May 18, 2011

This letter was sent to Heads of State or Governments of Member States of the European Union, to Presidents of European Institutions, and to the offices of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the International Organisation for Migration. It was subsequently published in national newspapers in countries throughout the European Union.

Thursday, 19 May 2011.

In the name of protecting civilians in Libya, the leaders of several Member States of the European Union have committed their countries to a war against the forces of Muammar Gaddafi. The conflict has already displaced more than 750,000 civilians, who have fled the violence in Libya.

Despite difficult conditions, Tunisia and Egypt have already received more than 630,000 of these people. However, the Member States of the European Union are hiding behind the fight against illegal immigration to avoid taking their responsibilities to allow these victims of war to enter Europe.

The same Member States of the European Union who engaged in this war, have, by doing so, also agreed to bear its consequences and, thus, to take all necessary steps to limit its impact on civilians. This is both a legal obligation, under the international conventions to which they are signatory, and a moral responsibility.

The European Union and its Member States must respect the rights of all civilians fleeing the conflict in Libya. The European Union and its Member States must guarantee their non-refoulement from Europe's territorial waters and lands, and ensure that they are properly received in Europe, with access to asylum procedures when they request it.

These rights are currently not being respected. Thousands of people, victims of war, are paying the price for the European Union Member States' inconsistent policies. Several hundred men, women and children trying to reach the European Union have already died at sea when their boats sank. Many were driven out by Libyan authorities, who see this as an opportunity to create disruption. Thousands more have landed along the Italian coast in the last few weeks. As MSF teams in Lampedusa have observed, their reception conditions were wholly inadequate, given their needs.

Member States of the European Union, and especially those directly involved in the conflict, must now turn words into actions regarding the protection of civilians in Libya. Their non-refoulement, decent reception conditions for all and access to asylum procedures for those who request it must be guaranteed. The European Union and all its Member States are responsible for the fate of these victims of war and for ensuring that their rights are respected.

This responsibility must be placed at the heart of European concerns.

Dr. Unni Karunakara
International President
Médecins Sans Frontières