NEW YORK -- Former British Foreign Secretary David Miliband lauded the leadership show by Germany in response to the Syrian refugee crisis on Wednesday, contrasting Berlin's promise to take in 800,000 people fleeing persecution with the inaction of London and Washington.
Speaking on MSNBC in New York, the President and CEO of the International Rescue Committee commented on the contrasting reactions of Europe's two economic titans -- Germany and the UK.
Unlike the German government, British Prime Minister David Cameron said on Wednesday that allowing more refugees into Britain was not the answer.
“The conscience of Germany has been pricked in a very fundamental way,” said Miliband, noting the "commitment" of both sides of the coalition in Berlin, aided by “leadership from the top.”
“For historical reasons Germany has a special thought about its role in humanitarian crises,” he added. “Germany is also now the largest country and the largest economy in Europe and this question of what German leadership and German responsibility means in a modern world is a very big question in Germany.”
“After all the drama of the European [financial] crisis, in which Germany was accused of dithering and being slow, here’s a chance for Germany to show real humanitarian political leadership that not just Britain but the US simply can’t keep up with,” he added.
Miliband said the “main source of refugee numbers” is the five-year Syrian war, noting 60 percent of the refugees met by International Rescue Committee staff on the Greek Islands were from the war-torn state.
The former foreign secretary also noted a dangerous trope in Britain of confusing the term “refugee” with “migrant.”
“The status of someone with a well-founded fear of persecution, which is the definition of a refugee in international law, that’s being muddied, diluted and undermined by talk of migrants who choose to come for economic reasons.” he said.
“It’s really important to say to people this isn’t about being politically correct; it’s about being correct. A refugee is fleeing persecution; an economic migrant or immigrant is seeking a better life. It’s not that one is good and one is bad. They’re different.”
“A refugee has rights in international law, rights to protection and responsibilities from governments that need to be upheld and one of the challenges now is to ensure the very notion of a refugee is not lost in the headlines about a migrant crisis.”
Powerful UK newspaper front pagesSeptember 2, 2015
On the US, Miliband said the country’s record in taking refugees from Syria “does not amount to leadership.”
He said: “The United States since the Syria conflict began has taken 1234 Syrian refugees. The State Department announced last week a target of 5,000-8,000 in 2016, but that's way below the kind of leadership needed for America to play its historic role, never mind to compare to this German reaction of 800,000 refugees.”
Earlier on Wednesday, a senior United Nations official said Britain "can do more" to ease Europe's biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War. Appearing on Wednesday’s “Newsnight,” Peter Sutherland called on the UK to take more refugees fleeing Syria after pictures emerged of a drowned toddler washed up on the coast of Turkey.
The little boy, named as Aylan Kurdi, was one of 12 refugees who drowned after their boat capsized travelling to the Greek island of Kos from the Turkish town of Bodrum. His family reportedly fled Kobane last year to escape the Islamic State group. Twenty-three people were on the flimsy vessel. Nine are believed to have survived, including Aylan’s father. His mother and brother, however, perished.
The sickening images, widely published by the British press, have ratcheted up pressure on Cameron and the UK government.
Sutherland, the UN’s special representative on international migration, said Germany, Sweden, France and Italy are "massively bearing the burden," however Britain was among a raft of European states that could do more.
Earlier on Wednesday, a UK government spokesman reacted to the “shocking” pictures by suggesting the UK was one of the country’s doing most to ease the crisis.
“We continue to be at the forefront of the international response to the humanitarian crisis in Syria -- including as the second biggest bilateral donor of humanitarian aid, having already pledged £900 million," the spokesman said.
However, two of the Labour Party leadership contenders rounded on the British prime minister, demanding greater efforts from the government. Andy Burnham called for Parliament to debate allowing a greater influx of refugees while bemoaning Cameron’s reaction as “veering from the inadequate to the misjudged.”
On Tuesday, Burnham’s rival Yvette Cooper called for Britain to take 10,000 Syrian refugees, saying: “We cannot keep turning our backs on this.”
Lib Dem leader Tim Farron said the government was “morally wrong” to limit the intake to a few hundred refugees, while SNP chief Nicola Sturgeon called for Westminster “do more."
Sutherland called for Britain to play a greater role in forging a united European effort to end the “appalling suffering.”
"I think that this country can do more,” he said. “The only way to solve this problem is by a united European response and that means sharing responsibility for appalling suffering. This is a humanitarian crisis that Europe has not experienced in our time of a dimension, which demands a common response. At the moment it is true to say that a number of countries are massively bearing the burden of this.”