“What Europe is experiencing today, is not a humanitarian crisis, but a crisis of humanity.”

MSF International President calls on European states to protect people seeking safety

Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) International President Dr. Christos Christou delivered the following speech on November 19 during the High-level Interparliamentary Conference on Migration and Asylum in Europe, in a session about the "Relationship between solidarity and responsibility in migration and asylum management."

One week ago, at least 100 people died in the Mediterranean Sea. Among them was a six-month-old baby. The crew of Open Arms, the only NGO search and rescue boat able to operate at this moment, did everything they could to save him, but it was not enough.

In Greece, a father lost his six-year-old child while trying to cross the sea, seeking safety. In one of the most sickening situations we have heard about in years, he was arrested for putting the life of his son in danger and now risks up to 10 years in prison. Didn’t Europe already take enough from him?

In October, the bodies of seven young northern African men were found in a ship container in Paraguay. According to the investigations, they were trying to reach Croatia but after several push backs from Croatian police, they decided to hide in a container thinking they would reach Milan. Their bodies were found in an advanced state of decomposition, four months later on the other side of the world. They had no food or water, and suffocated in a terrible death.

We must be clear that these deaths—just like the horror of the Greek camps—come not as some kind of unexplainable accident. Rather, they are a direct consequence of deliberate policies, like the EU-Turkey deal, and the abdication of responsibility to conduct search and rescue operations, both in international waters and increasingly in areas which are formally under your responsibility. Are you really willing to accept these tragedies as some kind of “new unintended consequence”?
 
What Europe is experiencing today, is not a humanitarian crisis, but a crisis of humanity.

Solidarity does not mean bargaining between states to negotiate who takes who, how many, at what price or with which conditions. Solidarity should be with those seeking safety; and Europe is failing. 

Dr. Christos Christou, MSF International President

This session includes solidarity in its title, and yet: where is the evidence of genuine human solidarity?

EU member states have abused the term solidarity—not only have they failed in their collective responsibility to protect human life and respect fundamental human rights. They have used the lack of solidarity between states to evade their individual responsibilities.

Solidarity does not mean bargaining between states to negotiate who takes who, how many, at what price or with which conditions. Solidarity should be with those seeking safety; and Europe is failing.

In an effort to find political compromise, the needs of people have been sidelined.

Over the past five years, MSF teams have worked tirelessly to mitigate the most harmful consequences of European migration policies. Our staff has spoken out against policies which are directly responsible for unimaginable human suffering. Time and again, European nations and institutions have failed to act on their duty. What’s more, countries both within and outside Europe have taken this failure as an opportunity to roll back basic rights, starting a race to the bottom regarding the protection of human life.

Europe is in denial.

Official statements on tragedies—like the Moria refugee camp, or the violence on the Balkan route, or the horror of Libyan detention camps—fail to acknowledge that these are disasters made and paid for by EU money and EU member states. After the recent fires in Moria, we heard “no more Morias”. But what does this mean when we see such camps on all of the EU-supported hotspot islands – Samos, Lesvos, Kos, Chios, Leros? Year after year, we are told that conditions in camps will improve. But year after year, our staff witnesses the deterioration of the physical and mental health of those held in the camps.

And while we are glad about the relocation of children with chronic conditions and their families, as well as the transfer of some unaccompanied minors, such limited relocation efforts represent a tiny part of the overall solution. How can the EU evacuate a few hundred people today, all while redeveloping a system of containment and deterrence, which will inevitably reproduce the same harmful consequences?

An inhumane “new normal” has also been accepted in the Central Mediterranean.

Here, EU leaders have ignored their international obligation to provide search and rescue capacity in the Central Mediterranean Sea. They have avoided using European naval ships in the vicinity of the search and rescue zone, and they have interrupted dedicated state capacity. They found it very easy to agree to leave the region’s search and rescue responsibilities in the hands of the Libyan Coast Guard, and to expand the Libyan search and rescue zone.

As a direct result, tens of thousands of people have been intercepted and returned to Libya over the last few years. There, they face inhumane conditions, arbitrary detention, and exploitation. The Libyan Coast Guard has an abysmal human rights record, but European states have few concerns in supplying them with funding, equipment, and intelligence. The aim appears to be to prevent people from reaching European shores, at literally any cost.

But Europe’s actions have extended beyond its abandonment of responsibilities. A long campaign to delegitimize, slander, and obstruct NGO activities has also been in operation. MSF and other NGOs have been targeted with unsubstantiated accusations, ranging from collusion with smugglers, to transporting waste, to non-compliance with technical specifications. This has been a sinister and concerted campaign, which has decimated civilian search and rescue efforts. Six NGO ships have been detained or effectively blocked in Italian ports. New reasons are always found to prevent these vessels from saving lives.

The European Commission is not acting against the criminalization of aid. The protections offered by the new migration pact are very weak in this capacity. Furthermore, it legitimizes existing practices which misuse safety regulations in order to impede the work of NGO vessels. If European states are not willing to save lives at sea, at the very least stop blocking NGOs that refuse to abandon this basic humanitarian duty.

While people are being demonized for the most human act of seeking safety and protection, and while humanitarian aid is being prevented and penalized, more lives are being lost.

Without a fundamental shift and the recognition of Europe’s responsibility, we will simply witness even more of the same.

You must reject this “new normal” and assume the collective responsibility to ensure safe pathways to seek safety in Europe, to proactively prevent deaths at sea, to provide dignified reception, and to protect those in need.

This is not just a matter of solidarity and responsibility. This is an obligation.

Your obligation!