A Conversation with David Miliband

The Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility is launched at The New School

by M. Belén Arce Terceros
MA Candidate, Graduate Program in International Affairs

The humanitarian system faces growing and complex challenges today, especially in aiding refugees. This was one of the reasons for hosting a dialogue with David Miliband, president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee (IRC), for the launch of the Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility last week at The New School.

In his opening remarks, New School President David Van Zandt referred to the university’s tradition of engaging with immigration issues and receiving refugees, and explained how the Zolberg Institute draws on that history and the relevance of thinking globally about migration issues.

In a candid interview with Miriam Ticktin, associate professor of Anthropology and co-director of the Institute, Miliband spoke about the general commitment and work of the IRC, the situation of refugees and migrants around the world and the problems current conflicts pose for the humanitarian system.

“We are in a real moment of crisis around the world,” said Miliband, former Secretary of State for the United Kingdom, as he opened the dialogue on “Migrants, Refugees and Deportees: Confronting the Humanitarian and Political Challenge.“

“Last year there were 52 million displaced people in the world, but we are in the most peaceful period in history,” said Miliband before a packed auditorium, which included students, faculty and people from all over New York City. This “mismatch,” said the former British politician, is related to the fact that civil wars are more numerous, of a higher complexity, their duration is longer and, despite their internal nature, they have a regional reach.

“We have to rethink humanitarian aid; today most refugees are in urban areas,” he said, as he went on to talk about the complexities of the current humanitarian crises and the new challenges these pose to organizations like the one he heads. The IRC (http://www.rescue.org/), which works in 40 countries and in many US cities, assists refugees in crises related to conflict or natural disasters. In the Jordanian city of Zaatari, where one of the largest camps for Syrian refugees was settled in 2012, the organization is providing health care, educational services, as well as working on women’s protection. People in the nearby city of Mafraq are also benefitting from this assistance, increasing the bulk of work for the IRC; as Miliband suggested, it is difficult to make distinctions between refugees and locals when both are in need of assistance, so the IRC serves both when in situations such as this.

“The gap between humanitarian needs and humanitarian aid provision is growing, not because the sector is shrinking but because problems are growing,” Miliband asserted. This has led his organization to look for “new approaches” to deal with crisis, he said. One example is the use of cash transfers for Syrian refugees: beneficiaries were given 100 dollars per month to procure supplies to face the challenges of winter. A study carried out by the IRC revealed that the money was effectively used to get supplies, it boosted the local economy, and households included in the program were more likely to send their children to school. “We use skills from the development context but to do humanitarian work,” Miliband explained, differentiating the IRC from other NGOs.

For organizations like the IRC, it is also important to do advocacy. “It’s not only through direct service provision (that we can help), the testimony we can give is an important part of the equation,” Miliband said, adding that the challenge is to “balance the commitment of delivering services with that of advocating for political change.”

On the topic of his transition from politics to an aid NGO, Miliband said: “The essence of humanitarian work is what to do when government and politics fail,” so these two areas  “meet and overlap.” However, he acknowledged the limits of this kind of work: “we can stop the dying but we can’t stop the killings.” The growing humanitarian crises around the world also have political consequences, pointed Miliband. “When humanitarian crises generate political instability, then the causation goes in the opposite direction.”

Miliband, a son and grandson of Jewish immigrants himself,  responded to a question about the crisis of immigrant children from Central America journeying to the U.S., which grabbed the American public’s attention over the summer. “Just because it receded from the headlines doesn’t mean it’s gone away,” he said. The IRC is assisting children who are awaiting trial hearings and providing protection services.

Asked by a member of the audience about the immigration debate in Europe and anti-immigrant attitudes, he said the problem “isn’t about race, it’s about politics.”

“It’s not an easy time to be arguing for global engagement or for receiving refugees. But we have a responsibility to address the challenges of globalization while embracing its advantages,” Miliband concluded as the conversation with the audience came to an end.

The event was the launch event of the Zolberg Institute’s 2014-15 Lecture Series “Rethinking Refugee Spaces: Architecture, Design, and Politics.” The Zolberg Institute will be featuring two more events this fall. On October 20th, Professor Jacqueline Bhabha from the Harvard School of Public Health and Harvard Law School will give a talk titled “Child Migrants and Zones of Exception”, discussing the implications of child migration in relation to both the Artesia detention center and the Zaatari refugee camp spaces. On November 17th, the lead organizers from the initiative ‘Campus in Camps’ will be speaking about the ways in which refugee camp spaces can be thought about and re-imagined as spaces of and for political engagement instead of simply as spaces of humanitarian administration and governance.


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