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On Tuesday November 17, David Miliband spoke virtually with Sanford Dean Judith Kelley and Gavin Yamey, professor of the practice of public policy and public health, on the current status of humanitarian work around the world and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Miliband, president and CEO of International Rescue Committee (IRC) since 2013, has a background of policy making in the United Kingdom, having served on the staff of the prime minister before being elected to Parliament and subsequently being appointed the secretary of state for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. Miliband’s career has been dedicated to advancing human rights, especially for the vulnerable populations of displaced people and refugees. For Miliband, their plight has a distinctly personal dimension. His parents, both Polish Jews, fled continental Europe for the United Kingdom in World War II, a fact Miliband believes is crucial to his identity and work.         

Miliband brought a perspective rooted soundly in the data as well as the in-field realities faced by individuals and organizations. He began with the disheartening news that the world has gone backward on three key indicators: there are more refugees and displaced people than there were ten years ago; the gap between the needs of those people and their provision has grown; and the increase in “demonization of refugees” that has arisen in some countries, including the United States.

“For the first time in human history, more than one percent of the world’s population is displaced from their home, he said” As just one example of the insufficient resources, Miliband spoke of how approximately half of the world’s displaced people are under the age of 18, while only three percent of the world’s humanitarian budget goes to education. None of these problems have resulted exclusively from the pandemic, rather they all have preceded and been further exacerbated by COVID-19’s human and economic toll.    

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Jonathan Griffin is a sophomore at Duke University studying economics with minors in political science and Chinese language. He currently works as a communications assistant at the Duke Center for International Development and is from Alexandria, Virginia. 

Regarding the demonization of refugees in American politics, Miliband pointed to the scaling back of the United States’ refugee resettling scheme, previously a world leading program, and the “abuse of international law at the southern border in the denial of rights to claim asylum for asylum seekers.” Despite this trend, Miliband explicitly rejected any idea that “everyone hates refugees,” suggesting rather that “for every person who wants to demonize refugees, there’s someone else who wants to recognize their needs.” He also lamented that refugee resettlement in the United States seems to have become a partisan issue when it had previously been so bipartisan that President Reagan resettled more refugees that any other U.S. president. Miliband noted the wide-ranging impact of American policy as “when America steps up, then other countries are likely to step up.”

There is no single, homogenous “refugee experience” to which all displaced people are subject. Rather, these experiences are characterized by great diversity, necessitating nuanced solutions and methods. Miliband spoke of Afghan refugees living Pakistan and the impact of multigenerational displacement. Many Afghan refugees in Pakistan were born and raised in Pakistan, facing issues surrounding identity, place in society, and prospects for the future. The duration of displacement has grown to be nearly 20 years on average, though Miliband did point to the difficulty of achieving reliable data despite its absolute necessity to forming viable solutions.

Tragically, “only three percent of the world’s refugees went home last year.” This has led to increased strain on host communities, largely poor or lower-middle income countries.

“Eighty-six percent of the world’s refugees are not in rich countries, they’re in poor countries. For all that there is talk of a refugee crisis in Europe or in North America, the figures do not bear that out at all. People generally stay close to home, and that generally means the neighboring state,” he said.

Miliband stressed that this trend mostly derives from the refugees themselves wanting to return home, still having relatives at home, or simply lacking the money to go any further, rather than efforts by rich countries to actively keep out refugees. Looking toward robust, responsible steps in the right direction, Miliband pointed out the often-overlooked concept that countries hosting refugees are delivering a global public good.

“The deal to be done is that those countries that are delivering on that global public good need international financial support to do so, to be politically manageable with their own populations. But we have got to recognize the reality that a lot of the refugees are going to stay so they need to be given rights to work and contribute in the countries that they have gone to.”

Most countries actively benefit from the service provided by host countries without reciprocal contributions, leading to a mismatch of resources and need.        

When asked about the expected impact of President-Elect Joe Biden’s administration, Miliband pointed to three specific policies outlines by the Biden campaign: firstly, an increase in refugee settlement from 15,000 to 125,000; secondly, support for countries hosting refugees, especially support for women and girls; and thirdly, engagement with Latin America to address the refugee crisis in the Northern Triangle and Venezuela. The IRC looks forward to contributing its expertise and knowledge wherever it can.          

In terms of the direct health impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, Miliband discussed the pleasantly lower than expected consequences. However, the interruption of vaccination and treatment for malaria have been serious, and “the economic collateral damage has been absolutely terrible.”

He also pointed to the insufficient discussion around purchasing COVID-19 vaccines for poor countries and the complete lack of discussion around delivery of vaccines to poor communities. The distances, energy supplies, lack of healthcare infrastructure, and presence of armed opposition groups, all present significant difficulties to any plans for such delivery. Once again, the problems faced by refugee and displaced communities lack uniformity and so require diverse, informed solutions. While government and private funding have continued largely unchanged despite the economic crisis, the delivery of funds to front line NGO’s and service providers has suffered, with only 15 percent of the UN appeal reaching front line NGO’s. Add to this the macroeconomic consequences of the global crisis and continued danger to humanitarian workers, especially in Yemen, and it becomes clear that significant resources and work are needed to address these enormous issues.                       

MIDP Fellow Romina Damini moderated the Q&A section of the panel, beginning with a question of conflict over water and its impact on issues related to displacement. Miliband pointed to four main reasons why the situation has been getting worse for refugees and displaced people: crisis of diplomacy; increasing number of fragile states; trouble and division within the Islamic world; and the secondary effects of resource stress exacerbated by the climate crisis.

“The truth is, almost whatever your field of interest of the moment, you have also got to be in the climate movement and the movement against climate change, because it is existential for all of us.”

 Miliband was direct that the work of the IRC and any humanitarian group must also take climate change into account when trying to develop sustainable solutions.        

When questioned about the economic benefits sometimes brought by refugees to host countries, Miliband was clear that refugee programs ought to be need based, providing for those for whom it is not safe to return home.

“Don’t defend the rights of refugees by saying that there are economic needs…even if they weren’t [making an economic contribution], you would still have a responsibility to treat them in a way that is consistent with their status. I think that’s a moral responsibility… as well as a legal responsibility.”           

Discussing the broader role of philanthropy and humanitarian work, Miliband laid out his philosophy of philanthropy and humanitarian organizations acting as support for state efforts, picking up the slack where governments are ineffective or insufficient.

“Civil society and the private sector need to be engaged in solution making” and this occurs through philanthropy and NGO’s. Overall, despite many setbacks and systemic problems faced currently being faced by humanitarian workers and organizations, Miliband remains concentrated on seeking out sustainable solutions in an effort to care and provide for the most vulnerable members of our shared global community.