News & Opinion | November 4, 2016 4:47 pm

Only on RCL: An Exclusive Discussion With International Rescue Committee President and CEO David Miliband

Only on RCL: An Exclusive Discussion With International Rescue Committee President and CEO David Miliband


On Friday, November 4, RealClearLife contributing editor David Vise sat down with David Miliband, president and chief executive officer of the International Rescue Committee. Topics covered included the refugee crises in Syria and Africa, as well as the effect of international terrorist organizations such as Boko Haram and ISIS on these continued crises. Read the full transcription from their Facebook Live discussion below. (It has been edited lightly.)

David Vise: Hi, I’m David Vise, contributing editor for RealClearLife, and I’m delighted to be here today with David Miliband. He is the former foreign secretary of the U.K., and he’s the president and the chief executive officer of the International Rescue Committee [IRC]. David, welcome; we’re glad to have you here with RealClearLife and hear about the important work that you’re doing.

David Miliband: Thank you. Good to be with you.

Maybe start by telling us a little bit about what your responsibility is here as the head of the IRC.
We’re a non-government organization; we’re funded by private donations but also by grants from governments to run projects around the world; and we are an international humanitarian organization. That means we provide health services, education services, child protection services, even some support for employment, for people who are displaced by war and conflict around the world. As we’ll no doubt discuss, there are more [conflicts] than ever before. So we’re an international organization in 30 countries from Somalia to Syria to South Sudan—all those countries that are consumed by war and conflict. We’re also a refugee resettlement agency in 29 U.S. cities. So [for the] 13,000 refugees a year, who we deal with—out of the total of about 75,000 who come to the U.S.—we meet them at the airport, get their kids into school, help them get into work …

Here in the U.S.?
In the U.S. We’re an international humanitarian aid organization, and we honor the legacy of our founder, Albert Einstein, who founded the IRC in 1933, to rescue people from what became Occupied Europe—to rescue Jews from Occupied Europe—and we honor that legacy to continue to resettle people into this country, who are persecuted, who are oppressed, who are victims of war around the world.

I understand that you are yourself the child of refugees. Can you talk a little bit about that personal experience, and how it bears upon your work?
Sure, as you can probably tell from my accent, I wasn’t born in Brooklyn. I was born in the U.K. in 1965. My dad was born in Brussels, Belgium, in 1924, [and] he came to the U.K. in 1940, when the Germans invaded Belgium. He got his high school [diploma], went to university for a year, and then … spent three years in the Royal Navy in the Second World War. My mom spent the war in hiding in Poland, then came to the U.K. in 1946. So I’m a child of refugees, and in this small way what I said to the selection committee when I went for the job [interview] to become the CEO of the IRC, [was] “Look, I’m interested in this job first, because of the issues at the intersection of humanitarian need and foreign policy—my background in foreign policy—are some of the most difficult questions facing the world today.” (Little did I know, how this Syria crisis was going to explode.) “Secondly, the IRC is a bit of a hidden gem, and we need to turn this from a good organization into a great organization. But thirdly, I’m the child of refugees, so in a small way, I can repay the debt that my family owes to the people that helped us.”

Give me a sense of the magnitude of the refugee problem in the world today relative to the past.
We talk about people who are forced from their homes by conflict, and there are about 65 million of those people around the world. They’re not all refugees. Twenty-five million are forced beyond the borders of their own country, and 40 million are displaced within their own country. So just to take Syria as the most obvious example, [there are not only] 5.5 million refugees—Syrians chased out of their country by the bombing and the terror—but [also] 7.5 million still stuck inside Syria but not in their own homes—in neighboring towns, on the border with Turkey, on the border with Jordan. So 65 million people—that’s one in 120 of the world’s population, 24 people a minute, [were] displaced from their homes by conflict last year.

Is this the largest number of displaced people ever in the modern world?
Well, certainly in the modern world. Records began with the Geneva Convention on Refugees in 1951, and it’s the biggest number since then. We’re living in a time when old wars carry on in Congo, Somalia, Afghanistan. I’ve just been in Myanmar (which used to be called Burma), [and there are] large numbers of refugees from there. But new wars start: Syria, South Sudan.

What kind of role does the U.S. government play, and is the U.S. government, in your view, doing enough to do its part to help the refugee crisis we face?
The U.S. has historically been a world leader in three areas: It’s obviously a diplomat and a peacemaker; secondly, it’s a humanitarian aid leader, it’s a funder of humanitarian aid; and thirdly, it’s also been a home for refugees over the centuries. If you think about it, Einstein was a refugee and Steve Jobs was the son of a Syrian refugee, Madeline Albright, a refugee herself …

… Sergey Brin, founder of Google.
America has historically been a leader in those three areas. Now, the first is really about politics and diplomacy—it’s the world I used to inhabit, but obviously, you’ve got a massive debate going on in this country about what kind of role you want to play, internationally, and whether you want to play a role internationally. So the leadership is under question there. In humanitarian aid, the European Union—European countries—are now the largest humanitarian aid providers; they’re bigger than [the] U.S., in terms of bilateral donors to countries. Remember, most refugees are in poor countries, not in rich countries, so a country like Jordan, which is your second closest ally in the Middle East, has 650,000 registered refugees and about another 600,000 unregistered refugees, the government says, in a population of six or seven million. Lebanon has 1.5 million refugees. Kenya, Ethiopia, these are the countries where the most refugees are, so international aid needs to support them. Otherwise, they’ll sink. The third area is refugee resettlement. That means [that] the most vulnerable refugees [are] given a chance to start a new life in this country; it’s a small minority of the total, but it’s important symbolically and for those individuals.

It’s my understanding that only about 270 Syrians have been resettled in the United States.
That’s not quite right.

I got that from your website.
No, that was a subset; that’s a time-limited figure. That might be [in] the last month. The U.S. numbers are very low. Since the beginning of the war in Syria that began five years ago, the U.S. has probably taken around 15,000. Now, the Obama administration has said that this year, they’ll take at least 10,000. And it’s achieved that, and the system is now working. [The U.S.] vets all refugees; so they’re put through 12–18 months of security vetting and a range of other interviews [and] biometric testing to make sure that they are who they say they are.

Do you think all this vetting is a fair concern? I guess it’s for security purposes.
I would like it to be faster and more efficient, because if it’s 12–18 months [and] you’re sitting in a refugee camp in Jordan and you’ve lost your husband or brother or son, [or] need medical attention, that’s really tough. It’s right, then … I run a refugee resettlement agency, but I’m happy to say I want good security. Of course we should have good security. We have successive Homeland Security secretaries who’ve said, “Look, we’ve got the best system; when biometrics was possible, we introduced biometrics.” So we’re always updating it. It’s harder to get to the U.S. as a refugee than by any other route. So if you want to cause trouble, trying to become a refugee is not the smart way to do it.

What are the next areas in the world with the biggest risks for new crises as you see them?
I think there are plenty of crises that don’t get any media headlines. So a lot of people would probably know about Syria. A lot of people have probably forgotten about Somalia; there’s large numbers of people, who’ve been displaced from Somalia. Very few people will have heard about the situation in Nigeria. Nigeria is the largest country in Africa; it’s a rich country, as some of your viewers will know, from it’s oil and related natural resources. But in the northeast of the country, you probably have heard of Boko Haram. This is a jihadist group, [and] 2.5 million people have been displaced [because of it]. Whole towns and villages are under the control of Boko Haram. We have people all over that northeast part of Nigeria; I went there myself earlier this year. There are big countries … that are facing—whether for ethnic reasons or religious reasons or political reasons—conflict. I think one’s eye needs to go to places that are not in the headlines, as well as places that are in the headlines. Part of my job is to make sure that we’re not just following where there’s coverage; we’re also pointing to the places where it’s not fashionable to go.

Undoubtedly, we have people who are viewing this, who are wondering what they can do to help with this tremendous humanitarian crisis that we’re facing. What can people do to help?
I think there are three things that I would highlight. First of all, if you live in the U.S., you can contact any of our 29 offices; you can go to our website, [and] we’d love you or your kids or grandkids to help mentor a refugee who’s arriving into this country. They probably don’t speak English, they need help learning the culture, they will have been through unspeakable trauma and hell to get here; and the deepest American generosity and compassion and outreach is important. We love to have volunteers support us. Secondly, if you’re in business, we want to partner with you. You might be in business in some of the countries that we’re working in, you might have expertise in marketing or strategy or in legal if you’re running a law firm; we’d love to have your pro bono support. And then the third thing, obviously, I’m running an NGO and I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t say we want your financial support as well, because the private and foundation money we raise, which is about 14 percent of our $700 million budget [is] our venture fund; it’s our ability to do the extra innovation; it’s our ability to drive forward. Because the bulk of our funding is from government grants to do government specified programs, and our private money allows us to do our own thing.

Now, as head of the International Rescue Committee, you travel around the world, you see what’s happening on the front lines. Share with us some of the stories of refugees from recent experiences perhaps.
Well, the great thing is I can tell you about refugees who have arrived here and tell us their stories. There [is a kid] who spent 15 years in a refugee camp in Bhutan, who [got] flown to the U.S. [and] who we met at the airport. [We] got him into school, he became the valedictorian at his high school, and he’s now in the New York School of Film and Design. But equally, this time last week, I was in Myanmar, formerly Burma, and I was meeting people in a health center, which is inside a displaced persons’ camp. And a woman is holding a child who’s limp in her arms, who’s malnourished, who’s not getting the medical attention that he needs, [and] she looked like she’d been abused. These are the people who are the victims of the modern world. The great thing is that we can help them, and the sad thing is they don’t get the help they need. That’s the gap that we’re trying to bridge.

What do you worry about most?
I worry about my staff a lot. Eight of our hospitals in Syria have been bombed by the Syrian government and the Russians this year. So I worry about that.

So your folks on the front line.
Yeah. [Knock on] wood, we haven’t lost anyone this year, but we’re always worried about that, and there’ve been beneficiaries killed. We lost a pharmacist in Syria in August; I forgot about that. It’s the danger to the staff. I worry also about fatigue of our aid in the West; people saying they’re getting tired of hearing these stories. I mean that’s no excuse at all.

In other words, you’re concerned that people won’t be responsive.
I’m worried that people think the problem is so big they can’t make a difference. The purpose of doing interviews like this is to say that’s not an excuse; you can make a difference. And you can make a difference if you team up with an organization that knows what it’s doing. I worry also that global politics has gone so wrong. And at a time when it feels like we’re in a world without leadership, that’s a real issue.

Where do things break bad where we don’t currently have a problem
You’re always worried about tempting fate. That the pressure in the countries in the Middle East from the Syria crisis is huge. We’ve got people dealing with refugees from Mosul today. So you always worry about the Middle East.

And it’s getting worse?
I think that the resilience of countries like Lebanon and Jordan—Lebanon got a new government this week—is very, very …

How many refugees are in Jordan?
The governments say 1.1 million or 1.2 million in a population of 6 million or 6.5 million. [And in] Lebanon, [there] are 1.5 million refugees, [and] the population’s only 4.5 million. One in three, one in four Lebanese residents is now a refugee, so you worry about that. You worry about forgotten crises in Africa. You worry about the situation in Nigeria, you worry about the longterm crises. There are some stories where it’s put right. Rwanda was a horror story 20 years ago, and now it’s more or less on the right track now. We had a big presence in the former Yugoslavia and the Balkans, [and] we don’t have to be there anymore. So we’re not just an organization that always does more; sometimes we leave, because things get better.

You’ve been a foreign secretary and you’re in this role, so what can done to combat ISIS? Because a lot of this displacement that you’ve been talking about in Syria is ISIS-related.
Some of it certainly is. Most of the victims are actually victims of the government … I mean, you’ve got these sort of twin evils, really. I think that what one has to understand about the rise of ISIS is that they move into a vacuum, and the vacuum is a political one as much as a military one, and without wishing to try the patience of your viewers, the political vacuum is one of Sunni Muslim communities. The Muslim world is split between Sunni and Shia. In Iraq and parts of Syria, the weakness of Sunni political representation has allowed ISIS, which claims to be the true voice of Sunni Islam, to say look, “If you want us to defend you from the Shia, we’re the people who can do it.” That political problem is at least as big as the military problem. Now, we know that the military campaign against ISIS is underway strongly in Mosul at the moment. It’s also taking place inside Syria itself. The amount of ground that [ISIS covers] has been reduced over the last year, even though the number of people under their sway is still in the 6–8 million territory, but they’re definitely taking hits on the battlefield. My point is that if you don’t give those communities other forms of defense, other forms of confidence in the Iraqi government or in the protection that’s going to exist within Syria, then you’re creating the conditions for ISIS to grow.

On another subject, Ebola was a huge crisis. What are the lessons from the Ebola crisis?
Ebola hit three countries where we do a lot of work: one of them is Sierra Leone, which has long ties to the U.K.; one of them is Liberia, which has very strong ties to the U.S.; and one of them is Cote d’Ivoire, the Ivory Coast, which has strong links to France. We’ve been in Sierra Leone and Libera, because they’ve had civil wars. So we had teams there when Ebola hit, and we had to redeploy them. I went to Sierra Leone and Liberia at the height of the Ebola crisis, and the work of the teams was extraordinary. The biggest lesson, interestingly enough, is not the obvious one. The obvious thing might be, you haven’t got proper running water, [so] you’re going to end up with disease; or where you don’t have proper health facilities, you’ll end up with disease. That’s not the biggest lesson. The biggest lesson is that when populations don’t believe their leaders, they won’t do what they say. And when leaders’ warnings about a disease are not believed for political reasons, you end up with severe problems. Our biggest challenge in fighting Ebola was in mobilizing communities to trust the information that they were being given. Fortunately, we had deep roots in the community. Of course, there had to eventually be some health response, and also, sad to say, dead body disposals and a lot of issues related to that, but the fundamental lesson is about the importance of people believing the information that they are given.

David, I want to be sure that you have the last word here. What is it that you’d like to be sure that our viewers here at RealClearLife know and learn from you here today?
Well, there’s one thing I’d like them to know and one thing I’d like them to do. The thing I’d like them to know is that these 65 million people who are displaced by conflict are not just a statistic; they’re people. Joseph Stalin, not a figure I quote very often, said that one person’s death is a tragedy, 1 million people’s deaths are a statistic. And the danger is that the 65 million people get treated as a statistic and not as a tragedy. What I’d like people to know is that this is a person-made tragedy, and it has a person-made set of interventions that can at least mitigate the scale of the damage and suffering and do something about it. The thing I’d like you to do is obviously visit our website,, go and see what we’re doing, try and get in contact with us, and become part of the IRC family.