Telling Political Refugees and Economic Migrants Apart

by Alison Spencer

On October 17th, 2018, IES and GHI West welcomed David Miliband (former UK Foreign Secretary and current President and CEO of the International Rescue Committee) to the Berkeley campus for the Annual Bucerius Lecture, “What is in a Category? Telling Political Refugees and Economic Migrants Apart.”  Addressing an audience of over 150 at the Alumni House, Miliband discussed the work of the IRC, an organization devoted to global humanitarian aid and development, and offered his perspective on the current state of the global refugee crisis.

To begin the lecture, Miliband addressed the increasing complexity of the worldwide displacement crisis as a result of new political and economic reasons for people to leave their home countries. Today, one out of every 110 people on the planet is a refugee. Last year, less than two percent of refugees returned home, and sixteen million people were newly displaced. Additionally, roughly half of refugees are children under the age of eighteen. Unlike Europe, where there are two separate migration issues that are coming together in a complicated way, the US conversation on migration has until recently been more neatly divided between economic immigrants coming from Latin America and East/South Asia on the one hand and refugees being resettled in the country, largely from the Middle East and Africa. Yet several events, leading to a muddled distinction between immigrants and refugees, have resulted in the need to figure out how to differentiate between the two groups and clarify their rights and our responsibilities to them.

Miliband argued against the dilution of the definition of refugee, as established by the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention, contending that altering this definition would lead to a corresponding dilution of rights for both refugees and immigrants alike. He also placed considerable importance on shifting host countries’ perspectives from the idea of refugees simply surviving while waiting to return, to thriving in their new location, as there is a significant probability that refugees will not return home.

One of several areas of focus for the IRC and international community, Miliband highlighted, is the need to spend more on educational programs for refugees, given that roughly half of displaced people worldwide are children. Another is the prioritization of family reunification, for the wellbeing of children and families. Countries, he emphasized, should also strive to make the arrival process of refugees more efficient. This amount of time ranges by country, from 8-10 weeks in Germany to four years in the United States. This inefficiency leads to vulnerability, as refugees waiting for a decision on their applications for asylum are more vulnerable to trafficking.

The event concluded with a lively discussion moderated by Jutta Allmendinger, President of the WZB Berlin Social Science Center.

Photo: From left: Simone Lassig (Director of German Historical Institute in Washington DC), David Miliband, Jutta Allmendinger, Axel Jansen (Deputy Director, German Historical Institute), Michael Goring (CEO, Zeit Stiftung Ebelin und Gerd Bucerius)