Differences in Islam play role in refugee crisis, says UK ex-foreign minister

International Rescue Committee Chief Executive David Miliband speaks during a Reuters Newsmaker event at the Thomson Reuters building in New York City on May 29, 2015. REUTERS / Mike Segar

LONDON (Reuters) – Civil wars crippling many Muslim states and fueling a global refugee crisis are driven in part by major struggles within Islam that cannot be ignored, former British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said on Wednesday.

This “implosion” in about two dozen Muslim-majority countries has forced people from their homes in “unheard-of” numbers, Miliband, now head of the New York-based humanitarian group International Rescue Committee, said in a speech.

Miliband spoke at the international affairs think-tank Chatham House in London, where he will take part in a major conference on Thursday that aims to raise billions of dollars from donors to respond to the Syrian crisis.

“More people are fleeing conflict, they’re fleeing conflict significantly in Muslim-majority countries, so the implosion in the Islamic world, in Afghanistan, in the Middle East, is driving it,” he said.

Venturing into what he called “tricky territory”, he added it would be dishonest not to report that his organization’s work was increasingly focused on crises in Muslim-majority countries.

“It seems to me there are big questions, big debates happening within Islam about the reconciliation of Islam to modernity, to democracy, of different segments within the Islamic tradition,” he said.

“To pretend that that’s not part of the story wouldn’t be right,” he added, without elaborating.

In several war-torn countries, militant Sunni literalists such as the Taliban and Islamic State are battling other Muslims who want the faith more adapted to the modern world or belong to a minority sect such as Shi’ism.

Miliband added his analysis did not apply to the whole of the Muslim world, citing Indonesia, the most populous Muslim-majority country, and Bangladesh as two examples of countries that did not fit into the narrative.

“It’s not right to pretend that all Muslim-majority countries are undergoing this implosion,” he said. “But I think if you look at the story in South Asia over the last 30 years and the story in the Middle East over the last 20 years, then that’s part of the story.”

Miliband said the Syrian crisis was a long-term issue, with large numbers of refugees likely to be living in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and other countries for many years, and this called for a change in the scale and nature of the response.

Refugees were increasingly living in urban areas, he said, where the fact they are not separate from the general population creates new demands very different from those of refugee camps.

Dozens of heads of state and government are due to attend the London pledging conference.

The United Nations estimates that $7.73 billion is needed to meet Syrian humanitarian needs this year, with an additional $1.2 billion required by countries in the region.

(Reporting by Estelle Shirbon; Editing by Tom Heneghan)

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