David Miliband, the head of one of the world’s largest humanitarian aid groups, has called on western governments to meet their moral responsibilities amid the massive exodus of refugees from Ukraine, singling out the UK for its restrictive visa policy which he called unjustifiable and “quite wrong”.
In an interview with the Guardian, the former British foreign secretary warned that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was likely to cause “much, much more suffering”. He said the lightning speed of the refugee exodus, with 1 million Ukrainians having fled the country in just one week, had added to the trauma.
The International Rescue Committee which Miliband directs is operating on the ground in Poland where the rapidly intensifying refugee crisis is focused. He called on European countries to step up and agree a refugee resettlement framework that could meet the scale of the disaster, and urged the US to play its part by reclaiming its historic leadership on asylum after the decimation of the Trump years.
But he reserved his sharpest words for the British government and its relatively restrictive approach to Ukrainians fleeing Russia’s brutal attack on their country. Under growing pressure, Boris Johnson’s government has increased to 200,000 the number of Ukrainian nationals it will allow to enter, but the visas are conditional on applicants having direct ties to family or businesses in the UK.
“There’s no justification for saying that unless you have a link to the UK you can’t come in,” Miliband said. “We know that the vast bulk of refugees always end up in countries neighbouring those they flee, so what is Britain afraid of? The British people aren’t afraid of Ukrainians claiming refugee status, and the British government shouldn’t be afraid either.”
The UK’s relatively parsimonious response has set it apart from EU countries including Ireland which have introduced a visa waiver scheme. Miliband accused the UK government of lagging behind other European states.
“We are clearly lagging behind when it comes to the financial aspects of London’s role as a place where Russians have brought money. We are equally clearly lagging when it comes to the refugee question, with Britain allowing a very low number of refugees in.”
He added: “We are putting up walls against Ukrainians at a time when there is national unity deploring the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and that’s quite wrong.”
With the Ukrainians putting up fierce resistance that has bogged down Vladimir Putin’s all-out assault, there are signs that the Russian president is turning to even more brutal military tactics. Miliband said the Russian president was attempting a “pulverisation” of Ukrainian cities that was “an absolute horror show”.
“We’ve seen this move before in Aleppo and Grozny. It’s not just heartless, it’s ruthless and unflinching and a hell of a lot of people are really going to suffer.”
The fundamental lesson of the crisis, he said, was that the refugees fleeing Ukraine were from all walks of life. “They are journalists, charity workers, teachers, business people, housewives, physical trainers, accountants, pensioners – people who a week ago were leading perfectly normal lives are now on the run.”
He praised what he called the “extraordinary waking up of Europe over the last week” that had produced rare unity on the refugee question that previously did not exist. “It’s vital to capitalise on that. Europe is not going to be overwhelmed by Ukrainians even if 5m of them come through.”
But there were aspects of Europe’s response to the Ukraine crisis that the IRC chief said warranted reflection. He was struck by the contrast between the European unity currently on display in welcoming Ukrainians and the disunity and hostility shown towards Syrian and Afghan refugees on the Belarus-Poland border last year.
“There’s no question that governments in Poland and Hungary took a very negative view of European responsibility towards Syrian refugees. But my point is, let’s build on the present unity.”
Miliband also lamented the treatment of African, south Asian and Middle Eastern people, many of whom are students, who have been abused and attacked as they attempt to escape Ukraine and cross into Poland. “These reports are worse than disturbing, they are appalling. Discrimination against people who are fleeing is directly contradictory not just to international law but to everything this crisis summons about a clash of views.”
In the US, the Biden administration has granted permission for Ukrainians who entered before 1 March to stay and work for 18 months under a scheme known as temporary protected status. Miliband praised Biden for taking a more positive stance following Donald Trump’s savage cuts to the refugee programme.
But he called on Washington to step up as part of the global response to the humanitarian catastrophe. “The US needs to be part of that. The streamlining and modernization of its refugee resettlement process needs to go forward at full speed.”
Miliband was UK foreign secretary between 2007 and 2010. At that time Putin, for term-limit reasons, had stepped down from the Russian presidency to be prime minister though he remained in effective control.
His years as Britain’s foreign policy supremo have led Miliband to reflect on the strong sense of what he calls “victimhood” that he believes is held by Putin and his inner circle. “It’s hard to exaggerate the extent to which the Russian political elite have got it into their heads that they have been stabbed in the back.”
Victimhood had become fused with a second toxic emotion – contempt for the west, he said. Together, they fuelled Putin’s desire to turn the clock back to the immediate post-Soviet era of 1990 when greater Russia was the dominant hegemonic power in eastern Europe.
“The attempt to turn the clock back by 30 years is also going to influence the next 30 years,” he said. “If indeed president Putin has overreached and summoned a rebirth of the spirit that saw the fall of the Berlin Wall, that’s very significant and will have global consequences.”