MSF urges US to uphold its commitments to refugees and asylum seekers

For World Refugee Day, a call on the Biden administration to protect the health and safety of people forced from home


Mexico 2021 © MSF/Yesika Ocampo

As we prepare to mark World Refugee Day on June 20, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) calls on the Biden administration to make good on its pledge to build a safe and humane migration policy, ensure that refugees and asylum seekers have safe and legal pathways to protection in the United States, and rescind Title 42, a dangerous policy that exploits the COVID-19 pandemic to essentially shut down the border to asylum seekers. Worldwide, the number of people fleeing wars, violence, and persecution stands at a record high of nearly 82.4 million people, according to the UN Refugee Agency, yet many governments are failing to provide protection to these vulnerable people.

Statement from Dr. Carrie Teicher, director of programs for MSF-USA

For a second year, we mark World Refugee Day as COVID-19 continues to claim the lives of thousands and affect the health and well-being of millions more every day. Refugees and asylum seekers have always been marginalized and excluded. Their access to health care, to housing, to water and sanitation, and to most other basic services has always been a challenge, but the COVID-19 pandemic has created almost insurmountable hardships for people forced to flee their homes. The pandemic elevated every barrier refugees and asylum seekers encounter, dramatically amplifying their vulnerability. Among the obstacles they face, none are more detrimental than measures enacted by states to prevent them from seeking the protection they so desperately require. For those seeking protection at the southern US border, this couldn’t be more true.

For years now, MSF teams have witnessed firsthand the devastating toll of harsh US migration policies spanning several administrations on the lives and health of people forced to flee violence and extreme poverty in Central America, Mexico, and other countries. Recently, MSF has documented an increased number of people expelled by US authorities to dangerous border cities in Mexico under Title 42, a policy that exploits the pandemic to essentially shut down the border to those seeking asylum. Since March 2020, the US government has carried out over 874,000 deportations under Title 42. In May 2021 alone, the US government reported carrying out 110,400 expulsions from its southern border.

Despite its rhetoric in support of refugees and its repeated promises to rebuild the US asylum system, the Biden administration has chosen to retain this discriminatory policy. Under the tired and discredited pretext of preventing the spread of COVID-19, this administration continues to block migrants and asylum seekers at its southern border and to rapidly expel them to Mexico or to their countries of origin without due process.

Worryingly, the Biden administration is also openly pursuing a regional containment strategy that seeks to make the journey more difficult for migrants by working with governments to increase border security in the region and blocking people from getting anywhere near the US border.  In our experience, the militarization of borders and the criminalization of migration has never succeeded in stopping people from attempting to escape violence, persecution, and poverty. These tactics only drive them to pursue more dangerous routes, exposing them to organized crime and human trafficking along the way.

MSF recognizes the positive steps the Biden administration has taken so far to reform and rehabilitate an asylum system gutted by the previous administration. Ending the Migrant Protection Protocols and beginning to process asylum seekers forced to remain exposed to the risk of violence in Mexico was an essential policy shift. Reversing the ruling that limited asylum in the US on the grounds of domestic violence and domestic abuse is another long-awaited reversal of an exceptionally harmful policy. Beginning to exempt a small number of vulnerable asylum seekers from the application of Title 42 is also a step in the right direction. But the Biden administration must go much further in demonstrating that its asylum policy is in line with its commitments.

We urge the US government to abandon ineffective migration containment strategies that deepen the vulnerabilities of asylum seekers and expose them to violence. The administration must immediately rescind the Title 42 policy and restart the processing of all asylum seekers along the southern border while implementing evidence-based measures to safeguard public health. Instead of pouring diplomatic and financial resources into interdiction, the US government must act responsibly and promote the safe movement of those seeking protection through countries in which they may be exposed to violence and persecution.

On this World Refugee Day, MSF reminds the Biden administration of its obligations toward refugees and asylum seekers under domestic and international law. Our hope is that the administration will live up to its promises and create an asylum system that truly recognizes the right of people to seek asylum and centers their health, safety, and dignity.