SALT LAKE CITY — David Miliband admits refugee numbers can be daunting — 25 million refugees worldwide and another 40 million internally displaced. But the International Rescue Committee president and CEO breaks them down to what he calls “the human scale” — numbers Utahns can better understand and relate to.
“In Salt Lake City this year, the IRC will resettle about 470 people — not 470 heads of households, but 470 people — and a good half of them will be kids,” said Miliband, underscoring the importance of them getting an education, learning English, finding friends, obtaining work and establishing homes.
Or like the number one, as in a single individual — 26-year-old Claude from the Democratic Republic of Congo, one of the most recent recipients of local IRC aid.
“He was fleeing on the grounds of ethnicity from Congo — he was fleeing for his life,” Miliband said. “He has landed in Salt Lake City, and he’s got a job a the Cheesecake Factory as a dishwasher, and he’s going off to work his way and make the American dream.”
Putting the refugee numbers in perspective, he added: “If you look at statistics, you get depressed; if you look at the people, you have hope.”
Miliband was in Salt Lake City earlier last week, meeting with staff, donors and community leaders at IRC’s local office as well as with LDS Church representatives.
Perhaps better known as a former British Labour Party cabinet minister, he’s the first non-American to lead the 83-year-old IRC, which first was founded by request of Albert Einstein and now has dual purposes as an international-aid organization in 40 countries as well as a refugee-resettlement agency in 28 cities across the United States. He served as the United Kingdom’s secretary of state for foreign affairs from 2007 to 2010 and was a member of the British Parliament from 2001 to 2013 before taking the IRC post.
Feeling a kinship of sorts with the millions his organization seeks to serve, the 52-year-old Miliband was born in London of Jewish parents who were World War II era refugees. His father, at age 16, fled with his father from the Nazi’s 1940 invasion of Belgium, catching the last boat out of Ostend. Miliband’s mother survived the Holocaust in occupied Poland, sent by her mother to England in 1946 on one of the so-called “orphan voyages,” he said.
The International Rescue Committee's international efforts range from deploying 1,200 staff members inside Syria as well as emergency teams in hotspot countries such as Yemen and Libya to responding to the four countries where the United Nations has declared famine or a threat of famine — South Sudan, Yemen, Somalia and northeast Nigeria. In those four areas, IRC is coordinating efforts on nutrition, health care and protection of women and children.
In the U.S., IRC has forged ahead with refugee resettlement despite the increasingly polarized debate over the past year and a half. The organization has 800 U.S.-based staff and 5,000 volunteers across the country — “including 1,200 volunteers here in Salt Lake City,” Miliband added.
“I’m really proud of the professionalism, dedication and commitment those staff have shown in an atmosphere of political polarization,” he said in a interview with the Deseret News. “They’ve remained steadfastly nonpolitical, steadfast on our informal motto, which is ‘making the world better one life at a time.’ And they’re focused on each refugee arriving here.”
Miliband saluted The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its members for “respecting all individuals irrespective of creed or color” in both institutional efforts as well as individual volunteering and support.
“We consider the LDS Church a really important partner of ours locally in making Salt Lake and Utah a real beacon of what it means to make diversity a strength,” he said, adding “I would say we have a growing partnership with the church. As we get to know each other better, as we build confidence and trust, we’re doing more together.”
Last fall, the LDS Church provided the International Rescue Committee a $750,000 cash and in-kind donation, one of two September disbursements totaling $2 million ito help with refugee resettlement across the country.
Also last year, the IRC and Catholic Relief Services hosted President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, second counselor in the LDS Church’s First Presidency, when he visited two refugee camps outside of Athens, Greece.
Miliband said a key benefit of the IRC-LDS collaboration is that the International Rescue Committee deploys staff and resources fast and effectively, serving critical areas where other relief organizations haven’t yet reached.
“That kind of cutting-edge, front-line work is only possible because of the kind of partnership we have with organizations like the LDS Church,” he said.
He also expressed pleasure and appreciation for the local donations of time, goods and money that the church has made to IRC’s Salt Lake City office. “It means that there are refugees making a successful start to their American lives.”
Refugee resettlement in Salt Lake City is one thing; the extreme crisis in Syria is quite another, given that nation’s 5.5 million refugees and another 7 million internally displaced. IRC operations provide health care, education and cash assistance not only in Syria but with aiding refugees in neighboring countries like Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey.
Calling Syria “a poster child for the relentless abuse of civilians and aid workers,” Miliband adds that the Syrian crisis also breaks many myths about refugees. He answers this "myths."
• Western countries like the U.S. or Britain are bearing an unfair share of the refugee load. “Wrong,” he said. “Ninety percent of refugees are in poor countries, not rich countries. Lebanon, which has a total population of 4.5 million, has got more than 1.5 million refugees, so it’s like a quarter of its population now.”
• Refugees are all in refugee camps. “Lebanon said it doesn’t want any more refugee camps. It says refugee camps become funeral homes for dreams, so they want these people to be ready to contribute to society, but also to go home.”
• Refugees are coming to America without being properly vetted. “I just heard of a family — 16 interviews they had before they were allowed to come to Salt Lake City,” he said.
• Refugees are a burden. “No, these are people who are fleeing from Syria who are middle-class people — accountants, fitness trainers, car dealers, lorry drivers and factory workers,” he said. “They’re people who have got an education from the country — they consider themselves middle class, and they’ve lost everything.”
Looking at the future of the refugee crisis, Miliband said he’s not optimistic about the causes of displacement. “They are long-term, and they are not going to get turned around. I think this refugee crisis is a trend, not a blip,” he said.
“But I am optimistic about human nature — the resilience of the people on the receiving end, the refugees themselves, and also that when you call people to conscience, you can rouse them to action.”