Resilience, Peace and Security

IRC's David Miliband: Ukraine, the humanitarian challenge and the  'reboot' refugee support needs now  

David Miliband, president and CEO of the humanitarian aid group, International Rescue Committee talked to Meet The Leader about the humanitarian challenge sparked by Russia's invasion of Ukraine and how the crisis highlights critical lessons about power and its abuse.

David Miliband, president and CEO of the humanitarian aid group, International Rescue Committee talked to Meet The Leader about the humanitarian challenge sparked by Russia's invasion of Ukraine and how the crisis highlights critical lessons about power and its abuse. Image:

Linda Lacina
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  • David Miliband, president and CEO of the humanitarian aid group, International Rescue Committee talked to Meet The Leader about the humanitarian challenge sparked by Russia's invasion of Ukraine and how the crisis highlights critical lessons about power and its abuse.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has triggered what experts have called the fastest growing refugee crisis since World War Two. Millions have fled to Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Hungary and a host of other countries in a matter of days, not months. And the numbers are continuing to rise.

Helping those cross the border or stay in Ukraine is also an unprecedented challenge, and one that David Miliband knows well. As president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, his global aid organization responds to the world's worst humanitarian crises.

“What our job is, as a humanitarian agency, is not just to help people live, not die - we want to help them survive, recover, and gain control of their lives,” Miliband said.

He took a moment to talk to Meet the Leader from the IRC's New York headquarters about the type of help groups like his are providing and how they're keeping up with growing needs.

Here's the transcript from the podcast where Miliband discusses the plight of the increasing number of displaced people as well as how the Ukraine crisis could shine a light on abuses of power generally, potentially helping the world steer away from what he calls 'an age of impunity'.

"It's not just 'a week when decades happen' - in this now hackneyed phrase of Lenin’s - but it's also got to be weeks when the next decades are structured," said Miliband. "This is a very significant geopolitical moment."

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Meet the Leader - Linda Lacina: To get us started, can you tell us a little about what your teams are seeing on the ground?

IRC - David Miliband: Well, the amazing thing about this war -- or one of the amazing things -- is that what is being told to people on the ground is being told to the world through social media and through conventional media.

Just to explain for your audience, we have teams based in Lublin [Poland] but also inside Ukraine.We are working through local partner organizations, because both on the European side of the border and in Ukraine itself, there's developed over the last 30 years -- and I suppose in Ukraine over the last 10 years -- really quite a vibrant civil society: NGOs, non-governmental organizations, as well as governmental structures. And our approach as a humanitarian organization is always to try to add capacity, but never to duplicate capacity. So since there are skilled people, there are people knowledgeable about the area we're, getting financial support to local NGOs that have got credibility and roots in the organizations. We're working with local governments on the European side.

So in answer to your question ‘What are our people seeing?’ They’re seeing terrible wounds of war. They're seeing trauma. They're seeing separated families. They're seeing kids who can hardly speak because of what they've left behind, left their fathers, or in some cases, brothers, behind. They've seen unspeakable cruelty and inhumanity and a bombardment, a pulverization of what three weeks ago was a society that any of us could recognize.

And what our job is as a humanitarian agency is not just to help people live, not die - although that's obviously fundamental - we talk about our mission being to help people whose lives are shattered by conflict and persecution and disaster - that certainly fits this category - we want to help them survive, recover, and gain control of their lives. On the Europe side of the border there's more opportunity to go beyond the mere survival.

"Our job is as a humanitarian agency is not just to help people live, not die. We want to help them survive, recover, and gain control of their lives."

David Miliband, President and CEO, International Rescue Committee

So kids getting into school, adults and families getting billeted with other families and even thinking about employment. That's the kind of expertise that we've developed as a refugee resettlement agency in America, the largest one in America.

And then inside Ukraine, we're much more focused on the fundamentals. Healthcare, I think is going to be a desperate need, a lot of non-communicable disease that's now with interrupted supply chains for pharma, etc. Water and sanitation - major issue with bombardment, and sometimes cutting off of water supplies, electricity supplies. We have a history of doing that work - we did some very important work in Sarajevo in the 1990s so we've got some expertise.

And we're working as part of, obviously, a global community that's been mobilized for this crisis at a time when there are many other crises going on. I think it's important to say that although the searchlight switches from Syria, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, the Sahel, we as an organization can't afford just to move all our resources because there are too many people in need in those other places.

Number of refugees from Ukraine crossing Central and Eastern Europe borders after Russia's invasion of Ukraine between February and March 2022, by selected country
Number of refugees from Ukraine crossing Central and Eastern Europe borders after Russia's invasion of Ukraine between February and March 2022, by selected country Image: Statista

Meet the Leader - Linda Lacina: Of the needs you’ve talked about -- what is the most critical?

IRC - David Miliband: There's no one case. You've got pregnant women who need some support. You've got people who haven't slept for three days and haven't eaten properly and so they need support. There are people who are in deep trauma and need trauma counselling. There are people who have suffered bereavement and haven't yet been through grief. They're still in shock. It depends on the needs. And you said at the beginning, you used an important word at the beginning, I think when you said it was the fastest refugee flow, I think that's an important point. It's not yet the largest refugee flow. 5.5 - 6 million people have left Syria. But this is the fastest refugee flow. Just by way of comparison, I think it's quite interesting that it took three months for a million people to flee from Syria in 2011. And it took a week for a million people to flee from Ukraine.

Partly because Ukraine's well connected, it's got railways, it's got roads that people are using. And now there are 3 million people who are at the border and the processing and the documentation has been stood up in very short time.

The countries of Eastern Europe have been extraordinarily open. Moldova as well - which is not in the European union - countries like Poland, obviously, but Slovakia 150-180,000 people. Not the richest parts of the European Union at all. So I think the only fair answer to 'what are they seeing, what are they hearing?' is: It depends.

Meet the Leader - Linda Lacina: With that very fast influx, how does that create extra challenges on a humanitarian organizations like your own to try to help these people at a rate that is unprecedented?

What the European authorities have understood is that building refugee camps for these people is to create funeral homes for dreams. That's not the right way to do it.

David Miliband, President and CEO, International Rescue Committee

IRC - David Miliband: I think that the important point to make is that people are fleeing to the world's largest, richest single market. And that is different than the refugee experience in most parts of the world. When a million flee from Myanmar to Bangladesh, when a million and a half South Sudanese flee from South Sudan into Uganda, when Syrians flee to Jordan or Lebanon, they're fleeing to low-middle-income or poor countries. The Ukrainian refugees have one benefit, which is they're fleeing to richer countries that have very significant state structures as well as non-governmental structure. So our role is different in a European, Polish, Hungarian, German, even Moldovan situation than it is in a Bangladesh situation or another situation.

What we know and what the European authorities have understood is that building refugee camps for these people is to create funeral homes for dreams. I mean, that's not the right way to do it. There's a real emphasis on fast processing, the immediate decision or the immediate decision of the EU 27 to offer three-years residence, three-years work permits, three-years access to services, really helps. But it's a hell of a thing to document process, and then locate 3 million people.

Now, a lot of Ukrainians, they're voting with their feet. They've got links in other parts of Europe. They've got a determination to go to different parts of Europe. Some of them want to go to the UK and I think that's very important.

I'm based in New York, but I'm a British citizen and the UK has been a laggard in this refugee response but is beginning to catch up. And those that want to go to the UK, they’re self-motivated. But for others, they were a fitness trainer or a teacher or a journalist three weeks ago, and now they're a refugee and there needs to be some kind of system to accommodate that and then to help provide some - I don't like to say burden-sharing - but responsibility sharing, because one important lesson of the Syria crisis is if you just allow a small number of countries to have the full responsibility it doesn't work very well.

Meet the Leader - Linda Lacina: The IRC has warned that women and girls are most at risk for exploitation and abuse during this time. Can you explain a little bit about why that is and what's being done to protect them?

IRC - David Miliband: Well, there's a global syndrome. It's an obvious point -so I apologize for making it - very stressful situations lead to more violence against vulnerable people, or women and girls being absolutely, open to exploitation. And there's a particular angle on it in this case, which is that the people fleeing in emergencies around the world are generally predominantly or majority women and kids. But in this case, the fact that there is conscription for 18-to-60-year-olds mean that it's not just a majority. It's all but exclusively women and girls, women and kids, who are fleeing. And so you've got a slightly different situation.

It's important to say as well - there's been some press coverage of this - there are 70- 80,000 students and foreign workers from Africa and South Asia, from India, Bangladesh in some cases, who are also fleeing, and some of their treatment has not been anything to, to defend, it's been discriminatory, which is obviously contrary to the whole principles of the Refugee Convention.

But the fears that we have of exploitation are sadly well-founded. But we're talking about a cohesive civil society in Ukraine. You've seen that in the stories that have come out. And in the west, people around Lviv really trying to support each other. And then in Europe, there's been a tremendous response and that's also a mitigating factor against the dangers of exploitation. But I think it's important to raise it as being a real issue.

Meet the Leader - Linda Lacina: There have been reports from local officials that humanitarian corridors are being fired uoon. Can you explain to people who might not be familiar what a humanitarian corridor is and whether people can get safely out?

IRC - David Miliband: Well, it's real Orwellian doublespeak this humanitarian corridor thing. You implied it was in quotation marks and I always say, ‘quote, unquote, humanitarian corridors’ because - what could they mean? A humanitarian corridor could mean a way for civilians to get out of the fighting safely. And it could be a way for aid to get into the fighting zones? And I do want to remind your audience that humanitarian aid for civilians in conflict is an international legal right, just as the right not to be killed if you're a civilian in conflict, it's also an international legal right.

Part of the impunity that we're seeing symbolized by the crossing of the border, the invasion across the border, but it's being compounded by the impunity in the tactics of war.

The idea of a humanitarian corridor -- which is that it helps people get out and helps aid get in -- has been corroded by experience, because in Syria, for example, people were led out of Ghouta and eastern Damascus, but they were herded into another part of the country where Al Qaeda groups are in control. And where all of the rebel held areas, populations, including a lot of journalists actually, have been pushed into that area. So corridor to where? And you'll have seen the press coverage about civilians fleeing Mariupol could go to Belarus or to Russia. Well, they don't want to go to Belarus or Russia. They want to stay in Ukraine. So: corridor to where? It has to be a corridor to safety, but it also has to be a place that people want to go to.

And as of now, there's been very little focus on the idea of a corridor or as an entry point into the areas that are being contested. I mean 400,000 people lived in Mariupol, less now, but not that much less: electricity cut off, food supplies cut off, desperate situation - a real besiegement, which is facilitated sadly by the geography with the water on one side.

When it becomes optional to obey international law when it applies to of life and death, it's a very short step to then making it optional in a whole range of other matters.

David Miliband, President and CEO, International Rescue Committee

I think that this humanitarian corridor question has become a substitute for obedience to international law questions. The denial of aid is a breach of international law and we need very strong bearing of witness to the breaches of these international relations.

My case over the last few years has been that we're witnessing an age of impunity. I spoke about this at Davos actually, just before COVID struck. And the apex of the international legal system is that if you're a civilian you have a right not to be killed. And if you're a civilian caught up in fighting, you have a right to aid. And if those rights are not protected, my argument is that's the tip of a very dangerous iceberg, or the thin end of a very dangerous wedge is maybe a better metaphor. Because when it becomes optional to obey international law when it applies to of life and death, it's a very short step to then making it optional in a whole range of other matters.


Meet the Leader - Linda Lacina: What sorts of resources do aid groups like yours or others need to keep up with this vast influx of people?

IRC - David Miliband: Well, I think that, that question is complicated by the breadth of need. I think that any of the figures that you see are being recast in real time. Because you can know what it costs to educate a child in Italy for a year. You can measure that in euros. And there are going to be a lot of Ukrainian kids in Italy who need education, ditto in Poland. The health needs, you can put various costings on it.

At the moment, the message is I'm afraid, is a very simple one, which is that while there are precise estimates that are mounting every day for the rebuilding costs of Ukraine - I saw a figure of 100 billion two days ago - when it comes to the humanitarian effort, organizations like mine are appealing for funds, both for Ukraine and for the other conflicts. Because we know that.the humanitarian aid budget - which just to give you a sense, is about $40 billion globally until the Ukraine crisis. And American GDP is 20-plus trillion dollars, European GDP 20-plus trillion dollars - so it's relatively small sums by those numbers. But UN appeals are systematically underfunded.

The Yemen appeal: 10%, 20%, 30% funded. Syria, etc. with a sort of exhaustion setting in even though the budget's rising. Overall, humanitarian needs have trebled in the last decade and humanitarian funding has doubled from a base that itself was too low. So that gives you a sense of things.

People are being generous. but the emphasis I'm putting is that in this Ukraine crisis, money is not the main problem. The main problem on the European side is organization of people. And the main problem on the Ukraine side is access. And money's important, but if we just raise the money but can't get into the besieged places then we're not going to be able to spend it.

And that I think calls for a wider discussion. I wrote in the New York Times about how there was a moral issue, not just a military issue, at stake in the Ukraine crisis.


Meet the Leader - Linda Lacina: In your mind, what's needed to bridge that gap between the organization piece and that access piece. Is it something that the international community can do, or neighboring countries? What is needed?

IRC - David Miliband: We've got to hold up the UN Charter and defend it. We need every UN official to be shouting about the UN Charter. We need every diplomat to be making absolutely clear this is a non-negotiable set of commitments that member states of the UN have made. We're talking about a member state of the UN and a permanent member of the Security Council that is the aggressor in this conflict. So let's just understand what the situation is.

And we need a bearing of witness. We need repeated political emphasis on the centrality of international law. We need extraordinary courage on the part of aid workers who are Ukrainians. They're not just people being jetted in. They're Ukrainian aid workers who we are supporting.

We need restraint from the combatants, from the Russian side fundamentally, because they are, at the moment, using tactics that are putting civilian life and aid supplies at risk.

Meet the Leader - Linda Lacina: You talked earlier about responsibility sharing. What is the role of leaders of any stripe, even business leaders, in that responsibility sharing? What should they be thinking about or doing?

IRC - David Miliband: I think that the response needs to be a trisector response. I mean, there's no possibility of responding adequately to this crisis, even on the relief side, if it's just a governmental response or just an NGO response. The private sector has a fundamental role to play.

I'll concentrate on the humanitarian effort in Europe. Look, there needs to be a trisector response and every business leader, I think has a dual responsibility. One is ‘what did you do in the war, Daddy?’ What's your company's response? There's been some very, very imaginative commitments. People in the housing sector, for example, helping facilitate the billeting of Ukrainian families. There's a short-term and medium-term response about what are you doing to support, not just through financial donations, but through your supply chains, through your business networks, to really try and help support the integration and relief of the people who make it out.

There's also a vital role for the private sector in helping think about what are you doing to help organizations that are trying to get people in and trying to get aid in? I said that we were going to be working very much on the medical side. There may be some telemedicine aspects to that, but there's also some pharmaceutical supplies elements that are going to be very important.

But then the second part of the responsibility for business is to understand - speak to - the fact that you can't pick and choose your rules-based order. You can't expect your property rights will be respected if human rights are not expected. There's a real connection here.

And when I spoke about the tip of the iceberg, or the thin end of the wedge, being that when civilians in conflict have their rights abused, and are killed, or have aid denied, that's of a genus, of a part of a wider syndrome where human rights and property rights are not properly observed. And what we know is the governments that come after human rights end up coming after property rights.

I think there's a bigger argument for business to make against impunity and for accountability, and business depends on the rule of law. And I would argue that business, shouldn't just speak to the importance of the rule of law for business - it needs to speak to the importance of the rule of law for society. Otherwise we have no traffic lights to run the global system.

Meet the Leader - Linda Lacina: When Syrian refugees poured over the border in Poland in 2015, there was a political backlash. What is different this time? What is happening to those refugees?

IRC - David Miliband: Well, I'm afraid that there's rather a sobering, answer to that question. I mean, the unity of the EU 27 on this is very striking and very positive. And the welcome for Ukrainians is very good, but you're right to call out that there wasn't a similar welcome for Syrians and fundamentally that's because of the ethnicity, their religion. Let's be honest about it. And Europe doesn't have a refugee resettlement framework agreed - the European Union. It doesn't have an agreed approach to handling of asylum seekers across all the member states. There’s a resettlement and migration package that's been negotiated for the last five years. The Biden administration has said it will take 125,000 refugees a year. It said this well before the Ukraine crisis. There's no similar commitment from the European Union for the most vulnerable refugees from the world's conflicts. Most refugees stay close to their country of origin, but for the most vulnerable they need resettlement. There's no such resettlement in Europe.

So what the crisis shows is that there's differential standards being applied depending on where refugees come from. And that's a fact I'm afraid.

Meet the Leader - Linda Lacina: The Ukraine crisis has brought a special visibility to displaced people, but 2022 already started with an unprecedented number of displaced people. And that number has been growing for years. How important is this moment to help people take this issue more seriously and maybe finally have a better understanding of what refugees really are and what they need.

This crisis is the capstone of the age of impunity. And either impunity continues to feed on itself in war zones and elsewhere, or the fight back starts now.

David Miliband, President and CEO, International Rescue Committee

IRC - David Miliband: Well, that's a good question. I think if I may say so, but I'm going to answer it in two parts because it's not just about refugees. I mean, to state the obvious, the reset that I will argue for about the refugee question is part of a wider reset that I think this crisis, may provide. The emergence of the European Union as a serious security power is striking. The resurrection of the transatlantic alliance is a very serious, and in some ways surprising consequence of this crisis.

So part one of the answer is that my view on the reset is that this crisis is the capstone of the age of impunity. And either impunity continues to feed on itself in war zones and elsewhere, frankly, or the fight back starts now. And the fight back is not just about the conduct of peace and war, it's actually about the abuse of power in a range of other areas. Because impunity is not confined to matters of peace and war. The abuse of power is something that's increasingly evident in many aspects of society. And democracy is itself a victim of the abuse of power. Democracies are themselves victims of abuse of power.

The decline of liberal democracy, according to all of the statistics -- Freedom House, Gothenburg Institute, Economist Intelligence Unit -- that is both a symptom of the age of impunity and the cause of the age of impunity. It’s very important to understand that.

From my point of view, the big picture is that President Putin has attempted to rewind the geopolitical clock to 1990. The rest of us have to rediscover this original spirit of 1989-90 which was about the accountability of power and the saying no to impunity, which is what the communist regime epitomized.

I think this is a very significant geopolitical moment where it's not just a week when decades happen in this now-hackneyed phrase of Lenin’s, but it's also got to be a week when or weeks when the next decades are structured.

And that's where I think the decisions are very, very big. And I think there is a bigger lattice work that needs to be constructed. Within that context, you're right to say there are record numbers of refugees, record numbers of internally displaced - refugees within their own country. Those 80 million people in total are the most vulnerable victims in a way of the system failure that exists: states abusing the rights of their citizens, diplomacy in retreat, 55 civil conflicts around the world, legal rights in retreat in the way that I've described, humanitarian and development system left stranded. The system needs a reboot - the system of refugee support for refugee-hosting countries, but also for the most vulnerable refugees in the ways that I've described also needs a reboot.

"I think this is a very significant geopolitical moment where it's not just a week when decades happen in this now-hackneyed phrase of Lenin's, but it's also got to be a week when the next decades are structured."

David Miliband, President and CEO, International Rescue Committee

And it's all about recognizing that in the same way that nuclear security, health security, environmental security are global public goods, the benefits of them can't be confined to a single player. So the hosting of refugees is a global public good. And it needs to be treated in that way.

Meet the Leader - Linda Lacina: Do you have a message for leaders looking to do their part, people listening, learning about these things on the daily? What is your message for people that they should be taking?

IRC - David Miliband: My message is that this is a vital moment, not just for Ukrainians, but for the rest of us. It's a moment when decades happen. It's a moment when voice and action is important, when trisector action is more important than ever. It's a moment when I hope people will visit the IRC website,, to learn more about what can be done, because I think there's there's a damaging sense of disempowerment that can exist in moments like this and I think part of the object of discussions like the one we've had is that people shouldn’t take an excuse in disempowerment. There's actually ways to have an influence. And it's a moment when we're called to do so.


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