Europe Must Accept Boat People Fleeing Libya

MSF Criticizes European Policies Claiming to Protect Civilians, While Borders are Closed

In an open letter to EU leaders, MSF criticized contradictory policies whereby states claim to be executing a war to protect civilians in Libya while closing thier borders to the victims of that same war.

Paris, May 19, 2011 – The international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) published an open letter today in 13 newspapers across Europe, addressed to the leaders of European Union member states involved in the war in Libya.

In the letter, MSF criticizes contradictory European policies, which claim to be executing a war to protect civilians, while closing borders to the victims of that same war on the pretext of preventing a massive influx of illegal immigrants.

“The European states involved in the war in Libya are shirking their obligations, both legal and moral, and are neglecting the victims of the war to which they are a party,” said Dr. Unni Karunakara, international president of MSF. “The words and the actions of our leaders, presented against a backdrop of the battle against illegal immigration, actually restrict access to Europe for the victims of war. This political cynicism is shameful.”

There is a discrepancy between the reception offered by Tunisia and Egypt—which have accepted nearly 630,000 people fleeing neighboring Libya—and that provided by European states, which have turned back boat people risking their lives to reach Europe.

“The people we are seeing in Lampedusa tell us about the threats and violence they have been subjected to in Libya: some have been beaten or have seen their friends die in front of their eyes,” said Loris De Filippi, MSF’s director of operations. “They arrive exhausted, often suffering from hypothermia, after travelling for long hours and risking their lives. What they find when they reach Europe are unacceptable reception conditions and total uncertainty regarding their future.”

The open letter also notes the legal obligation to protect the rights of victims of war by “guaranteeing their non-refoulement (i.e. not being returned to places where their lives may be under threat) from Europe’s territorial waters and lands to a war zone, and by ensuring that they are received properly in Europe and have access to asylum procedures when they so request.”

The open letter was published today in: Die Presse, Der Standard (Austria); Le Soir, De Standaard (Belgium); Berlingske Tidende (Denmark); Le Monde (France); Corriere della Sera, La Repubblica, (Italy); Kathimerini (Greece); El País (Spain); Svenska Dagbladet (Sweden); Le Temps (Switzerland); European Voice (EU).

Recipients of the open letter include: Mr. Werner Faymann, Federal Chancelor and M. Michael Spindelegger, Vice-Chancelor and Minister for Foreign Affairs (Austria): Mr. Yves Leterme, Prime Minister (Belgium); M. Petr Necas, Prime Minister (Czech Republic); M. Lars Løkke Rasmussen, Prime Minister and M. Lene Espersen, Minister of Foreign Affairs (Denmark); Mrs Angela Merkel, Chancelor (Germany); Mr. George Papandreou, Prime Minister (Greece); M. Nicolas Sarkozy, President (France); Mr. Rutte, Prime Minister (Netherlands); Mr. Silvio Berlusconi, Prime Minister (Italy); Mr. Jean-Claude Juncker, Prime Minister (Luxemburg); M. Jens Stoltenberg, Prime Minister (Norway); Mr. José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, Prime Minister (Spain); Mr. Fredrik Reinfeldt, Prime Minister (Sweden); Mr. David Cameron, Prime Minister (United Kingdom); Mr. Herman Van Rompuy, President of the European Council, Heads of State or Government of the Member States of the European Union, Mr. Jerzy Buzek, President of the European Parliament, Mr. José Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission, Mrs. Catherine Ashton, Vice-President of the European Commission and High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy.

MSF’s activities in response to the conflict in Libya include:

Lampedusa (Italy):

• MSF triages patients at the port and conducts medical follow-up in the island’s detention and reception centers. Teams are also evaluating migrant living conditions and access to healthcare in centers located in Italy. As of now, 11,175 migrants and asylum seekers fleeing the conflict in Libya have reached Italy.

• Since February 2011, MSF has conducted more than 1,700 medical consultations for migrants and refugees in Lampedusa and has provided them with a total of 2,500 hygiene kits, 4,500 blankets and 3,500 bottles of water.


• MSF teams have been present in Libya since February 24 and are currently working in Zintan, Misrata, and Benghazi.

• In Misrata, approximately 20 MSF staff members have been providing surgical and medical care in three hospitals (Al Abbad, Kasr Ahmed, and Ras Tuba) since April 18 and are working to increase the number of patients these hospitals can treat.

• In Benghazi, MSF is providing support to the two central pharmacies by supplying essential medicines. MSF has also assessed the situation of families who have been displaced around Benghazi because of the conflict. The team now plans to start activities in Al Bayda Camp, where 900 families have sought refuge. MSF is also supporting the Benghazi medical committee in its care for victims of sexual and gender-based violence, including training in providing psychological support. It is also supporting patients with chronic diseases, including by providing HIV and TB medications.

• Since April 30, an MSF team has been supporting medical staff at the hospital in Zintan, a city in western Libya (southwest of Tripoli), to help them cope with large numbers of wounded patients. About one hundred wounded people have been admitted to Zintan Hospital since early May, following fighting between pro-Gaddafi forces and rebels.


• MSF psychologists have been providing mental health support since March to people who have fled the Libyan conflict and sought refuge in camps near the border. So far, more than 4,000 consultations have been carried out.

• Since early April, more than 40,000 Libyan families have crossed the Tunisian border, fleeing violence in their country. MSF is running mobile clinics to provide psychological care to refugees in relocation centers, clinics, and those living with host-families along the road from Dehiba to Tataouine. MSF is also supporting health facilities in areas where refugees have relocated to help local medical staff cope with the increased number of patients coming for consultations.