provision. Education is an example. About 75 percent of secondary-school-aged children who are refugees are out of school at the moment. This gap between needs and provision is not a function of not knowing how to reach these people or how to help them. It is a function of political decisions.

Third, policy attacks on refugees, including in the United States, are a political decision. President Ronald Reagan let in more refugees under the refugee resettlement program than any other president. Over two hundred thousand refugees per year in the 1980s, many of them from Vietnam, were allowed into the country. The historic average is about ninety thousand a year, reached during the last year of the Obama administration. The Trump administration has cut the number to eighteen thousand. And when the United States makes a decision like this, it has ricochet effects elsewhere. Other countries may say, if America is not taking in refugees, then why should we? We are seeing a retreat that is politically driven rather than policy driven.

And now we are back full circle to where I started: the age of impunity is borne of neglect. It is borne of a refusal to hold accountable those who commit war crimes. It is a refusal to make the war in Syria or in Yemen a high priority in the global diplomatic debate. And as we know from history, policy and politics are intermingled in this domain. Two-thirds of Americans thought Jews should not be allowed into America in 1940, according to a Washington Post poll, which is about the same number of people who today think that Muslims should not be allowed into the country. So the politics and the policy are interlinked. Einstein had a vision for founding the IRC, but in truth, he founded the IRC out of frustration. He wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt to persuade her to influence her husband and allow Jews from Europe into America. She said that she could not persuade him. And so Einstein established the International Rescue Committee out of frustration with the lack of any political or policy response.

We need to acknowledge that there is polarization on this issue. What we are finding is that for every person who fears having a refugee live next to them, there is someone else who says well, hang on, I have a refugee in my family, or I know a refugee at work, or I already have a refugee as a neighbor, or there is a refugee who attends my church or my synagogue or my mosque.

And I think it is really important that we understand that for an organization like the IRC we cannot rely on only ourselves to do the good work and hope that our efforts speak for themselves. We have to rescue the best of the traditions of Western, liberal, democratic countries, uphold the rules of war, uphold the idea of sanctuary for those who are fleeing persecution. If you are an employer, I encourage you to give refugees a chance to work. If you are a citizen, use your voice to publicize the plight of refugees. If you are a philanthropist, please come and support us.

Show More Show Less

© 2020 by David Miliband


To view or listen to the presentation, visit www.amacad.org/events/global-refugee-crisis.