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Humanitarian Relief Expert Calls Syrian Crisis 'Defining' Of This Century


For more on the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the U.S., I spoke via Skype with David Miliband. He's the president of the International Rescue Committee. He told me that the arrival of 10,000 Syrians in the U.S. is a cause for celebration, but it's still just a fraction of the millions of Syrian refugees around the world.

DAVID MILIBAND: Countries like Turkey have taken over 2 million refugees. A country like Lebanon or Jordan - Jordan, the second-closest U.S. ally in the Middle East, has over 650,000 refugees. The U.S. so far has taken only in the single-digit thousands and so has been left far behind countries like Germany and Sweden who have stepped up very strongly.

It's very striking that in Germany, Chancellor Merkel made a major commitment last year to open her doors to Syrians who were fleeing. It was obviously the source of some controversy, but the controversy is whether or not Germany should take 600,000 or 700,000 or 300,000.

SHAPIRO: So American officials would say that while the U.S. might not take in nearly as many Syrian refugees as other countries, the U.S. does far more than other countries to support Syrians near the border of Syria in the camps where they need aid and they need help. Do you think that providing support near the border is an adequate substitute for actually taking people in?

MILIBAND: It's certainly true that the humanitarian crisis needs to be tackled at source in the Middle East as well as at symptom. And the U.S. government has historically been a major donor to international humanitarian relief. However, European countries have now overtaken the U.S. as the largest humanitarian donors in the world.

We've also got to tackle the symptom, and refugee resettlement for people who are fleeing persecution is not just the right thing to do. It's a practical thing to do, as the 10,000 figure shows because the last thing the ISIS and other enemies of the U.S. want is for the U.S. to be a proper symbol of a multi-faith, multicultural community.

SHAPIRO: American political leaders - some of them have raised real concerns about the vetting process. A typical Syrian refugee goes through a two-year vetting process before arriving in the United States. Do you think it's possible to dramatically increase the number of Syrian refugees the U.S. takes in without in some way compromising that process?

MILIBAND: I think it is possible because you don't have to just take my word for it. Homeland Security secretaries who wake up every morning thinking about the security and safety of the U.S. have put their names to a pledge that this is a secure system that can weed people out.

SHAPIRO: If the U.S. were to double the number of Syrian refugees it took in or stop admitting Syrian refugees altogether, would it even make that much of a difference beyond symbolism given the scale of the problem we're talking about?

MILIBAND: Well, I think that's a great point, and I want to address that head-on because there is both a substantive and a symbolic value to the refugee resettlement effort. The substantive basis is that the United Nations says that up to 10 percent of the world's 25 million refugees are the most vulnerable cases who need to be resettled in rich countries to be able to restart their lives. We meet them ourselves as the International Rescue Committee when they wash up in dinghies on the shores of Greece where I was last month, and they're still coming to Greece. Those most vulnerable cases - it's certainly far more than a symbolic issue for them.

However, the symbolic value shouldn't be undermined or dismissed. For a country like Jordan that has historically looked to the U.S. for support - they're dealing with 650,000 refugees registered. That's 10 percent of their population, and they want to know that the U.S. has their back by standing with them for the idea that people of different religions, different confessional groups can come together and live together.

SHAPIRO: David Miliband, CEO of the International Rescue Committee, thank you for joining us once again.

MILIBAND: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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