Africa

David Miliband wants work rights for refugees

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Media captionWATCH: David Miliband on a new plan to tackle the EU refugee crisis

"Hellish," he tells me. And I am struck by the force of his language.

This is the former British foreign secretary speaking - a man used to couching his language diplomatically when he talks of foreign lands.

But this time, David Miliband, now president of the International Rescue Committee, doesn't even try to hide it.

He is talking about a place in Kenya, with a population of approximately 330,000 - roughly the size of Leicester. But this is no triumphant city, it is a transit camp.

And as Mr Miliband describes it, it is getting on for the worst place on earth.

Dadaab was set up in 1992 to deal with a temporary crisis - an influx of refugees fleeing war-torn Somalia.

That was nearly 25 years ago, but there are now three generations living in this sprawling site. All they pray for is that their children will get out of it.

This, clearly, was never the idea. I ask him if it's a sign the humanitarian system has failed and he admits it's time for a new deal - one not for the faint-hearted.

"The new deal, the new bargain is that a small number of people - probably up to 10% of the most vulnerable refugees - are relocated to the West," he tells me.

"But then the large majority of people, the only real hope for them is to become productive residents of the countries that they've fled to."

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption A child at the huge Dadaab refugee camp
Image caption A woman walks her goats through the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya.

Dadaab refugee camp:

  • World's largest refugee camp in northern Kenya, approximately 100 km from the Kenya-Somalia border.
  • Set up in 1992 to house families fleeing conflict in Somalia.
  • Home to approximately 330,000 people, some of whom have been living there for more than 20 years.
  • Some 58% of residents are under the age of 18 years.

UNHCR: Dadaab

Image caption A woman rests in Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya.

His new deal - in other words - is that we allow them to work. We give those that flock to our countries residency and we end the whole concept of the refugee camp. It is radical, and politically fraught - it is a huge ask.

He agrees: "That's a massive call on the countries concerned, but if we can ensure they get international financial support and build up their economies then it becomes a chance to avoid situations like Dadaab."

Could it work?

Would any state would open their doors to a steady influx of people knowing they could all settle and work?

I ask the President of the World Bank, Jim Kim, if it is really workable.

Image copyright TONY KARUMBA
Image caption The Dadaab camp is the biggest in the world

"We're doing this now in Jordan but there's no question there are resentments," he says.

"In Lebanon what we are hearing from local communities was that Syrian refugees were getting these food carts ... and there were hungry Lebanese right next to them who were getting nothing.

"So we replicated the food programme for Lebanese residents. If you can resolve some of these issues of resentment, then I think it can be a good solution."

"If". A lot hinges on whether that resentment could ever be resolved.

But you don't look for solutions that are so controversial unless the situation is desperate and that is the point here.

When I heard David Miliband talk of "a new deal" I assumed he was talking in hyperbole.

The New Deal, as any fan of American history will tell you, was President Roosevelt's way of rescuing an entire country on its knees after the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Make no mistake, this problem is no less great in magnitude. There are currently 60 million displaced persons around the world.

The average time someone remains a refugee is 17 - not weeks, not months but years.

A total of 80% of refugees have remained without any economic status for over a decade.

That is a huge number of wasted lives and a huge drain on a host country's economy and its taxpayers' money around the world.

No-one is pretending there are easy - or even particularly palatable - solutions to what is possibly the biggest problem of our time.

But the World Humanitarian Summit kicks off in Istanbul later this month. Expect to hear more of this kind of radical thinking.

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