The Global Refugee Crisis: Challenges for International Relations and the Humanitarian System
COMMUNIST PARTY OF CHINA CENTRAL PARTY SCHOOL
SPEECH BY RT HON DAVID MILIBAND, PRESIDENT AND CEO OF THE INTERNATIONAL RESCUE COMMITTEE
BEIJING, 1 NOVEMBER 2019
"It is a pleasure to return to the Party School. The last time I came here I was privileged to represent my country as UK Foreign Minister. Today I lead an independent humanitarian Non Governmental Organization (charity), headquarted in New York, delivering services to displaced people and host communities in forty countries around the world.
An NGO has independent governance with a Board of Directors that is not part of the government. Our founding principles in doing humanitarian work include impartiality, neutrality and independence, alongside humanity. We receive funding from different governments for specific projects. We also raise funding from private individuals, foundations and corporations. We hire the vast majority of our staff locally. So in North East Syria today we have around 580 staff. In Afghanistan 1100.
I have been here in Beijing this week at a meeting of the North Pavilion Dialogue convened by former State Counsellor Dai Bingguo. In addition to meetings with senior government officials I have also been lucky enough to to benefit from engagement with university students and teachers.
I was keen to have this discussion here at the Central Party School not just because China is a significant country and the Party School is significant institution, but because China’s stance in and towards the multilateral system is going to be so important in the coming years. We live at a time of growing international interdependence, yet in many countries there is a lure of thinking local rather than global. That threatens to leave a vacuum in the international system, which will be damaging for global stability as well as human welfare.
Nearly three years ago President Xi said at the World Economic Forum in Davos that “mankind has become a close-knit community of shared future,” and that “we should adhere to multilateralism to uphold the authority and efficacy of multilateral institutions”. These were important statements of principle. They spoke to the idea of a connected world where each of our actions affect not just ourselves but the prosperity and security of others.
There’s no going back to a unipolar world (if one ever existed). There is a new distribution of economic power in the world. And there is no one direction for internal political systems. We discussed at the North Pavilion Dialogue that the future may not just be “multipolar” but a “multiverse”. But whatever you call it, the need for new thinking based on careful listening and close cooperation is all the more important.
My aim today is to use the test case of humanitarian effort to support the world’s displaced people to illuminate not just the policy questions facing those of us concerned with the plight of people dependent on humanitarian aid (80 per cent of whom are in need because of conflict), but also to make links to questions of international relations that were my previous responsibility in government. Humanitarian needs arising from conflict, involving matters of international law and state responsibility as well as individual life and death struggles, are a good test case for the future of the multilateral order.
Global Refugee Crisis: Symptoms and Causes
There is a lot of talk about public goods. I would argue that proper care and attention to the extreme humanitarian needs arising from conflict and symbolized by the plight of record numbers of refugees are a classic public good. There is a global benefit not just a private one when those needs are properly met. The human security of refugees sits alongside economic security and ecological security as a public good that requires international coordination and creation.
The work of my organization is to focus on helping the victims of conflict around the world. These are people caught up in war, for example in Afghanistan. They are people who flee from war but remain in their own country. These people are called internally displaced. There are around 40 million such people today. And these are people who are refugees.
As a reminder, a refugee is someone for whom it is not safe – for reasons of ethnic, social, political, religious characteristics – to be sent back to their home country. These people have rights in international law defined by the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees. There are nearly 30 million refugees or asylum seekers today.
These people represent not just humanitarian need. When their needs are not met they represent a source of political instability.
Nearly 90 per cent of refugees are now in poor or lower middle-income countries like Jordan, Bangladesh, Kenya or Pakistan – not in high-income countries. Most of these individuals live in cities like Nairobi or Amman, not refugee camps.
Refugees are displaced for 10 years on average, but for many refugees, this number is even longer. The average length of a conflict today is 37 years. And less than 3 per cent of refugees go home every year.
The causes of this situation are multiple, but one feature stands out. The international political system is less effective in resolving conflict than at any time since the end of the Cold War. This reflects political division, and the weakness of traditional diplomatic tools, designed to regulate relations between states, in resolving conflicts within states.
The war in Syria reflects this most clearly. If you think about the inability of the UN Security Council to pass even the most mundane of statements about Syria, most recently in the light of the Turkish invasion of North Eastern Syria, and the way the UN process has been sidelined in peacemaking, you see in microcosm how record numbers of refugees are being generated today.
This looks like a long term trend. And it will be exacerbated by another long term trend. We know climate change is not a future problem. It is a contemporary problem. We also know that in addition to the direct impact of more extreme weather events, and the movement of people, it is an indirect contributor to conflict through the way it exacerbates resource stress.
Issues for Policy Makers
The issues for policy makers are both narrow, in terms of treating the symptoms of humanitarian emergency, and broad, in terms of addressing deeper causes. As China takes greater responsibility on the global stage it will be an important player, an increasingly important player, in both.
The good news is that we have good evidence about how to have maximum impact in treating the symptoms of humanitarian distress. China can add its policy and research power to an already strong global consensus.
- We know that giving aid in the form of direct cash, as opposed to food rations and physical supplies, allows people in humanitarian need to decide what is most important to them and their families, and gives them back some degree of control over their own lives. This is particularly important for refugees living in cities, which the majority now do.
- We know that refugees want to be able to work, and that requires macroeconomic support for the already strained states hosting most refugees. In Uganda, which allows this, 78 per cent of refugees need no aid and nationwide only 1 per cent are completely dependent on aid.
- We know that half of the people caught up in humanitarian need are children, but just 2 per cent of humanitarian aid goes to education. School-aged children are supposed to get 200 days of school per year, but each year 3.5 million school-age refugees get zero days of school. So we need massive new investment in education services to help provide a lifeline to a stable future.
- And we know that for the most vulnerable refugees, particularly families with young children, we need to provide a path for resettlement in safe, stable countries. But last year less than 1 per cent of the world’s refugees were resettled. America is cutting back, which we deplore. But it also doesn’t help that many other powerful countries, including China, do not resettle refugees either.
The broader agenda is more difficult, and requires that we address questions of international relations not just public policy.
The conflicts that are generating humanitarian crisis today are intra-state conflicts often with external sponsors. The tools of inter state diplomacy are not well suited to these needs.
These conflicts often involve non state actors, sometimes of an international nature. There is no consensus on how to handle them and their demands.
These conflicts are marked not just by length but by virulence as it affects civilian populations. From 2011 to today there has been a six-fold increase in annual battle deaths, with 2014 and 2015 being the deadliest years on the battlefield since the end of the Cold War. Children are particularly at risk: 142 million children live in high-intensity conflict zones (places with more than 1,000 battle deaths). And there were nearly 1,000 attacks on health facilities and health workers last year. I call this the Age of Impunity.
The conflicts may start local but their effects are regional, as refugees flee and arms and instability flow.
In this context, humanitarian needs arising from conflict, with their roots in political and diplomatic failure, and their capacity to generate social and economic instability, are a prime case where the international system needs to respond in an effective and coordinated way. China is emerging as a major player on the global scene, and is thinking through its role and responsibilities in the global system. I would argue that there are five big questions that need to be addressed in this area.
The first is that the UN Sustainable Development Goals, of which China is a supporter will not be met by 2030 unless there is major change in the way we address the poverty of victims of conflict. At the moment over forty per cent of the extreme poor, living on less than $1.50 a day, live in conflict or fragile states. By 2030 it will be over 60 per cent. And in the large majority of these countries the plans to meet the SDGs are off track
So as a contributor to the UN system China has to decide its priorities for action.
Second, at the moment the humanitarian and development systems of the UN operate in separate silos. This makes no sense when the countries have both humanitarian emergencies and development needs. That is why there is a reform movement to try and join humanitarian and development work. When children are treated for the trauma of war, that is emergency response and investment in the future.
So China has choices about where to support reform. For example, many countries benefiting from the Belt and Road Initiative are also home to humanitarian emergencies. I am thinking of Pakistan for example. It hosts over two million refugees from Afghanistan. It would be a major contribution to bridging the humanitarian-development divide if the power and resources of the BRI were used not just as an engine of development but also to tackle humanitarian need.
Third, the most vulnerable are refugees with no home. I have explained how resettlement is under attack. There is a Global Refugee Forum coming up in December. It needs to take concrete actions. We know the US resettled nearly 1000 Rohingya refugees who had fled Myanmar to Bangladesh.
So imagine the symbolic power if China did the same.
Fourth, we know that gender inequalities are multiplied many times over in humanitarian situations. Women are subject to violence. Girls are subject to early marriage. Yet very small amounts of the humanitarian aid budget are dedicated to these issues, and there are no effective targets for protection of women and girls.
So China could join the growing number of countries committing to tackle gender inequality as part of its aid and foreign policy (what countries in the west are calling a feminist policy because of the way it challenges structures of power that generate inequality).
Fifth, and most difficult, there is the challenge to international law from the impunity increasingly evident in conflict situations. In some cases they constitute war crimes under the Geneva Conventions. This should be of concern to China as well as to the West.
- International law is the foundation of international stability. When laws of war are breached, it sets a bad precedent.
- Impunity increases refugee flows, which is itself a source of instability.
- Impunity makes it harder to stop wars, because the bloodshed makes compromise more difficult.
- Impunity by state actors blurs the lines between states and non state actors in ways that can only undermine legitimate exercise of authority.
The whole point of global rules is that they’re applied to all countries regardless of their domestic system of governance. The laws of war, international humanitarian law, the refugee convention: These aren’t American laws. They’re not capitalist laws or communist laws. They are international laws. And achieving win-win solutions to global problems requires us to all uphold our shared international laws.
This raises a number of difficult questions:
- For example states often claim that they are only targeting terrorists when there is conflict within a state. This is the situation in North West and North East Syria today.
- States can often claim that the conduct of war within the boundaries of their own state is not the business of anyone else, even when outside actors are involved. This is the situation in Yemen today.
- The facts are sometimes hard to assemble, not least when there is a deliberate attempt to obscure them.
But there are some truths that we do know. We know that if belligerents in a conflict think they can get away with anything, they will do everything. But when they know that they will be held accountable it is a discipline on their behavior. Just ask yourself why there is such a strenuous attempt to deny that UN investigations, for example of war crimes in western Syria, not ascribe responsibility.
So while the symptoms of the refugee crisis call for policy coherence across the international system, addressing the causes calls for a shared political agenda. I am under no illusion that this is hard to forge. But it is precisely because it is hard that it is worth trying.
China could occupy a distinctive place in this conversation. It will face competing impulses, between defending the international order in the way President Xi described in Davos, and adhering to its long-held commitment to non-interference in internal affairs. But that is precisely why this conversation is worth having.
China’s rise has clearly brought extraordinary benefit to the people of China. It is the product of hard work and strategic choices. But as countries grow, and they become more integrated into the global economy, they generate new responsibilities. China is addressing its responsibilities in the multilateral system at a time of unprecedented challenge, and so its decisions will have outsize impact on the lives of people around the world. That makes this discussion well worth having."