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How should Europe deal with its deluge of refugees?

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    European Union officials say that the number of refugees and migrants fleeing to Europe reached a record high of more than 107,000 last month.

    The surge has reached Hungary's southern border, where more than 2,000 people, most from Syria, crossed into the country yesterday and today, even as the government erected a border fence to stop the flow. They are coming by boat, by foot, and even by special trains, in an effort to reach Northern Europe. Germany alone is expecting as many as 750,000 asylum-seekers this year.

    Joining me now to discuss the dilemma facing those fleeing and the countries they are escaping to is former British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, now president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee.

    Thank you for joining us, Mr. Miliband.

    Why — how did European countries get so overwhelmed so quickly?

  • DAVID MILIBAND, Former British Foreign Secretary:

    Good evening. It's good to be with you.

    I think that the European crisis is a refugee crisis, fundamentally. Over 90 percent of the people who've arrived in Greece, which is in the front line of this crisis, have come from Syria and from Afghanistan. And the simple fact is that, when civil wars become long-term crises in countries like Syria and Afghanistan, people are going to flee for their lives, which, after all, is the definition of a refugee.

    I'm afraid Europe's attention has been on the euro crisis and also on the crisis in Ukraine with Russia, and this refugee crisis has crept up on them. Just this month, 50,000 people have arrived in Greece. And we have got teams from the International Rescue Committee on Lesbos, where 2,000 people or so are arriving every day, and, frankly, the authorities are being overwhelmed.

    And that's why they need help from humanitarian organizations. And so there's a massive…

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Pardon me.

    Can we talk definitions for a moment? Because you're using the term refugee. Some people call them migrants and some people term them asylum-seekers. Is that an important distinction?

  • DAVID MILIBAND:

    it's very important.

    In your introduction at the head of the show, you used the phrase that other European leaders have used, which is a migrant crisis. And I would dispute that. A refugee, defined by the international conventions established after the Second World War, is someone who is fleeing a persecution. They have a — quote, unquote — "well-founded" fear of persecution.

    A migrant is someone who is seeking a better life basically for economic reasons. And I think it's very important to continue to uphold the distinction between the two. The asylum-seeker that you refer to is really a refugee who is applying for asylum in a country in which they land.

    So the fundamental distinction is between refugees, on the one hand, who are fleeing persecution and have very significant rights under international law, and those who are economic migrants who are seeking a better life.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Can we talk about how these European countries have handled this? In Hungary, a fence went up. And we saw what happen. It didn't end well, hundreds, thousands perhaps of people trying to get across, many of them coming from Syria.

    And now we saw today Germany, on the other hand, is saying that Syrian asylum-seekers can come into the country. How are European nations handling this, not all the same way?

  • DAVID MILIBAND:

    Let me put this into proper context.

    Last year, there were about 20 million refugees in the world. The United States, so far from the Syria conflict, has taken less than 1,000. In Europe, we have got, as you said in your introduction, German officials expecting 750,000 people to arrive. And we know from the studies that have been done, that 300,000 people have crossed the Mediterranean into Europe just this year. And that's primarily from Syria and from Afghanistan.

    So that gives you a bit of a sense of the relative proportions here. The European Union, it is an agreement of 28 nation-states that constitute about 500 million people. So that gives you a sense that, although this has become a political crisis, it's not yet an economic or social crisis that outstrips the wealth or the history and traditions of the European Union.

    And I think it's very significant that two leading German politicians today, the vice chancellor of Germany, Sigmar Gabriel, the foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, they fundamentally condemned the European response as being, in their words, inadequate. And they have set out a plan both for increased European diplomatic activity upstream in things like the Syrian conflict, which has suffered terribly from the lack of international diplomatic attention, but also a more coordinated European action to share out the European burden across the 28 states of the European Union, which I think is well-merited as well.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Should the — should Britain follow suit and do what Germany has done?

  • DAVID MILIBAND:

    Britain should certainly be a part of a fair distribution of the European refugee burden.

    Britain, alongside many other European countries, has an extraordinary and rich tradition of being open to people from around the world who are fleeing persecution. My own family has benefited from that during the 20th century. And I think it's very important that, when one looks at the scenes in Calais, there's quite a dispute or discussion going on between Britain and France over 3,000 to 5,000 people who are currently camped in Calais and are resorting to extraordinary measures to get into the U.K.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Trying to go through this tunnel between the two — trying to get through the tunnel, which we have reported often, yes.

  • DAVID MILIBAND:

    Exactly, to try to get through the tunnel.

    One has got to see that in the context of the fact that have got 300,000 people crossing the Mediterranean. And I do want your viewers to get a sense of the absolute horror that is confronting the aid workers from the International Rescue Committee and elsewhere.

    We have just this — today helped seven people who had been swimming for seven hours because their boat sank in the Mediterranean as they crossed, tried to cross into Greece. Five of the people who left the boat with them died on the way.

    The degree of trauma and horror that is occurring on your shores is something that I think generations of Europeans felt and hoped that they had put behind them. This refugee crisis is something that obviously Europe needs to contend with, but, frankly, it needs a wider international response, given Afghanistan, Somalia and Syria as the prime sites from which people are fleeing.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Can we talk about what the European Union's responsibility should be, when you talk about these countries standing shoulder to shoulder? Is it settlement? Is it sanctioning smugglers? What should be the first steps? And how do you get them all agree to do the same thing?

  • DAVID MILIBAND:

    Well, I think there are two things that are absolutely vital here.

    One is action upstream, if you will, which is partly the diplomatic effort to make sure that peacekeeping in Somalia is properly done, that there's a proper diplomatic effort in Syria, but also upstream, that neighboring states, so the neighboring states to Syria, in other words, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, they get proper humanitarian help there, so that there's proper dignity and support for refugees in those countries, ditto for refugees in Africa fleeing from the Somalia conflict in Kenya and Ethiopia.

    If you don't tend to the problem upstream, the flow will overwhelm downstream. Downstream, the second thing the European Union needs to do is properly to share out the burden, properly to assess who are the refugees, as opposed to the economic migrants, and properly to ensure they uphold the most basic standards of humanity and dignity for those who are fleeing literally for their lives.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Do those countries that these refugees are traveling through to get to their ultimate goal, do they have the resources to provide the resettlement, help, absorb the flow?

  • DAVID MILIBAND:

    It's a really good point, and the short answer is no.

    I was recently visiting Niger, which is one of the transit states in Central Africa through which people pass from Nigeria and elsewhere to get to the North African coast and then travel to Europe. Those — the neighboring states for the great conflicts of the world, the neighboring states of Syria, the neighboring states of Somalia, the neighboring states of Nigeria, the neighboring states of Afghanistan, none of them are getting the kind of humanitarian intervention and help that can help insulate them from the problems.

    U.N. appeals — just to take cash as one example, U.N. appeals are getting 35 percent to 40 percent funding. And there is a very simple reason for that. The world has never known a situation where there are 20 million refugees, 40 million internally displaced people from civil wars that seem to have no end.

    And it's high time that the scale of disorder that is convulsing significant parts of the world gets not just political and diplomatic attention, but also a much greater humanitarian effort, because, frankly, there is a moral imperative to save people fleeing for their lives. But there's also an instrumental one as well, that these problems wash up on our shores if we don't deal with them at root.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    David Miliband, president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, thank you very much.

  • DAVID MILIBAND:

    Thank you very much.

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