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Protection For, or Protection From?
A Call for Just Treatment of Refugees and Asylum Seekers
At night on a beach in Tarifa, Spain, people wash ashore in unsafe boats. MSF provides basic first aid and urges the government to take up its responsibility toward the arrivals. In Brindisi, Italy, MSF visits the local detention center and finds 20 Tamils with an expulsion order in hand, under the illusion that they had received a residence permit. In Brussels, asylum seekers shiver in the December cold, waiting their turn to apply for asylum as the Belgian government takes days or even weeks to accept applications; MSF provides aid and also shelters refugees in its office. Every day MSF is helping people without documents and without legal status in their access to health care, because regardless of their legal status they are human beings. Out of the world's estimated 14.5 million refugees and asylum seekers, only a little over 500,000 are in the European Union, compared to over three million in Africa and six million in the Middle East.
For those who do knock on the doors of Europe, the reaction of European states is increasingly alarming. EU countries have put repressive policies into practice, including non-arrival policies, diversion mechanisms, a restrictive interpretation of the 1951 Refugee Convention, deterrent measures, and a failure to share global responsibility. Even if only a minority of asylum seekers seeks and finds asylum in the developed world (most of the people stay within their region of origin), the European states seem to protect themselves from refugees rather than protecting the refugees themselves.
Ultimately, the repressive measures now in place in Europe jeopardize the well-being of asylum seekers, refugees, and undocumented migrants, erode refugee protection standards, and seek to displace the refugee problem to other parts of the world.
MSF has increased some of its operations in Europe in part due to the consequences of the European states' repressive policies. MSF operations in Spain, Italy, Belgium, and France have asylum seekers and undocumented migrants as the main target population. The assistance addresses the exclusion of these populations, with teams giving first aid upon arrival, enabling people's access to national health care, and tackling the social, psychological, and legal problems related to their situation. MSF brings immediate help to people who most require it, and at the same time advocates on their behalf.
MSF witnesses both the causes of these movements (war, famine, and deteriorating socioeconomic conditions) and their consequences. MSF is present and working in countries of origin and transit, as well as in some countries of final destination: MSF is both working with and for Afghans in Afghanistan, Afghan refugees in Iran and Pakistan, and Afghans arriving in Italy on transit to the UK, Belgium, or other European States. MSF sees firsthand the conditions that are causing people to flee Afghanistan, what life can be like for Afghans in Pakistan or Iran, as well as how they are received by European states. During the Kosovo crisis, MSF was present in refugee camps in Albania and Macedonia—and also aided refugees in Italy and Belgium.
When we talk of repressive policies, we are referring to border controls and interception measures, whereby governments try to limit the movement of unwanted people into their territories. These range from prohibitive visa policies, carrier sanctions (fines against transport companies who carry undocumented migrants), and sending airline and immigration officers to check documents abroad and possibly refuse flight, to the construction of a two-meter high fence around the Spanish enclave Melilla in order to keep out people who might be trying to come in from neighboring Morocco or sub-Saharan countries.
The cumulative result is the privatization of border control, a failure to distinguish people needing protection, and increased irregular migration. As it becomes more difficult to cross borders legally, higher risks are taken to cross them illegally. This results in an increased death toll during flight.
Diversion policies are also put in place to return asylum seekers to safe "third" countries (i.e. transit countries) or countries of origin considered to be safe. For example, Albanian nationals arriving without papers in the port of Brindisi, Italy, will be returned immediately. They do not even have a chance to get off the ship and touch Italian soil, much less put in an application for asylum. The same is true for Moroccans arriving in Spain. Such a policy can lead to direct or indirect repatriation or chain deportation back through countries such as Pakistan, Ghana, Albania, Sri Lanka, Slovakia, Russia, and Morocco—when there is no certainty that the deported person will not end up in the country of origin again, possibly against his will.
Furthermore, industrialized countries increasingly interpret the 1951 Refugee Convention "à la lettre." Some countries even interpret the Convention in a way that allows them to exclude people who have been persecuted by non-state actors. A whole range of other deterrence measures includes detaining undocumented migrants upon arrival (which can be a violation of Article 31 of the Convention) and restricting their access to social services. A person's access to medical care may depend on what stage of the asylum procedure he or she is in.
To compound the problem, funding for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the number of beneficiaries of resettlement programs have been drastically cut. In 1994, UNHCR received contributions of a little over US$1 billion. This declined to $852 million in 2000. The European Commission contributed $237 million in 1994; by 2000 this had dropped to $41 million, and in 2001 it was a paltry $11.5 million as of May (individual countries also contribute some money separately). All this despite a steady increase in the number of refugees and displaced people.
European countries have refused to take up their part of global responsibility sharing, in terms of money and action. While Europe is shutting its doors, large numbers of people continue to seek refuge elsewhere in the world. Countries such as Iran, Pakistan, Kenya, and Guinea—to name only a few—are expected to host a large number of refugees, sometimes for decades. Policies toward "reception in the region" are high on the European political agenda. Now some of these third countries are citing European policies as reasons for shutting their own borders. This evolution is aggravated by the growing acceptance of xenophobic arguments in European political debates.
MSF is publicly asking that European countries receive asylum seekers and respect all their relevant rights as well as those of irregular migrants—not least their right to health care. At the same time MSF is working to highlight some of the causes and conditions of migration and asylum. Through position papers, press conferences, and active advocacy toward politicians, MSF hopes to pressure authorities to respect the relevant national and international standards (humanitarian, refugee, and human rights law) for these populations. MSF programs in European countries also incorporate efforts to sensitize the general public, through exhibitions and information campaigns, about the plight of asylum seekers, refugees, and undocumented migrants.
MSF is seeking protection for refugees and asylum seekers. Not protection from.