The refugee crisis needs a courageous and coordinated response

11 Sep 2015
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United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland

In a coordinated campaign targeting political leaders across Europe, the humanitarian aid agency Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF), today calls for a radical rethink of current approaches to asylum-seekers and an end to the strategy of ‘deterrence’.

Across Europe, MSF teams are seeing first-hand the failure of current policies which are leading to the suffering, and even deaths, of people fleeing some of the worst humanitarian crises of our time.

An Open Letter is being published in newspapers across Europe, and is being delivered today to all EU delegations in Brussels ahead of a major ministerial meeting on the issue early next week.

Together with the letter MSF is sending discarded lifejackets bearing the handwritten prayers and next of kin details of people rescued by MSF at sea, which demonstrate how people are willing to knowingly risk their lives to reach Europe.

Simultaneously, Médecins Sans Frontières in the UK makes a specific call to the British government to be more ambitious and humanitarian in our response to this crisis.

Map of MSF's activities in Europe, summer 2015

"Political leaders must fulfuil their collective responsibilities"

“MSF’s medical teams have treated human consequences of the migration journey: hypothermia, dehydration, respiratory infections, wounds inflicted by abuse and violence and post-traumatic stress disorder," MSF UAE director Vickie Hawkins explains.

"And we have been trying to improve general living conditions for people stranded in Greece, Hungary, Italy, FYROM and Serbia. But our work is just filling the gaps left by political leaders who must work together to fulfil their collective responsibilities.

“MSF calls on the UK government to work together with European partners to ditch the untenable policies of ‘deterrence’, which include building walls and deploying dogs to guard borders, or deliberately failing to provide facilities in places where refugees arrive.

"Such policies have failed to deter desperate people and just increase their suffering, turning a foreseeable and manageable influx of people fleeing for survival into a policy-made human tragedy on Europe’s beaches, borders, train platforms and motorways.

"Much more needs to be done to ease the heavy toll of human suffering our teams are witnessing. We are calling on David Cameron to embrace the bold and holistic approach needed to meet the world’s worst displacement crisis since WWII. 

"The UK government must work together with other European leaders, to provide a solution not just to today’s emergency, but to face the reality that this refugee crisis, caused by protracted conflicts, is likely to be with us for several years to come."

Specific recommendations made by MSF towards the UK government include:

Share responsibility for solving the immediate crisis of vulnerable refugees already in Europe.

The announcement that the UK will take 20,000 refugees from countries neighbouring Syria over the next four years doesn’t excuse the UK from a shared responsibility to assist those refugees already on European soil.

We should not punish those desperate people who have already risked their lives for sanctuary by closing our doors to ‘deter others’. MSF’s medical teams across Europe – in Greece, Italy, Serbia, Hungary and elsewhere – witness every day just how vulnerable some of these people are.

One such example is five-year-old Adnan from Syria, disfigured by wounds sustained when his home was barrel bombed and having to sleep with his family including his grandparents and two-month-old sister on the streets of Kos.

They need a safe place to settle where they can rebuild their bodies and their lives. Britain has a role to play towards these families too.

Set up legal ways in which people can apply for asylum in the UK without having to risk their lives to get here

Applying for legal asylum or residency needs to be made possible without having to risk the dangerous journey. There are many relatively straightforward ways in which this could be done quite quickly, for example to widen the granting of family reunification visas.

Many of our patients and the people we rescue at sea tell us they are hoping to join family already settled in Europe, including the UK. Refugees would then be able to start a new life with the reassuring network of family around to support them.

Search and rescue efforts in the seas need to be stepped up for as long as they are needed

MSF’s three boats alone have rescued some 15,000 people in the Mediterranean since early May. While the UK has provided some Royal Navy support, the UK needs to extend and expand its support to dedicated search and rescue (SAR) activities in those areas most needed.

Since the deployment of HMS Bulwark came to an end in June 2015, MSF's teams have not witnessed the presence of Royal Navy SAR teams in the zone where most rescue operations take place. It should not be left to private individuals and charities to take these life-saving responsibilities.

Reshape the way refugees are received, assessed and distributed

Reception facilities in countries where people land – primarily Italy and Greece – must be improved.  These countries cannot cope alone and desperately need support to treat people humanely.

Humanitarian assistance and access to functioning asylum procedures should be provided at entry points and along migratory routes.  Individual assessments of each asylum claim should be made, and even those who are deemed not to qualify need to be treated with dignity and humanity.

If people are indeed to be asked to register as refugees in the first safe country they enter, then much more needs to be done after that to ensure that the responsibility for looking after them longer-term is shared between all European and other wealthy nations, including the UK.  A proper mechanism to share the hosting of refugees more equitably needs to be put in place.

Find out more about MSF's work in the Mediterranean