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As Shutdown Looms over Immigration, Trump’s Rejection of Refugees Could Have Global Domino Effect

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As Senate Democrats say they’ll vote against a government spending bill that fails to protect DACA recipients, setting up a potential government shutdown, we look at the worldwide refugee crisis. The United Nations Refugee Agency reports the number of displaced people worldwide has hit a record high, with more than 65 million people forcibly displaced from their homes. As the humanitarian crisis grows, the United States and many other nations are limiting immigration and closing their borders. During his first year in office, President Trump sought to ban all refugees and citizens of many majority-Muslim nations. When federal judges struck down multiple versions of the so-called Muslim travel bans, Trump then slashed the number of refugees who could be resettled in the United States this year, capping the number at 45,000—the lowest level in three decades. We speak with David Miliband, president of the International Rescue Committee, former British MP and author of the new book, “Rescue: Refugees and the Political Crisis of Our Time.”

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StorySep 19, 2017Trump’s Childhood Home is Now an Airbnb Where Refugees Slept Over to Protest Immigration Crackdown
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The House of Representatives passed a short-term spending bill late Thursday, setting up a high-stakes showdown in the Senate today, ahead of a midnight deadline to reach a deal or face government shutdown. Congressmembers voted 230 to 197, mostly along party lines, in favor of a Republican-led continuing resolution to fund the government through February 16th. In the Senate, many Democrats have said they’ll vote against a bill that fails to protect young DREAMers—DACA recipients, undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children. This is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: They want a sensible compromise on immigration. But they cannot, Madam President, for the life of them, understand why—why some senators would hold the entire country hostage until we arrive at a solution to a problem that doesn’t fully materialize until March. Military families, veterans and children benefiting from the SCHIP program don’t need to be shoved aside—don’t need to be shoved aside while we continue good-faith negotiations.

AMY GOODMAN: A hundred DACA recipients lose their status every day.

Well, as the debate over immigration could force a U.S. government shutdown, our next guest argues migrants and refugees are a key political crisis worldwide. The United Nations Refugee Agency’s most recent annual report says the number of displaced people worldwide has hit a record high, with more than 65 million people forcibly displaced from their homes across the globe—that’s 20 people forced to flee their homes every single minute.

These refugees often face deadly journeys to reach safety. Last week, humanitarian groups said dozens of refugees drowned when their boat sank off the coast of Libya en route to Europe. This week, the Arizona humanitarian group No More Deaths accused U.S. Border Patrol agents of routinely sabotaging or confiscating humanitarian aid left by activists near the border with Mexico, condemning some Mexican and Central American refugees to die of exposure or dehydration in the Sonoran Desert.

As the humanitarian crisis grows, many nations, particularly the United States, are limiting immigration, closing their borders. During his first year in office, President Trump sought to ban all refugees and citizens of mainly majority-Muslim nations. When federal judges struck down multiple versions of the so-called Muslim travel bans, Trump then slashed the number of refugees who could be resettled in the United States this year, capping the number at 45,000—the lowest level in three decades. Meanwhile, the Trump administration has also cut $65 million in annual contributions to the U.N. Palestinian refugee agency, known as UNRWA. On Thursday, Pope Francis made an urgent appeal on behalf of refugees and migrants, while speaking on the last day of his visit to Chile.

POPE FRANCIS: [translated] We know well that there is no Christian joy when doors are closed. There is no Christian joy when others are made to feel unwanted, when there is no room for them in our midst. We must be alert that work is becoming more precarious, which destroys lives and homes. We must be alert to those that take advantage of the irregularity of many immigrants because they don’t understand the language or they don’t have their papers. We must be alert to the lack of housing, land and work of so many families.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more, we’re joined by David Miliband, president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, former British Labour MP, brother of Labour Leader Ed Miliband. His new book is titled Rescue: Refugees and the Political Crisis of Our Time.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

DAVID MILIBAND: Thank you very much. Good to be with you.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you have heard, David, all the headlines. Half of them involve immigrants, involve refugees, involve people taking sanctuary across the country, California declaring itself a sanctuary state, and Trump administration officials threatening to arrest not only refugees, but politicians who defy Trump administration policy. This is the anniversary of President Trump’s inauguration. What is your assessment of his approach to immigrants in this country?

DAVID MILIBAND: Well, issues of refugees and immigration have always been matters of politics as well as policy. And there’s a lot of confusion. One of the points in my book is that a refugee is someone who flees their home as a result of conflict or persecution. An economic migrant is someone who’s seeking a better life. It’s not that one is good and the other is bad, but they’re different.

And I think the way I would summarize the approach of the Trump administration is really a reversal of the best of American history. It’s not that throughout the ages America has always made itself open to refugees and immigrants from around the world, because there have been dark periods of American history. But the best of the American approach, both in respect of immigration and in respect of refugees—and we should talk about the difference between them—but the best of American history has established this country as a haven for those who are seeking not just a place of safety from persecution, but also a chance to start a new life and contribute to the society that they are arriving in.

And what the president has done—you referred, just to give you one example, to the fact that the president has halved the number of refugees who should be allowed to come to the U.S., from the 90,000 a year that have been allowed since the 1980s, since Ronald Reagan’s time, to just 45,000. But, actually, the truth is that the administration that is putting that into practice is not delivering 45,000 refugees this year. It’s going to deliver about 20,000. So you’re actually seeing, because of the actions of the Department of Homeland Security, a quartering of America’s historic commitment to refugees, at the time when there are record numbers of refugees around the world.

And this is significant both for those individual cases and for the lesson it sets elsewhere in the world, because, the truth is, a country like America has 1 percent of the world’s refugees. Countries like Ethiopia, Pakistan, Lebanon, Jordan, they have the most refugees in the world. And I think that there’s an issue of substance, but also an issue of symbolism, at stake here.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to step back for a minute—why you care so much about the issue of migrants, of refugees, of immigrants. Talk about your own family background.

DAVID MILIBAND: Yeah, I mean, and maybe people have an image of a refugee that doesn’t summon up someone with a blue shirt and a red tie on, but the—speaking with a British accent. But I was born in safety in the U.K. in 1965, but both my parents were refugees from—my dad from Belgium, from Nazi-occupied Belgium, in 1940, and my mom survived the war in Poland, came to the U.K. as a refugee in 1946. So, I don’t want to exaggerate the sense in which today’s crisis is a parallel of previous crises, but there are very similar issues.

And the most fundamental issue is whether those who are not persecuted have a duty to those who are. It’s, I call it, the duty to strangers. And it seems to me that the best lessons of human history are that when the duty to strangers is exhibited, it builds not just a more moral planet, but also a safer planet. And what we’re seeing today, ironically, in a world that’s more connected than ever before, is that it’s a world that’s—the danger is it’s defined by walls, not by connections. And I think that goes to the heart of the political crisis, as well as the policy crisis, that exists at the moment.

AMY GOODMAN: How would you characterize President Trump’s policies? I mean, you were born in Britain, but you now work here in New York.

DAVID MILIBAND: Yeah, I live and work—

AMY GOODMAN: And you head the International Rescue Committee.

DAVID MILIBAND: I mean, people don’t know this, but the International Rescue Committee was founded by Albert Einstein, one of the most famous refugees in this city, never mind this country, in some ways an emblem of what refugees can bring. So, I now lived and worked in the U.S. over the last four years.

And I think that global leadership has been abandoned or, in Richard Haass’s words, abdicated. The sense that America established itself not with a high moral tone, but with a set of principles and values that would be enshrined, not just constitutionally and legally, but also in policies, that has been abandoned. And I think the question facing the country is whether or not that is going to be consolidated in the next three years or whether it can be reversed, because the truth is that if you carry on reducing the number of refugees who are allowed here at the current rate, if plans to reduce the international aid budget are followed through, then there will be a double whammy, really, on the world’s most vulnerable people.

AMY GOODMAN: On Capitol Hill, a slew of lawmakers have joined members of the Congressional Black Caucus in backing a resolution to censure President Trump over his racist comments in which he reportedly called African nations, El Salvador, Haiti “s—hole countries”—but he said the curse. Several Democratic lawmakers have announced they’ll also skip the State of the Union address on January 30th over Trump’s racist remarks. Can you talk about what he said? It’s not only calling people from these countries—Botswana recently asked for a clarification, they want to know if they’re in the “s—hole” category—but using that word, but also saying we want more immigrants from Norway.

DAVID MILIBAND: Well, I think that the way I would put it is that, really, the presidency has been dragged into the gutter by not just the language, but the thinking behind it, because, as you say, Botswana—every African country is asking, “Well, does that include us?”

I mean, it’s true that the countries that produce the most refugees are war-torn. They are conflict-ridden. But some of them are courting conflict as a result of a resource curse, not a poverty curse. If you think about a place like the Democratic Republic of Congo, in some parts of its history the undemocratic republic of Congo, that is—the conflict there is on—it’s because of the resources that exist in that country, not because of the poverty that exists in that country, the conflict over mineral resources. And I think it’s really important that the people were condemned, as well as the country. And that’s the most pernicious aspect of what was said.

My point would be that this has a domino effect around the world. When the Jordanian government is hosting 650,000 refugees, when the Lebanese government is hosting a million refugees, when the Kenyan government has a million Somalis, the worst forces in those countries are going to be citing President Trump in their defense.

And I think that there is a profound question both about how the country governs itself internally, but also what sort of role it wants to play externally. The interesting thing—one interesting thing about the Trump administration is, both its domestic and its international agenda come together on this issue.

AMY GOODMAN: One of the things that we recently played, just at the top of the show, your clips about—of the defining of refugees as terrorists, and your point that, in fact, it’s the opposite.

DAVID MILIBAND: No, these are people who are fleeing terror. I mean, you cited Syria in your introduction. People should know, the war in Syria isn’t over, but it’s being prosecuted not primarily by the American government, but by the Syrian government. Two hundred thousand Syrians in the northwest of the country have been driven from their homes by a bombing campaign in the last six weeks, six or seven weeks. And so, these are people who are the victims of terror. Some of them get good press coverage. Some of them, the coverage of the appalling stories of Yazidi women being chased from their homes by ISIS, they get a sympathetic ear. Others get a less sympathetic one. But my point is simple: People who have known the price and the cost of terror, they become the most patriotic and productive citizens when they find refuge here.

And I think there’s one other point that’s important, as well. America is making a small commitment to resettlement. The great bulk of refugees stay in countries close to those at war. And that doesn’t include the U.S., notwithstanding what’s happening south of the border in the Northern Triangle of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras. People are fleeing gang violence there. We shouldn’t forget that. But one of the most pernicious parts of the Trump narrative, President Trump’s narrative, is that somehow America is bearing an undue burden of the world’s problems. That isn’t the case when it comes to humanitarian and refugee issues.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about President Trump shutting off funding, something like $65 million, to UNRWA, to the U.N. Palestinian refugee agency, and the significance of this, what this means for Palestinians?

DAVID MILIBAND: Well, obviously, the Palestinian population is the longest-standing refugee population. It was only after the Second World War that the refugees were given any rights in international law, after the foundation of the state of Israel, Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, in Jordan, elsewhere in the Middle East. UNRWA—including in Gaza.

UNRWA, the United Nations agency, provides, above all, for children. It’s, above all, providing support through education for kids. The $65 million, you’re right, that’s been granted, is the first part of a three-part delivery of American aid to support this organization. And it seems to me very important that we don’t lose sight of the people on the receiving end of this. You have 1.8 million people in Gaza. Half of them are children. You’ve got Palestinian refugees elsewhere in the region. And the message that’s being sent is a rejection to them and their condition. And it seems to me it goes to the heart of what the country should be standing for. And at a time when the U.N. is needed more than ever before, the last thing that the U.N. needs is one of its most effective programs to be—have the rug pulled from under it.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to a Gaza resident. They’re saying that soon they could starve, unless international donors step up to fill the funding gap left by President Trump.

FATHIYA ABED AL-JAWAD: [translated] We will be lost. It will be a catastrophe. People will be stealing from each other. We will live in a catastrophe. We will suffer to provide food and wheat. People will kill each other.

NAIM HAMAD: [translated] What should I do? Should I go sell one of my kids or sell my kidney? What should I do? Should I go and steal or work as a spy? I need cooking oil, yogurt, eggs and bread.

AMY GOODMAN: In Cairo, the Arab League met Wednesday for a two-day conference, where leaders condemned the Trump administration for cutting funding to UNRWA and for recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. David Miliband?

DAVID MILIBAND: Yeah, look, the crisis in Gaza is a subset of the wider Middle Eastern crisis, the wider crisis of what’s called the peace process, but there is no peace process in respect of the Palestinian issue. And I was in Gaza in 2012, before I started this job. I went to visit. And the fact that half the population is under the age of 18 is ignored in so much of the coverage. This is a very tightly confined area. I think that there are mechanisms in place to make sure the people don’t starve, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t grave need there, and also, frankly, grave danger of radicalization, because, for the first time, there are now reports of ISIS organizing in Gaza. And the equation between immiseration and extremism is well documented. And so, both for moral reasons and for strategic reasons, I think this is a misbegotten policy.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what you think is the solution to the refugee crisis.

DAVID MILIBAND: Good. I’m glad to get a chance at that, because it’s easy to spend all the time thinking—65 million people displaced by conflict and persecution, they’re displaced for an average of 10 years, half of them are in urban areas—and one could almost think that there’s just endless suffering and no solutions. In my book, I point out that in addition to the refugee resettlement issue, for the most vulnerable cases, three things are absolutely key for refugee populations.

First, since half of them are kids, have of refugees are kids, education needs to come center stage. Traditionally in the humanitarian sector, education has been seen as a luxury. It gets only 2 percent of global humanitarian funding. Actually, education is a lifeline, not a luxury, for refugee children.

Second, refugees need to be allowed to work. Sixty percent are in urban areas. For the adults, they need the chance to contribute to the societies that they are living in. The countries that are hosting them, though, like Lebanon, Jordan, Kenya, they need international economic support. And organizations like the World Bank need to step up.

Thirdly, the traditional image of a refugee is someone who’s been given a tent or a fleece or food. The thing that refugees need more than anything else is cash. They need the ability to participate in the local market economy that they are living in. And some of our work at the International Rescue Committee shows that if you empower refugees, you also bring benefit to the local host community, because, of course, in the countries that are hosting refugees, the local population is under enormous stress, as well. There are towns and cities across the Middle East, across Africa, whose population doubles as a result of a refugee influx. Uganda, a country with only $1,000 per—income per head, per person, has received a million refugees in the last year. You wouldn’t know that. They’re not building a wall, but they need support to help encourage those people to be able to contribute to the Ugandan economy.

And it seems to me that if you take seriously the education, the employment, the cash support, you can redesign the humanitarian aid system, so that instead of simply helping people survive from one year to the next, it’s actually giving them the chance to lead a dignified life.

AMY GOODMAN: So, the issues that you raised—you talked earlier about so many refugees come from war-torn countries.

DAVID MILIBAND: Almost, by definition, all of them do. I mean, there’s a small number who are persecuted for political reasons, but the vast bulk of the refugee flow is because of wars, in Syria or Somalia or South Sudan.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what about those who vote for war? For example, you were a politician before you were head of the International Rescue Committee, a Labour parliamentarian, MP, in Britain. Didn’t you vote to authorize the war in Iraq?

DAVID MILIBAND: I did. And the story of Iraq is a terrible tale. In a phrase, the war was won, but the peace was lost. There were no weapons of mass destruction. I document and I speak very openly about this in the book, without any reservation.

But I think that it’s important to understand that the crisis of diplomacy that exists at the moment is real. You know that the Trump administration is proposing to cut 30 percent from the State Department. What did I spend my time doing as foreign minister? I spent my time preventing a war in the Balkans, in the former Yugoslavia. I spent my time trying to stop the slaughter in Sri Lanka, where Tamil residents were caught in the north of the Jaffna Peninsula. There’s a crisis of peacemaking that stands at the root of the refugee crisis today. And it seems to me that it’s that that we need to speak to, in a very thoroughgoing way.

AMY GOODMAN: If you could cast that vote again?

DAVID MILIBAND: Of course I wouldn’t cast it for the—in the same way. I’ve said that very publicly and very clearly.

AMY GOODMAN: Right. So talk about that. Talk about what led you to do it and what was the new information you have, what you realize now, and what advice you have to politicians today who are making decisions in these areas.

DAVID MILIBAND: Well, these are hard decisions. In 2003, the main issue for the U.K. Parliament was that there were significant levels of undocumented weapons of mass destruction that the Saddam regime had built up since 1991. Hans Blix, the U.N. inspector, produced a 175-page report documenting the way in which the—Saddam Hussein’s regime had failed to dispose of the weapons of mass destruction that had been developed after 1991. Everyone thought they were there. It turned out they weren’t there. So the heart of the mistake was in respect of that—of that criteria.

I think there’s a wider point, too, though, which is that the war in Afghanistan was not over in 2003. And it’s still not over today. And it seems to me that there has been a real political failure, both in Afghanistan and in Iraq, in developing institutions that are credible and legitimate institutions for the sharing of political power. And the biggest lesson I draw from the last 20 years is that countries that establish legitimate and credible systems for sharing political power, even in a fragile context—so, Lebanon would be a good example. Every Lebanese community has a stake in the government. There’s not been a census since 1931. It’s a very fragile country, but every community has a stake in power. And the country hasn’t been at civil war since 1990. The countries that don’t establish credible institutions for sharing power—Afghanistan, Iraq—those are the ones that fall into failed states.

AMY GOODMAN: But would you say that the greatest driver of the refugee crisis, these wars, the longest war in U.S. history, Afghanistan, and Iraq, are really what broke the Middle East?

DAVID MILIBAND: Well, I think that you would say that there are two things. One, the war in Iraq is certainly part of that. But the drive of Middle Eastern populations, of Arab populations, for accountable government, for decent levels of freedom, those have been the impulses that have propelled Arab youth onto the streets, not just in the Arab Spring, but before, and not just Arab youth. Just to take the Syrian example, there’s obviously been a civil war in Syria since 2001—in 2011. It started with a boy in Daraa being persecuted, then tortured by his own government. But in 2005, 250 Syrian intellectuals were demanding accountable government.

And I think that there’s a danger in thinking all of this comes from Western policy. Don’t ignore the people on the receiving end. And the truth about significant parts of the Arab world is the absence of accountable government, the absence of opportunities for women, the absence of opportunities for young people. Remember, 60 percent of the Arab world is under the age of 30. It’s the lack of those opportunities that is driving the challenge to government authorities in the region. And you’ve seen that most recently, remarkably, in Iran.

AMY GOODMAN: Would you describe President Trump as racist and anti-Muslim?

DAVID MILIBAND: Well, I think that the racist statements have been very clear. And I think that the most important thing now is that the voice of America is not simply the voice of President Trump, it’s the voice of the millions of people who listen to your show, because around the world—there’s a poll that’s out today— America’s reputation has never been lower. I’m not an American; I’m a British citizen, but I live and work here, as you said. And there are—there’s is a side of America that’s being lost. And that side is the side that when a refugee comes into a community—we resettle refugees across America, in 26 cities—when refugees arrive, in Dallas or in Houston or in San Diego, the American reaction is actually not to spurn them. It’s not to build a wall between them and their new neighbor. It’s actually to knock on the door and say, “Where are you from? How can I help you? Do you know the way the local schools work? Do you know the way the local health system works? We want to help you.” And I think that side of America needs to be heard, because, at the moment, the world is seeing only—it’s seeing another side.

AMY GOODMAN: David Miliband, I want to thank you so much for being with us.

DAVID MILIBAND: Thank you very much.

AMY GOODMAN: President and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, former British Labour MP, former British foreign secretary. His new book is Rescue: Refugees and the Political Crisis of Our Time.

This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor will be talking to us about what she describes as the white power presidency. When she first called President Trump a racist, months ago, in a speech at Mount Holyoke, she got death threats. She continues her charges. Stay with us.

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