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Former British Foreign Secretary Criticizes Response To Migrant Crisis

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The European journey, for many refugees, starts in Greece, where they're arriving by sea. The Greek island of Lesbos is the eye of the storm of the European refugee crisis. That's according to David Miliband, the former British foreign secretary. He now heads the International Rescue Committee. He just spent three days on the island where there are thousands of refugees. And before leaving, he talked to NPR's Peter Kenyon about the urgent needs of asylum seekers.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: To a first-time visitor, Lesbos appears to be awash in Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis and others who risked life and limb to get to Europe.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

KENYON: But this crowd at the port is nothing compared with the chaotic scenes of the past couple weeks when a huge bottleneck built up and there were riots, fires and police called in for crowd control. To David Miliband, it's one more warning that world powers are still behind the curve when it comes to dealing with this flow of people across borders.

DAVID MILIBAND: About half the refugees arriving into Europe come through this island. They come after a pretty traumatic journey. Many of them walk 40 kilometers from the north of the island where they land to the port here where they hope to get on a ferry to Athens. And so we're finding some very traumatized, pretty desperate people who have the elation of reaching safety but the uncertainty of not knowing what comes next.

KENYON: Since resigning from the British Parliament in 2013, Miliband has been taking up the cause of refugees around the world with the IRC. As he rides to the airport in a compact car rather than a limousine, he says one of the impressions he's taking away from this trip is how many of these people are coming straight from the daily carnage in Syria not having spent the last couple years in the relative safety of Turkey or Jordan.

MILIBAND: They're coming straight, fleeing from the barrel bombs of Assad and the terror of ISIS. I think what's flipped over the last six months is that people feel that they're in the middle of a pincer movement and that the pummeling of the people shows no signs of end. It's a war without end, and a war without law. And that's what led people to give up their businesses to come here.

KENYON: NPR's own reporting on Lesbos found a mix of people - some who came directly from Syria and others who had been living in neighboring states. The former British foreign secretary calls the lack of an effective diplomatic process for Syria an absolute indictment of political diplomacy. He says the EU needs to not only agree on who's going to shelter these refugees but also needs a coherent, coordinated plan that includes Syria's neighbors who are staggering under a far heavier refugee burden than Europe is facing, at least for now.

MILIBAND: Because until they are brought into some sort of coordinated action, until U.N. appeals are much more than 30 percent funded, until there is some ability to avoid cutting food rations, then there's going to be no prospect - the flow is going to be staunched. And it's one thing to deal with the stock of people who are already in Europe. Unless the flow is addressed, then Europe's going to be overwhelmed.

KENYON: Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Lesbos, Greece. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.