THE SHEER NUMBERS ARE STAGGERING: 65 million people worldwide are currently displaced from their homes. Twenty-five million are displaced outside of their home countries, while 40 million are internally displaced. Less than half of them returned to their homes last year.

But according to David Miliband, president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, the current refugee crisis is remarkable for other reasons.

“The most striking thing about the refugee crisis is not its size,” Miliband said during a recent discussion at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS). “It is its nature.”

Nicholas Burns and David Miliband discuss the global refugee crisis.

Miliband explained that while the traditional approach to aiding refugees involves short-term stays in camps, 60 percent of the world’s refugees are now living in urban areas, where they can expect to remain for years. The traditional policy prescriptions don’t always work in such cases, Miliband noted. He spoke with Nicholas Burns, Roy and Barbara Goodman Family Professor of the Practice of Diplomacy and International Relations, about the work of various countries in accepting refugees.

Miliband also addressed the challenge of breaking down the crisis into smaller pieces.

“You get your head around it by stripping out the numbers and focusing on the people,” he said. Miliband spoke about small communities of refugees in Syria who need help with very practical elements of their day-to-day lives. “If you think about cash for refugees, education for kids, employment for adults: those are manageable policy propositions,” Miliband said. “They are not impossible to deliver.” 

Burns asked Miliband about American involvement in the crisis, noting that the United States has a history of welcoming refugees, even from countries it has opposed in conflicts, such as Vietnam. Miliband pointed out that American and international agencies are doing their best to resettle displaced persons and meet humanitarian needs, but agreed that the Trump administration has diverted from the United States’ longstanding refugee policies. He praised Germany for its recent acceptance of refugees, and emphasized the need for other nations, including his own, to join in.

“You can all volunteer and make a difference where you are,” Miliband told audience members who expressed concern about the refugee crisis. He ended on a hopeful note, quoting a film crew he had worked with on a project in the Congo: “If you look at the statistics, you become depressed, but if you talk to the people, you are hopeful.”

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