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Former British Foreign Secretary Calls For End To Refugee Camp System


Another week of migrants and refugees drowning while trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea, which may lead to another summer of the same. David Miliband argues that it is time for a dramatic shift in how the world handles refugees. He is a former British foreign secretary and heads the nonprofit International Rescue Committee and joins us to discuss this idea. Welcome to the program.

DAVID MILIBAND: Good evening.

SHAPIRO: You argue for getting rid of refugee camps altogether. Explain how that would work.

MILIBAND: My argument is that the refugee crisis is not just one of scale - 20 million refugees last year by the last count - but also of the fundamental purpose and nature of the humanitarian system. The humanitarian aid system was built to deal with short-term displacement. And so people were kept in camps - the idea was for a limited member of years - and then they'd go back home.

What we face now is that the average civil war in Somalia or Afghanistan can last for 25, 30 - the actual average is 37 years. And that means we have to rethink the camp model. As it happens, many refugees - about 60 percent - are flocking to urban areas anyway, but those that are left in camps, like the largest camp in the world, Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya with 360,000 people - it's not a future for people there if we're expecting them to be there for another 25 years.

SHAPIRO: How do you actually incorporate hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people into an already densely occupied place like Nairobi or like Istanbul?

MILIBAND: Well, Istanbul, to take that as an example - it's a city. There's about 2-and-a-half million refugees in Turkey, and Istanbul has about 400,000 refugees. They have flocked there from Syria. And obviously there's an economic challenge.

And the best methods of refugee integration are pretty simple, really. You ensure that their kids get taught the local language so they can go to school. The adults get the opportunity to work. And the city gets support for its infrastructure - its housing, its schools, its water services. So it's a basic deal that, in return for hosting large numbers of refugees outside camps, there are work permits to allow them to contribute to the local economy, and there's international financing to make sure it's a win-win for the local population as well as for the refugees.

SHAPIRO: You also suggest giving refugees cash rather than the typical kind of humanitarian aid that has been the practice up until now. Explain how that would work.

MILIBAND: Obviously the images that you see on television are of refugees being given a tent to sleep in or being given a fleece to keep them warm in winter or a new pair of socks. All the evidence is that when refugees are displaced for a long time, they need more. And we've measured the impact of giving a dollar to Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

And the remarkable fact is that it doesn't just empower the refugees to choose what they want to spend on. It also generates over two dollars for the local economy, and refugees can be seen as residents, not just as people who are dependent on handouts.

SHAPIRO: The kind of dramatic shift that you're describing requires something close a global consensus and certainly buy-in from countries that currently have refugee camps. How likely do you think that is?

MILIBAND: I think your reference to a global consensus is really important, and there are three core elements that are really fundamental to getting this right. First and most obviously, as long as civil wars are raging in Somalia, Afghanistan, Syria, you need proper peacekeeping, proper peacemaking, proper diplomacy.

The second thing that's very important is that refugees and those displaced by conflict get proper help, including opportunities to work for heads of household, including women-headed households.

The third thing - it can't just be left on the shoulders of the poorest countries in the world. Countries like the U.S., countries in Europe, Canada - that so-called resettlement of refugees, the most vulnerable refugees - into the world's richest countries is an essential part of a full-spectrum approach to this global problem.

SHAPIRO: David Miliband, thank you very much for your time.

MILIBAND: Thank you very much.

SHAPIRO: David Miliband is the head of the International Rescue Committee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.