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Helping Refugees Is The Test Of Our Times, David Miliband Says


The world refugee crisis is enormous and critical but not overwhelming, according to David Miliband, president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee. Sixty-five million people around the world in Syria, Yemen, Myanmar, South Sudan and many other places have had to flee for their lives. But he believes the world has the resources to shelter and make lives for those millions of people. It is the test of our times. He has a book, "Rescue." And David Miliband, who's been Britain's foreign secretary, joins us from New York. Mr. Miliband, thanks so much for being with us.

DAVID MILIBAND: Thank you, Scott, for having me on.

SIMON: First refugees you met were your parents.

MILIBAND: Yes. It's - my dad was a refugee from Belgium to the U.K. in 1940, my mum a refugee from Poland in 1946. And when I came to write the book, you always struggle with the first line. But in the end it wrote itself. The first refugees I met were my parents. And I think they gave me security in a way that many refugees who value the freedom and the security that their children have and that they never had themselves. And that helped me bring some passion, as well as some policy detail to the book.

SIMON: They were Jews fleeing the crimes of Adolf Hitler. What are some of the many reasons people are - have to flee their nations now?

MILIBAND: Well, they're remarkably similar. Obviously, global politics is mercifully different. And the religion of most of those fleeing is different, too. But civil wars, persecution and oppression are driving the extraordinary numbers of people that you cited in your introduction - one in every 110 people on the planet forcibly displaced from their homes. And the crisis is not just their suffering. It's also the cynical view that, somehow, this is a problem we're going to have to live with. And the argument of my book is that we can't afford to do that morally. But we also can't afford to do that strategically because humanitarian crisis is the product of political crisis. But it also is the cause of further political instability. And you only have to look at the Middle East today and its consequences way beyond there into Europe to see the danger.

SIMON: You know, whatever impression we might have from the news, are most of the world's refugees coming to America or Western Europe or some of the poorest and, if I might put it this way, most unstable parts of the globe?

MILIBAND: Well, that is a great point - that the top 10 refugee hosting countries, places like Lebanon, Jordan, Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, Bangladesh now with the Rohingya refugees who've come from Burma - Myanmar. The top 10 refugee hosting countries account for only 2 and a half percent of global income. And so the challenge for the richer parts of the world I think is twofold. First of all, to engineer, to lead an international humanitarian aid system that really does meet the challenge of the times that gets refugees into employment, that gets kids - half of the world's refugees are kids - gets them into education. And, tragically, at the moment, less than 2 percent of the world's humanitarian budget goes on education.

But the second half of the challenge is to stand with those countries who are hosting refugees, stand with them substantively but also symbolically by welcoming refugees to our own shores. And it is tragic that after 50 or 60 years in which the United States has led the world in refugee resettlement, hosting an average of about 90,000 refugees a year into this country - people who've then gone on to make extraordinary contributions to this country - that the U.S. administration should now be slashing the number of refugees who are allowed to come here.

SIMON: And you issue a moving call in this book for the world and the U.S. and Western Europe, where there has been some resistance on this, to take care of refugees. I have to tell you, having covered a number of conflicts in the world, I wonder is welcoming refugees second-best to making peace and freedom and the places they're coming from? Because countries like Syria and Yemen are losing millions of people who could build a better society.

MILIBAND: Of course. And I spent part of my career (laughter) trying to do the diplomacy, sometimes successfully in the form of Yugoslavia, sometimes unsuccessfully in Sri Lanka, trying to get upstream and to do the peace making the peace building the peace keeping that is absolutely essential. And, of course, the humanitarian effort is dealing with the symptoms of the refugee crisis. I often say to people that the job of the humanitarian sector is to staunch the dying, but it takes politics to stop the killing.

And the call that I make in this book for refugees to be hosted effectively in countries to which they flee and also welcomed to the Western world - I wouldn't describe it as second-best that you say, but I would say it's necessary but not sufficient. And the withdraw - the crisis, I would say, of Western diplomacy at the moment - the fact that the U.N. summit in September should have had so little effort on Yemen or on South Sudan or even on Afghanistan to solve these conflicts condemns us to see that the humanitarian effort is going to need to be with us for many years to come.

SIMON: David Miliband of the International Rescue Committee - his book, "Rescue." Thanks so much for being with us, sir.

MILIBAND: Thank you so much for having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.