Peter Skerry, a TAI Contributing Editor and professor of political science at Boston College, and TAI Editor-in-Chief Jeffrey Gedmin recently spoke with David Miliband, Chief Executive Officer of the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and former UK Foreign Secretary. They discussed how the IRC—founded by Albert Einstein in 1933 to aid refugees from Nazi Germany—is adapting to today’s crises, the distinction between immigrants and refugees, and how the West should approach its relationship to China. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Peter Skerry and Jeffrey Gedmin for TAI: From its founding, the work of the International Rescue Committee (IRC) has always taken place in a very political context. Today we have debates over nationalism versus internationalism, we have Brexit and COVID-19, and now unrest in American cities. How do you characterize the context in which you lead this venerable organization? And how does this affect your mission?
David Miliband: The first thing to say is that we are a humanitarian organization, not a political organization. It’s a very important part of our enterprise that alongside neutrality, humanity, and impartiality is independence, as one of our four founding humanitarian principles. But that’s the beginning of the conversation, not the end.
As a humanitarian organization, we are agenda-takers from politics. That means that we cannot somehow ignore politics. We have to understand politics. We’ve got to bear witness to the consequences of politics. So when I talk, for example, about how we are living in an “age of impunity” in the war zones in which we work, I’m bearing witness to the fact that our ambulances get bombed by Syrian and Russian forces. That commentary doesn’t make us a political organization, but it recognizes the way in which politics circumscribes, or makes possible, the work that we do.
As you implied in your question, IRC was born out of the most terrible politics of the 20th century. Albert Einstein’s founding vision was that America would be a haven for people fleeing persecution. He stood shoulder to shoulder with the NAACP, by the way, and saw his work in creating the International Rescue Committee as separate from but complementary to the work of the NAACP.
People often ask me what’s it like to lead a refugee-focused NGO at a time of backlash, but that’s not how I characterize it. I characterize it as a time of polarization, where for every person who’s fearful of a refugee coming to live near them, there’s someone else who says refugees are my family, they’re my neighbors, they’re my workmate. So it’s a polarized time, particularly in the United States. I say to friends that there’s not much “us” in the U.S. at the moment; there’s a lot of “us and them.”
It isn’t just the obvious partisan polarization, either. I think there’s a global sense that extremes of inequality, to take one example, produce more polarization, which takes a number of different forms. The fact that we have more refugees, and more internally displaced people than any time since World War II, also speaks to polarization, and a failure of politics. Politics, in a number of the countries in which we’re working, has been unable to contain political, ethnic, and religious tensions within peaceful boundaries.
Finally, you asked what effect it has on our mission. Without meaning to be pedantic, I would say our mission stands independent of politics. The political context makes us more or less successful, or creates different barriers to the fulfillment of our mission, but it shouldn’t change the mission of our organization. Our mission, which we updated five years ago, is to help all those whose lives are shattered by conflicts or disaster to survive, recover, and gain control of their lives. That can’t be shifted by the dynamics of politics.
TAI: How is IRC responding to COVID-19, and how has the pandemic affected your work?
DM: We have 25 offices in the United States, and they have gone fully remote, serving clients with adapted services. Around the world, it’s the reality of a gathering storm, with the threat of a tsunami. We know that the underlying health conditions of the people are often weak in the countries that we work in. We also know that the health infrastructure is often weak to nonexistent: four ventilators for a population of 11 million in South Sudan, 100 ventilators for a population of 100 million in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But we also know that there’s hardly any testing in the places that we work: 31 tests per million in Yemen, 165 tests per million in Nigeria.
And indeed the virus is beginning to run rampant among the world’s most vulnerable—with hotspots growing across Asia, Latin America, and parts of Africa, as well as within refugee camps. In the past week or two alone we have seen cases double in places like Iraq, Yemen, and Libya—fragile or war-torn countries where humanitarian vulnerability and war-ravaged health systems make curbing the virus all the more challenging. Not to mention the secondary havoc the disease will cause to these states’ social, economic, and political environments. As an organization we are in full emergency mobilization mode. We’ve got all of our offices closed, we’ve got 35 percent of our staff working remotely globally, and 90 percent working remotely in the United States. We’re gearing up to use our experience of infection prevention and control, developed in response to Ebola, to try to keep this disease at bay.
Governments around the world are naturally looking after their own citizens first. That is completely understandable, but it’s myopic not to look broader. The absence of governments stepping up to support a global effort on this is really troubling. We have one arm tied behind our back.
TAI: Have you lost many staff?
DM: So far, we’ve had 23 staff who have tested positive for the disease but we haven’t lost anyone. We’re sustaining our services, and we want to do so for as long as possible.
TAI: And how does this affect your organization’s finances? Has it been helpful in raising funds, or is the demand so much bigger than any possible response?
DM: The demand is much bigger. What’s unique about this crisis is that western governments have not stepped up to fund NGOs. Governments have not seen fit to fund the frontlines around the world. That’s true of the United States, the United Kingdom, the UN, and the EU. We are advancing money on the basis of private fundraising, which of course is enormously valued, but we need that to be supplemented by government funding, and we can’t just do this on a business-as-usual basis. We need to practice what is sometimes preached but rarely practiced, of prevention where possible and treatment where necessary.
This is a disease of the connected world. It needs to be vanquished at home, here in America, but it also needs to be vanquished globally for anything like normal to be restored. That takes the kind of global effort that only governments and NGOs can lead. At the moment, we don’t even know if there’s going to be a fourth supplemental package from Congress. Yes, America has got problems at home, but it’s also got interests abroad. One way or another, the geopolitics plays into this, and America’s soft power is in part dependent on its emergency response. We’re proud to be a partner of the American government and we’d like to be more of a partner on this crisis.
TAI: If you look more broadly at a post-COVID world, how do you see this debate between nationalism and internationalism unfolding across the West? Whether it’s AFD in Germany or conservatives in Britain or national conservatives in the United States, there seems to be an impulse to do less abroad. How might that affect your work in the next year or two?
DM: I think there are two parts to that. I recently wrote a piece for The New Statesman about the four contests that would define a post-COVID world, the first of which is about globalization. I think the debate will pivot around the question of whether COVID was the product of too much globalization or of mismanaged globalization. On one side, you’ll have those who say that the world is too connected. On the other side, you’ll have people who say that the connections were not properly managed. I think that’s a relatively fair and unbiased way of framing the debate.
My own view is that the crisis does not prove that globalization is the problem. Instead it shows that globalization that is too unequal, too unstable, and too unsustainable is the problem. So it is a problem of mismanaged globalization. For example, the World Health Organization is too weak, not too strong; it’s too lacking in its independence, not too independent or too willing to speak truth to power. That’s a product of nation-states’ fear of giving it power. It’s underfunded, not overfunded.
The second part of my answer would be that there’s a chance for a productive debate about global public health, and through that example about how to better manage a connected world. This is a health crisis. It has exposed holes in the health safety net, and notwithstanding the animus of the U.S. administration toward WHO, there’s a reasonable prospect of a serious debate, perhaps led by a discussion on how to distribute a vaccine globally. That could actually lead to positive developments in the global health arena.
Done right, these developments will involve the WHO but won’t be confined to it, because public health has been an arena of public policy innovation in the last 20 years—think of GAVI, the Global Alliance on Vaccines, or the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria. Those are global agencies but they’re not UN agencies. They involve the UN but aren’t run by the UN. They involve the public sector and the private sector.
Global health could be an arena in which international cooperation is advanced in a way that becomes a model, or at least a reference point, for other kinds of international cooperation. People like me would like to see the WHO have the same kind of inspection powers as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), but obviously some large countries will be fearful about that. Nonetheless, I think that global health could be a pile driver for the kind of international cooperation I’d like to see.
The third part of my answer, concerning the impact on our work, is that at the moment there are few refugees crossing borders. That could become a dangerous excuse in this country, where refugee intake has been slashed in the last three years, to reduce it even further. But all of our experience says that when legal and legitimate avenues for people to move between countries are lost, then people turn to irregular, underground ways of getting around borders. That creates conditions that are especially dangerous in a COVID environment.
So, there is a wide range of scenarios that we’re having to prepare for practically, as an organization that’s now in 34 countries in addition to the United States, with 200 field sites and 13,000 staff. The range of scenarios for the post-COVID world is much wider than I would’ve guessed three months ago.
TAI: In the American context, the distinctions that have historically been drawn between immigrants, properly understood, and refugees, have gotten very blurry. Arguably that has to do with political forces, because immigrant advocates and refugee advocates have natural reasons to come together. Do you see that as a problem or an opportunity? And at the same time, could you comment on the similar dynamics globally in terms of how we define refugees? There are all sorts of pressures, for instance, to move beyond the Geneva definitions of refugees.
DM: I would give you four sub-headings. First, yes, there is much greater confusion between refugees and immigrants. Secondly, I do think it is unhelpful. But thirdly, it reflects realities on the ground, to my mind, more than it reflects political debate. Fourthly, while there are national aspects to the debate, this is a global phenomenon that leads me to be insistent on protecting the distinctive legal rights of refugees. Let me explain that a bit.
First of all, the distinction between the baker in eastern Damascus who is bombed out of his bakery and ends up in Silver Spring, Maryland—there is a such a person, I’ve met him—and the person who flees because he wants a better life in a neighboring country, remains to me a real distinction. It’s not that one is good and the other is bad, but they’re different. There are different legal rights pertaining to the baker from Damascus than to the person who is seeking to join his cousin in another country to escape poverty. Those distinctions have been developed in the case law over the last 70 years, since the passage of the 1951 Refugee Convention.
But the mixed migration that we’re seeing now is driven, to my mind, by situations on the ground. It’s driven by the interaction of misgovernment, non-state actors, and climate change, among others, all factors which muddy the distinction between a predominately economic motive to move and a political motive to move. There are both economic and political dimensions to these forces; they have both voluntary and forced consequences.
The terms of the Convention have proven adaptable and some of the case law has kept up with this very well. For example, it is now accepted that refugee status cannot be limited to people fleeing war. The key is whether you’re being targeted for your individual identity—for example, based on religion or sexual orientation—and your government can’t protect you. So someone who is fleeing harm by an organized criminal group where the government is unable to provide protection, is fleeing persecution in a way that may meet the test of the 1951 convention. I would argue the same is true for a woman who is being battered by her husband and his extended family and is fleeing because her country can’t or won’t offer her protection. She qualifies as a forced migrant.
Now, as it happens, the people who are moving as a result of climate change are generally staying within their own country. We know that from Syria, for example, where the drought of 2008 to 2011 drove a lot of people to move internally. My own view is that the terms of the 1951 convention have enough flexibility to keep up with the times and enough clarity to avoid everyone qualifying.
Here’s one interesting example. In Greece at the moment, where most of the refugees from Syria and elsewhere landed when they fled in 2015-16, about 50 percent of the claims are being granted and 50 percent are not. So it’s neither the case that the refugee regime allows everyone in, nor that it allows no one in. It’s striking a balance.
By the way, I run a humanitarian agency and one of the first things I always say is we want to have a fair and efficient asylum claim system. Those who pass should be allowed to stay, but those who don’t, shouldn’t. That’s the point of the system. Those countries that devote appropriate resources and expertise to translate, to dig into the different stories, can make a judgment that has legitimacy and integrity.
Now, my own view is that we should hold fast to the wording and the case law of the 1951 convention. Just as a matter of practicality, obviously, 193 countries of the world are not going to have a new convention any time soon, but I actually don’t think that the current convention is bust. What is bust in too many countries are the systems for processing the cases. In Germany at the moment, it takes 10 weeks to process an asylum claim. In America, it takes three to four years. That is not because of the numbers, it’s because of the way the system is organized.
TAI: So on the one hand, the reality on the ground makes things very complicated. But to clarify your second point, what is unhelpful about this development, this conflation of immigrants and refugees?
DM: Well, simpler worlds make for simpler policies. But I was also thinking of my diagnosis of the U.S. situation, which is that the failure to implement immigration reform in 30 years has had a knock-on effect on the vulnerability of the refugee program to being slashed. This is why I think when immigration policy is not handled well, it’s not good for refugees, and when refugee policy is not handled well, it’s not good for immigrants. I think that’s been the experience in Europe as well.
The truth is that legally, every signatory to the 1951 convention has a legal obligation against sending people back to countries where they’re under threat because of who they are. Consistent with that, every country can make decisions on social and economic grounds about the immigration policy it wants to have. Immigrants and refugees have a different legal basis. And countries can use immigration law to make up for any apparent gaps in refugee protection, for example granting temporary status to someone who faces harm, but not the type or level of harm warranting protection under the convention. Personally, I think that’s reasonable. The moral claim is different.
TAI: How does that knock-on effect affect the way you work with immigration advocates? Many such advocates in the United States, for instance, do not readily own up to that distinction between immigrants and refugees, perhaps because they find the confusion useful to them. At least until recent times, they saw themselves as benefiting from the relatively more benign view of refugees that Americans have, compared to, say, low-skilled immigrants coming from across the southern border. Do you share that perception, and has that been a problem for you in your current role? Or maybe you see it differently?
DM: I try not to answer questions about what people think without knowing which people you’re talking about. The “they” in your question, is a very broad category. I stand with them in arguing that immigrants as well as refugees should be protected. But what I referred to is that the cases are different though related.
The fact that there’s been no proper immigration reform here, I think, is undesirable in and of itself, and that has a knock-on consequence on refugees. I do slightly raise my eyebrows at your characterization of refugees as being historically welcome in America. There’s that famous opinion poll where two-thirds of Americans didn’t want Jews to arrive in 1940, and there were two-thirds of Americans who didn’t want Syrians in 2016. So it’s not always the case that refugees are welcomed with open arms.
But it is striking to me that the President who let in more refugees than any other was Ronald Reagan. It’s striking to me that there was, until the current administration, a bipartisan commitment to the Refugee Resettlement Program in this country. It’s profoundly sad to me, as someone who has admired the way America has upheld that tradition, that it should’ve been broken at a time when there are more refugees around the world than ever before. And that has effects on the rest of the world. When America increased the number of refugees it planned to resettle in 2016, there was a 30 percent increase in the number of refugees being admitted elsewhere through 2017. As American numbers have gone down by three quarters, so they’ve been reduced elsewhere.
I believe that the hosting of refugees is a global public good. It’s predominately borne or predominately paid for by poor countries, not rich countries. 85 percent of refugees are in poor countries like Bangladesh, which admitted a million Rohingya 18 months ago, rather than rich countries like the United States or Europe. And those populations, if not resettled, will be rooted back into conflict in a way which is different than being rooted back into economic distress. So it’s not about one being good and the other bad, but that they should both be treated as what they are. And maybe one reason that refugees are less popular now is that they’re being caught in an immigration debate that is unresolved.
TAI: To move to the UK context, how do you respond to Boris Johnson’s recent outreach to Hong Kongers, expressing some openness to upward of three million Hong Kongers being greeted into the UK?
DM: I think that the legal construct that was negotiated in 1984 and came to force in 1997 is important to defend, but it’s also very important to defend international law. The international law made guarantees to Hong Kong and to its residents that are fundamental, and Britain by virtue of history has an outsized relevance to those discussions. There was a mistake made, I think, in the early 1990s, not to do more with regard to visas for the people of Hong Kong.
I would like to see much greater concert between the countries of the liberal democratic world than exists at the moment. That lack of concert has been profoundly exposed by the COVID crisis and the failure to coordinate at the G7 level. But I do think that this is a time when people like Bob Zoellick are absolutely right to say we shouldn’t be launching a new Cold War either. Cooperation amongst liberal democratic countries is really important as a way of making sure that when negotiations happen with China, they happen with a degree of balance. But where countries have individual specific tools at their disposal to offer protection to people in Hong Kong, I think that’s an important thing to do.
TAI: Does it surprise you that a Conservative Prime Minister, who has just led the UK out of the EU largely motivated by immigration concerns, could contemplate letting in three million Hong Kongers into the country? How do you see that?
DM: It’s ironic, but the level of public concern of immigration has plummeted since the Brexit debate, and actually since the onset of the coronavirus as well. I’m not starry-eyed about it, but the relative salience has gone down. The explanation must be in part that the government doesn’t want to be seen as having no foreign policy at all. I think it’s also fair to say that they are not expecting three million to leave Hong Kong tomorrow. That’s very unlikely to happen. It’s also worth pointing out that the Brexit campaign was focused on immigration and emigration from within the European Union. It was not a race-based immigration conversation, because it was triggered more by the movement of the prototypical “Polish plumbers” than anything else.
It’s worth saying, too, that Brexit is not a very conservative thing to do. It captured the Conservative Party but it’s a piece of radicalism in its destructive potential, which doesn’t speak to any tradition of Toryism that I can see, notwithstanding the rhetoric about parliamentary sovereignty. We’re living in a time when right-of-center politics is mutating in all sorts of ways, and that is relevant to a wider question about how Britain sees itself as a liberal democratic country cooperating with 27 other liberal democratic countries on its doorstep.
TAI: Let’s go back to geopolitical questions and how they affect your current work. You alluded to Bob Zoellick. We had a conversation with him in April, where he spoke in some detail about U.S.-China relations. He believes that we need to be very empirical and that the scorecard is complicated if you’re asking whether China is a responsible stakeholder or a threat. Meanwhile, in the United States, we see the beginnings of a debate about “decoupling” with China. How do you view this debate about China’s status and the U.S. response?
DM: Obviously there’s been a shift in the American debate. The center of gravity has shifted towards seeing China not just as a rival but a threat. That reflects perceptions of Chinese success and American struggles in the last 20 years. But I agree with Bob Zoellick about being empirical.
My own thinking has been affected partly by time I’ve spent in China, but also by listening to people like my friend Kevin Rudd, who is now president of the Asia Society in New York and was previously the Australian Prime Minister. The interesting point to me is not asking which country will be the global hegemon, but recognizing that the first priority of the Chinese leadership is to sustain the dominance of the Communist Party. It is a one-party state, and I think that Kevin’s right in talking about “concentric circles” in China’s worldview, different rings of priority, starting with the preeminence of the party. That is the right lens through which to understand the calculus of the Chinese leadership.
That leads me to be very skeptical about the Cold War mentality as a way of understanding the relationship, including the real struggles between China and the United States. As I said earlier, I support Western countries reinforcing their support for each other against internal and external threats. But in respect to China, I am of the view that while there will be competition, there will also be strategic cooperation, and I think that cooperation will be better founded and better organized if there is Western solidarity.
I think that there’s room to achieve that. Notwithstanding that it’s an election year, I think it’s really important that the risks that both the U.S. and China have attempted to take this year don’t lead to adverse outcomes, whether with respect to Taiwan or with respect to trade, because the world needs both China and the U.S. to solve the global problems that exist—including ones that come from other places around the world.
TAI: Two final questions. First, if you look at British politics, the state of the Labour Party, and Boris Johnson’s leadership, is there anything that could tempt you back to the UK in a political role?
DM: I thought you were only on the ethereal higher plane! It’s flattering that people ask this question, but I always answer the same way. I’m not good at career planning and I don’t know what I’m going to do next, but at the moment, I’m fully focused on my job, which is not just dealing with a global crisis of diplomacy that is producing more people on the move as a result of conflict than any time before, but also with a pandemic. So I haven’t got brain space for much else at the moment.
It’s hard in our parliamentary system to return to politics. I was very lucky to be involved in government after a short period in opposition. Obviously I’m a British citizen, so I feel very strongly about the country. It’s been worse than a shame for the last few years that Labour hasn’t been an electable opposition, and hopefully it can get itself back on the road to being a contender. It’s certainly got a much better leader than it previously had.
TAI: Finally, in this spring and early summer of lockdown, what are you watching or reading or listening to at home? You have a musician as a spouse. What are you all doing to distract or nourish yourself when you’re not working?
DM: I’m very lucky to have an extraordinarily patient and talented wife. I suppose it’s because Louise is a musician, but we don’t sit around listening to music. If you know live music, then sometimes recorded just doesn’t do it for you. But I am listening to my children practice the piano every day, which Louise takes care of. Goodness knows what we’re going to do over the summer with the end of summer camps.
What else are we doing? We are watching Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which is a family show that my children seem to enjoy and which I do as well. We are playing a bit of Scrabble, which is a great leftover from the analog world. Anything to get them off screens—that is a perpetual battle for anyone with kids. And there’s a requirement for a minimum of 30 minutes outside family walking every day. I used to walk one of my kids across Central Park, two miles to school every morning, and that’s obviously not allowed anymore. And we’re in a permanent struggle to rediscover the lost art of conversation at the dinner table. We’re trying!