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International Rescue Committee head on Ukrainian refugee crisis and what we can learn


I'm Ari Shapiro in Poland near the border with Ukraine. The refugee crisis here has entered a new phase. The flow of people has changed direction. Every day for about the last week, more people have been entering Ukraine than leaving, according to Poland's border guard.

David Miliband is head of the International Rescue Committee, and he joins us to talk about the Ukrainian refugee crisis and the global response. It's good to have you here again.

DAVID MILIBAND: Thank you, Ari. It's really good to talk to you.

SHAPIRO: When I was at the Polish border crossing two months ago, 1,500 people were entering Poland from Ukraine every hour. And yesterday, I went back there and saw a line of cars and trucks almost 10 miles long going in the other direction. So what does this one local statistic mean more broadly for the refugee crisis right now?

MILIBAND: Well, I think that the simple answer is that the war isn't over, but the war has changed. When you were in Poland two months ago, it was still the case that Ukrainians across the country feared that their whole country would be taken over by the Russian invasion, that a new puppet government would be put in and that no one would be safe anywhere. Now, the Russian offensive has been driven back, and the Russian forces are focusing in the east and in the south of the country, especially in the southeast of the country.

In other parts of the country, there's, relatively speaking, safety. The economy's functioning. And people want to go back to see their relatives, to see their houses. And what they are worried about is not a Russian invasion, but a Russian missile strike.

SHAPIRO: One thing that makes this refugee crisis different from any other that I have reported on is that there are no refugee camps. Ukrainians are not living in tents on the border. How has Europe avoided that?

MILIBAND: The answer from Europe has been very, very striking. It's to say every Ukrainian is guaranteed three years residence in Europe, three years work permits in Europe, three years access to social services, including education. Every Ukrainian is guaranteed access to welfare benefits. And what they've then done is said, government is playing its part. We appeal to the European population to house these people on the short-term basis and then facilitate their entry into rented housing for the longer term.

From my point of view, this is very positive because although refugee camps often typify the image of a refugee, they're not the main experience. Most refugees are in urban areas, not in camps. And for those who do go into a camp, how many times have you and I heard the camp is set up on a temporary basis, and then people are still there 20 years later? And I describe refugee camps as funeral homes for dreams. And so I think the fact that the Europeans have avoided creating new cities as refugee camps I think is very positive.

SHAPIRO: Do you see a double standard because the way that Poland has welcomed Ukrainian refugees is such a contrast to the walls and roadblocks that Poland and other countries put up to Syrians, Afghans and others? Even today, African students who were studying in Ukraine when the war broke out tell me they have been treated poorly in Poland.

I met a Nigerian student named Shakira who was getting her master's degree when the war began. Now she's living in a shelter outside of Warsaw, and this is what she said to me.

SHAKIRA: We've been here for, like, going two months. You're stuck in between. You know, you can't go forward. You can't go backward. The law should favor us also. We are not Ukrainians, yes, but you should understand that we are there when this war happened.

SHAPIRO: David Miliband, do you think Ukrainians are being treated differently as refugees because they're European, because they're white?

MILIBAND: Yes, they are, and that's quite wrong. It's actually formalized, which is that the European commitment that Ukrainian refugees can have the three years of work, residency, etc. - that's not true if you're not a Ukrainian. And, of course, globally, rights to work, rights to residency are much prized but not often given in the way that they have been.

And I think it's - there's a bigger bit of politics here because although 141 countries around the world did condemn the Russian invasion in the U.N. General Assembly, 50 countries also didn't. And they are countries that compose the majority of the world's population - so China, India, South Africa, Indonesia. And one of the reasons that they didn't want to condemn the Russian invasion is that they saw double standards. They saw, quote-unquote, "hypocrisy" in the way that the refugees from Ukraine were being treated compared to the way other refugees are being treated.

And so I think there is both a moral argument, a legal argument, but also a geopolitical argument that this needs to be a learning moment for the way the world recognizes that a refugee is defined not by their nationality, but by their status. And that's what it says in law, and that's what should be played out, especially by richer countries who have no excuse, frankly, for the discrimination that exists.

SHAPIRO: We talked about the reasons it's helpful not to have refugee camps. On the flip side of that, having people dispersed and scattered means it's more difficult to offer medical care, to offer education, to offer some of the things that everybody who's dislocated needs. How does the international community respond to those challenges, which are in some ways unique to this refugee crisis which does not have people centralized in one place?

MILIBAND: Well, it's true in other refugee crises that if you go to Beirut in Lebanon, Lebanon won't have any refugee camps for Syrians because of their - they know the history of what happens with refugee camps. They had refugee camps set up in the late 1940s for Palestinians, and they're still there 70 years later. So we have a lot of experience in the international aid sector of the upsides and the risks of the dispersal that you describe.

Now, my own view is that in Europe, it's not difficult actually to get the health care because they have universal, publicly funded health care. Mental health is a massive issue. There's actually provision of services there.

Now, you mentioned education. That is a challenge. The International Rescue Committee, my organization, we have a lot of experience in 1,000 German schools helping Syrian refugee kids integrate. That takes additional help for teachers, additional support for the kids, additional support for the other kids who suddenly find, my God, there's 10 more people in my class.

But I think that our experience now is that there is good practice for how to do this dispersed integration effectively. And the Ukrainians are clear, just like many other refugee populations, they want to go home when it's safe. The trouble is they don't know when it's going to be safe. And that needs to be respected.

SHAPIRO: As you've laid out, there are open-ended questions and needs that still have to be met. That said, how would you compare the success of this refugee effort to other crises that you've been involved with?

MILIBAND: Well, we can compare it, first of all, in funding. And effectively, seven, eight times the amount of funding per head has been available for Ukrainians as for Syrians or Afghans or South Sudanese or Rohingya fleeing from Myanmar. Secondly, I think the organization has been facilitated by the fact that Europe's a very rich continent by global standards. Globally, it's poor countries that host refugees, not rich countries. Eighty-five percent of the world's refugees are in lower-middle income or poor countries. So Europe's been able to rally because it has the infrastructure to do so.

So I think this response needs to set the benchmark for the way the world needs to respond globally. That's the lesson - that anyone who tells you an exodus of people is unmanageable is wrong. It's manageable if you're committed and organized and funded to do so, and that's, I think, the real lesson of this crisis.

SHAPIRO: David Miliband is the head of the International Rescue Committee. Thank you for talking with us today.

MILIBAND: Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
Ayen Deng Bior is a producer at NPR's flagship evening news program, All Things Considered. She helps shape the sound of the daily shows by contributing story ideas, writing scripts and cutting tape. Her work at NPR has taken her to Warsaw, Poland, where she heard from refugees displaced by the war in Ukraine. She has spoken to people in Saint-Louis, Senegal, who are grappling with rising seas. Before NPR, Bior wore many hats at the Voice of America's English to Africa service where she worked in radio, television and digital. Bior began her career reporting on the revolution in Sudan, the developing state of affairs in South Sudan and the experiences of women behind the headlines in both countries. In her spare time, Bior loves to kayak, read and bird watch.