Sunday 18 February 2018

'We cannot be complicit in an unjust and inhumane system for refugees'

An Afghan migrant holds his son as they wait to be transferred to the Moria registration centre after arriving at the port of Mytilene on the Greek island of Lesbos, following a rescue operation by the Greek Coast Guard at open sea
An Afghan migrant holds his son as they wait to be transferred to the Moria registration centre after arriving at the port of Mytilene on the Greek island of Lesbos, following a rescue operation by the Greek Coast Guard at open sea

Jane-Ann McKenna in Greece

The decision to suspend or withdraw medical humanitarian operations is one which Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) does not take lightly. We only do so when we feel that we have no other choice.

This week, in light of the recent EU-Turkey deal, we were faced with such a decision. Our activities in the 'hotspot' of Moria, Lesbos are now closed until further notice.

Over the past several months, we have denounced the policy- made humanitarian crisis created by the EU on the Greek islands; policies that have served to create additional suffering and increased obstacles to protection.

We have witnessed the unwillingness of the Greek authorities to put in place adequate reception facilities. We have witnessed Turkish coastguards using hoses to fire water into boats of refugees and migrants trying to reach Greek shores.


On Monday morning, in the wake of the EU-Turkey deal, we witnessed the 'hotspot' of Moria transform from a reception centre for processing new arrivals of refugees and migrants to that of a detention centre offering no guarantee for the respect of people's basic rights; a closed centre, with the sole function of detaining people.

People who clearly have the right to seek asylum in Europe, and who now face mass expulsion.

For Médecins Sans Frontières, being complicit in a system that is both unjust and inhumane is a step too far. This deal formalises a system that jeopardises the right to seek asylum. It is a system based on deterrence principles, rather than humanitarian ones.

Those who are arriving onto the Greek islands today are fleeing war, conflict and persecution. They are already extremely vulnerable and are in need of humane treatment.

In Moria, our emergency teams provided medical care to those who had made the perilous journey across the Aegean Sea. Hypothermia, respiratory infections, serious burns and skin disease were among the most common illnesses treated.

They're all conditions directly related to long journeys, dangerous sea crossings and unsanitary living conditions. Our psychologists offered mental health support for those left traumatised by the journey - or what they had left behind. We have tried to ensure that these basic humanitarian services will continue beyond our departure. However, despite support from other organisations and groups, it is clear that there will be gaps.

MSF medical teams will remain on the island of Lesbos in order to continue life-saving activities, emergency medical care and search and rescue services. The only condition for us to resume activities within the 'hotspot' is the guarantee that protection and humanitarian principles will be respected. We will not allow our assistance to be instrumentalised in a mass expulsion operation.

As a humanitarian organisation working in more than 65 countries and dealing with the humanitarian needs of refugees on a daily basis, we simply cannot accept to participate in a model that is jeopardising people's right to seek asylum. If the logic of this deal was applied by all countries, there would be no refugees - as all victims of conflict would remain besieged in war zones. This is completely unacceptable.

Whether the EU and Greece will put in place sufficient safeguards to ensure people's rights and respect the non- refoulement principle remains highly unclear.

So far, similar assurances have not materialised into concrete actions, and our teams in the field are seeing daily human rights violations - such as violence from border guards and arbitrary push-backs. Legal assistance and access to legal services and information in Moria is notably absent.

It is clear that European leaders are willing to do anything, including compromising human rights and refugee law principles, to stem the flow of refugees and migrants to Europe.

These short-sighted, unrealistic and dangerous policies will not stop people from seeking protection in Europe.

It will not stop smugglers from operating - it will simply shift the flow. Keeping the focus on preventing people coming, through increased militarisation of borders and deterrence measures, will be in vain.

This will only serve to increase the level of suffering, as people fleeing war-zones move towards other potentially dangerous routes to seek protection.

Jane-Ann McKenna works with Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF)

Irish Independent

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