‘We Can Stanch the Dying, but We Can’t Stop the Killing’

The International Rescue Committee’s David Miliband explains how humanitarian aid groups are managing a historic refugee crisis.

By , the editor in chief of Foreign Policy.
David Miliband, the president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, speaks onstage during the 2021 Concordia Annual Summit in New York City on Sept. 22, 2021.
David Miliband, the president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, speaks onstage during the 2021 Concordia Annual Summit in New York City on Sept. 22, 2021.
David Miliband, the president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, speaks onstage during the 2021 Concordia Annual Summit in New York City on Sept. 22, 2021. Riccardo Savi/Getty Images for Concordia Summit

Since Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an invasion of Ukraine in late February, the humanitarian crisis there continues to worsen. Images of dead bodies lining the streets of Bucha, a suburb of Kyiv, have shocked the world and led to new and increased sanctions on Russia. But that hasn’t stopped the war, as reports suggest Russia may escalate fighting in parts of eastern Ukraine.

Millions of Ukrainians have been forced to flee both internally and to neighboring countries in what the United Nations is calling the world’s fastest-growing refugee crisis since World War II.

To better understand the situation on the ground, and how aid agencies are trying to help civilians in trouble, I spoke with David Miliband, the president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee. He’s also a former foreign secretary of the United Kingdom. The following conversation was conducted for FP Live, Foreign Policy’s forum for live journalism, on Tuesday, April 5. It has been lightly edited for clarity.

Since Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an invasion of Ukraine in late February, the humanitarian crisis there continues to worsen. Images of dead bodies lining the streets of Bucha, a suburb of Kyiv, have shocked the world and led to new and increased sanctions on Russia. But that hasn’t stopped the war, as reports suggest Russia may escalate fighting in parts of eastern Ukraine.

Millions of Ukrainians have been forced to flee both internally and to neighboring countries in what the United Nations is calling the world’s fastest-growing refugee crisis since World War II.

To better understand the situation on the ground, and how aid agencies are trying to help civilians in trouble, I spoke with David Miliband, the president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee. He’s also a former foreign secretary of the United Kingdom. The following conversation was conducted for FP Live, Foreign Policy’s forum for live journalism, on Tuesday, April 5. It has been lightly edited for clarity.

Ravi Agrawal: David, millions of Ukrainians have been displaced. Give us a sense of the situation on the ground.

David Miliband: There are three categories of people. First, those who’ve left Ukraine as refugees. The latest numbers I saw from UNHCR were actually 4.1 million or 4.2 million people who have crossed borders. Second, those who are internally displaced in their own country, and that’s more or less double the number who are refugees. Third, the people who are armed in cities under bombardment. Now that number is going down. But for those who are trapped, the length of time speaks to really terrible suffering.

Each of those three groups—the refugees, the internally displaced, and the people under bombardment or in cities in conflict—have got different humanitarian needs.

RA: What are organizations such as yours focused on the most right now?

DM: Well, we’re focused on three things. First and foremost, to try to help people survive, and that means health care, and it means water and sanitation. Above all, after a time, it can mean food as well. Secondly, we’re focused on cash support because that’s the most efficient and effective way of helping people survive but also helping them continue some form of livelihood. And then thirdly, we are very focused on child protection, women’s protection—vulnerable groups who are either facing extra needs because they’ve lost their parents, in the case of kids, or they’re at risk of being exploited, in the case of women.

In European countries, notably in Poland, Moldova, and Germany, we’re working with local authorities on some documentation issues. In all parts of the crisis, we’re trying to make sure that refugees are informed. This is a tech-enabled population, and we are using products to try to help make sure there’s trustworthy information for people who are caught up in the crisis.

RA: Just how prepared is the world to handle what is going to be a historic influx of refugees across Europe?

DM: Europe has no excuses, really, for not dealing with the refugee flow well. To be fair, the decision of the European Union on that first weekend of the crisis to offer three years of residency, work permits, access to social services, and education to refugees was very well done.

There is a real danger of aid diversion away from other crises, and there’s obviously a bandwidth issue. The next round of COVID-19 is not far away, and there’s not much attention to that. The Afghan malnutrition crisis is real. The figure I’ve got is that the World Food Program is expected to feed 22 million people. The Yemen malnutrition crisis is very real, and obviously there are spikes in food prices, never mind interruptions of food supplies, which is a very significant global impact of this situation.

I think there is a well-founded fear that people far away from Ukraine will be paying the price of the crisis.

RA: What else can countries do at this point to try to help? Some countries are being more willing than others to accept refugees—I think Poland clearly has been at the forefront. Your own country, the United Kingdom, has not been so generous so far in terms of being willing to take in more refugees.

DM: I think it’s clear what needs to be done. Number one, support for the countries that are hosting the vast bulk of the refugees, most of whom are in Eastern Europe, including in Moldova, which is not a member of the European Union. Secondly, we’d like to see the non-EU European countries, such as the U.K., Switzerland, and Norway, stepping up in the same way that the EU countries have. The U.K. has not stepped up. More than 200,000 British families have offered to take in a Ukrainian refugee family, but most of them are not having their willingness to help be used because the U.K. government is not offering enough visas. And it’s created a very bureaucratic process that’s left a lot of people trapped.

But obviously, the needs inside Ukraine are not those of refugees. Those are people who are either trapped in the fighting or who are sheltering in their own country. That’s why the cross-border aid commitments that the United States and others have made are important and need to be sustained.

RA: Is there a sense of disappointment among the aid community right now that not only are large parts of the world not condemning Russia by name but they’re not pulling their weight as much as they could in this crisis?

DM: Well, we’re a humanitarian agency that is independent, neutral, and impartial in its work. Equally, when we see an invasion, we call it an invasion because that’s not being partisan. That’s just a fact. And the fact that the world is divided about this crisis is obviously something that anyone who’s in the humanitarian movement sees danger in and worries about.

The tilt in the balance toward impunity and away from accountability is something that’s infected war zones around the world, and it’s going to take a long effort to document and to indict those responsible for these crimes because that’s the only way in which accountability is brought into the minds for the future.

There is a real danger that geopolitics overwhelms the universal rights that every country that’s a signatory to the U.N. Charter has signed up to. The U.N. Charter is a document that every country is supposed to support, and at the heart of the U.N. Charter are two principles: The civilians who are caught up in conflict should be protected, and the sovereignty and territorial integrity of states should be respected. And that’s obviously not happened in this case, and the fact that there isn’t unanimity in defense of those principles is obviously deeply concerning.

RA: We can’t control how this war ends. But in as much as we can control some variables, what are the things you would like to see in the next month to give Ukrainians the best chance to survive?

DM: We can stanch the dying, but we can’t stop the killing. That’s the distinction that you are speaking to now. We can stanch the dying in a number of ways. First of all, it’s very important that there be an international clamor about the evidence that’s emerging of the persecution, the killings, the almost sadistic denial of the basics of life and in some cases literally the killing of people. That seems to have been going on, and there should be a clamor about that because this represents the capstone on the edge of impunity.

Secondly, it’s very important that the rights of civilians in besieged communities and those who are on the run inside the conflict theater be upheld, that those needs are met, and that there is U.N. leadership, but then there are local NGOs supported by organizations like mine that can reach those people because there are life-and-death issues there.

And then obviously, for those who’ve reached safety and whose lives are not at risk but are refugees, there’s misery even if there’s not a threat to life. And part of the job of those in Europe is to make sure that that misery is addressed. Ditto in the United States, where President Joe Biden has announced that 100,000 Ukrainians will be allowed into the country. That’s good. But it’s one thing to say that they can come in, and it’s another thing to have a system to get them in. And that hasn’t been done yet. There is a global responsibility here.

The final point I’d make is that it’s very important not to forget the other crises happening around the world, and you’ve been very clear in your questions that you don’t want to. I thank you for that. If anyone wants to know more, I hope they’ll visit Rescue.org. There’s room for people to take action as well as to offer financial support.

Ravi Agrawal is the editor in chief of Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RaviReports

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