As Humanitarian Crises Escalate, So Do Demands to End Them

The New York Times

This article is part of our special report on the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland.

David Miliband, head of the International Rescue Committee, says the global refugee crisis “is manageable, not insoluble.”

Humanitarian crises — especially the plight of refugees — around the world are once again among the issues on the agenda at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

A report by the International Rescue Committee predicts that in 2023 nearly 340 million people will require some kind of humanitarian aid as a result of civil wars, invasions like the one in Ukraine, poverty, income inequality, climate change and more.

David Miliband, 57, is president and chief executive of the International Rescue Committee, one of the world’s largest humanitarian aid and refugee advocacy organizations.

The group, whose founding was precipitated in the 1930s by Albert Einstein, a refugee himself, deploys more than 40,000 staff members and volunteers in 40 countries.

Mr. Miliband is a former member of the British Parliament and was foreign secretary from 2007 to 2010. He had served on the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on the New Agenda for Fragility and Resilience until Dec. 31, when his term ended. He said he planned to attend the forum again this year.

Borge Brende, president of the World Economic Forum, said in a statement that refugees had always been part of the forum’s agenda but that “since the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016, we have increased our focus on the world’s most vulnerable populations — including refugees and other displaced persons — through a dedicated set of discussions, communities and initiatives.”

For example, the statement said, the forum’s Humanitarian and Resilience Investing Initiative is trying to channel private capital toward “vulnerable communities and fragile economies,” and its Refugee Employment and Employability Initiative is building on its support for Ukrainian refugees to bolster employment of refugees across conflict zones.

Mr. Miliband recently spoke by telephone and email about the global crisis and challenges. The interview has been edited and condensed.

If there is one point about the plight of the world’s refugees you would like to emphasize at Davos, what would it be?

That the refugee crisis is manageable, not insoluble.

It is, right now, concentrated in relatively few countries. It’s about a hundred million people. The number has more or less tripled in the last decade. If you listened to some media, you’d think that Western Europe or Britain or America host most refugees. They don’t. Most are in countries like Lebanon or Jordan or Turkey or Bangladesh or Uganda.

But it can be managed. The refugee crisis is one of the global risks, alongside climate and health pandemics, that have been monstrously undermanaged and mismanaged in this phase of globalization these past 20 years.

My message to the people going to Davos is that if they are to continue to reap the benefits of globalization, they have to be willing to bear the burdens of globalization. The “burdens” refer to those who make the rules for how the world deals with the transnational needs that arise in a connected world.

What are some concrete steps that can be taken?

We think that humanitarian catastrophe is a choice. Reducing the scale of global humanitarian need means incentivizing actors with power to make the choice against it. The 100 million displaced worldwide and the 340 million in humanitarian need [according to United Nations data] will need more than aid to break the cycle of protracted crisis. They need fresh thinking on preventing famine; protection from the worst impacts of conflict and impunity; and a new deal for the displaced, via support to low- and middle-income states least equipped to support large refugee populations but providing a global public good. We need ambitious refugee resettlement targets.

What has caused the number of refugees to triple in the last 20 years?

Well, we know the answer to that. Civil wars. They represent 80 percent of the driver of humanitarian need. Second, the climate crisis, which for many people is a contributor to conflict and the flight of people. But the fundamental reason we have more refugees is that we’ve had more, longer and more virulent civil wars around the world — with the exception of Ukraine, which is obviously the product of an invasion.

Has the worldwide resurgence of authoritarianism exacerbated the increased refugee numbers?

There’s no question that we’re living in an age of democratic recession. There is good evidence that the more autocratic a regime, the more it rides with impunity in the wars it engages with. Since we’re primarily looking at the drivers of refugees from conflict, I would say that the rise of autocracy is an associated factor rather than the driving factor. It’s the impunity that threatens them.

The Taliban in Afghanistan recently barred women who were not accompanied by a male relative from workplaces. In response, the rescue committee, whose 8,000 employees in the country includes 3,000 females, has suspended operations there. That must have been a difficult decision to make.

I.R.C. operations depend on our Afghan female staff as well as male. They work at all levels of the organization, from senior leadership to health care staff working with female patients.

We simply cannot work without them. We know that Afghans are suffering from extreme poverty. They cannot do without humanitarian aid, but that is the consequence of the latest edict.

In the I.R.C.’s annual report, you write that the “guardrails” protecting the world’s refugees are being eroded. Can you define what you mean by “guardrails?”

Guardrails are the buffers that prevent disaster turning into catastrophe. And they are weakening. Social safety nets are weakening. Overseas aid is weakening. The laws of war are being weakened. So we are saying we need to strengthen the guardrails because that’s the way to at least mitigate some of the worst symptoms of conflict and disaster.

Obviously, the best case is to get to the roots of the problems and reinvent diplomacy to try and tackle these civil wars of source. But that’s easier said than done.

How do you avoid feeling numbed by the huge number of people in need of your advocacy — tens of millions?

If you’re running an NGO [nongovernmental organization], you’re trying to make the world better one person, one family at a time. So we are working from the ground level.

And I think second, if you look at the statistics, you can get depressed. If you look at the people, you have hope. And that’s the way we try and run the I.R.C.: from the lessons of the fortitude and the determination and the creativity of the people who are our clients.

In 2013, you left British politics to head the I.R.C. Do you feel you are able to effect more change leading an NGO than you could in politics?

No. It’s different. If you’re in politics, you look at the big picture and the danger is that you lose sight of the people. If you are at an NGO, you see the people, but the danger is that you lose sight of the big picture.

Not all the news about refugee policy is negative. As chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel offered to absorb nearly a million people fleeing the Syrian conflict. Colombia has provided a haven for hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans. The member states of the European Union have been welcoming to the Ukrainians. What can we learn from these examples of generosity?

That when people and governments decide to manage a refugee crisis, they can — even when the flow is very fast and very large. Generosity — and I don’t like using that word — has been an enormous benefit to the societies that have done it. Just think about America and what refugees have done. But you have to manage the system properly. The U.S. southern border is not managed properly. It takes six to 10 weeks to process an asylum claim in Germany. It takes three to four years in America. That’s the recipe for backlash.

Finally, treat individuals with dignity because they can become patriotic and productive citizens when they are given some humanity.

Any final thoughts for the Davos conferees?

I think we are facing the globalization of risk. At the moment, it is being matched by the nationalization of resilience. And so, what I want global leaders to do is fill that gap. Stepping up and into global responsibility to match global power is the essential demand that we make in Davos.

Claudia Dreifus teaches science journalism at Columbia University’s School of Professional Studies. She had previously taught at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs and is a frequent contributor to The New York Times.

A version of this article appears in print on Jan. 17, 2023
As Humanitarian Crises Escalate, So Do Demands to End Them