Rescuing refugees ‘a moral imperative’ not a crime

April 15, 2021

Pip Cook in Geneva Solutions of 30 March 2021 published a good overview of the vexing issue of saving refugees in Europe [see also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/02/12/luventa10-sea-rescue-group-gets-ai-germanys-human-rights-award/]

MSF worked in collaboration with Sea-Watch on board the Sea-Watch 4 until February 2021, providing medical care and supporting with humanitarian assistance for rescued people. (Credit: Médecins Sans Frontières)

As countries across Europe adopt increasingly tough migration policies, NGOs are being prosecuted for acts of solidarity with refugees, asylum seekers and migrants. We speak to Stephen Cornish, director general of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Switzerland, and Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish Iranian journalist and author who was imprisoned in Australia’s offshore asylum system for six years, about the threat this growing hostility poses to Europe’s democracies.

On 4 March 2021, Italian prosecutors charged dozens of people from humanitarian organisations including Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and Save the Children with colluding with people smugglers while carrying out rescue operations in the Mediterranean. After an investigation spanning nearly four years, crew members, mission heads and legal representatives who saved thousands of people from drowning at sea are facing years in prison, sending shockwaves through the humanitarian community. See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/03/04/new-amnesty-report-on-human-rights-defenders-helping-migrants/

It’s hard to imagine how saving a life can become a criminalised activity,” says Stephen Cornish, director of MSF Suisse, speaking to Geneva Solutions. The organisation, which denies the accusations, estimates that its six humanitarian ships helped save more than 81,000 lives at sea. “It would be like criminalising the fire department for going to put out a fire.”

The investigation is one of dozens brought against NGOs running search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean since 2016, when a handful of humanitarian organisations including MSF and SOS Mediteranee launched vessels in response to a rise in the number of people attempting the perilous journey from countries such as Libya and Turkey to claim asylum in Europe. Over the past few years, these vessels have been frequently detained by authorities or trapped at sea for weeks at a time, refused entry to ports where they can safely disembark. [see also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2019/12/18/international-migrants-day-the-story-of-the-ocean-viking/]

Hostility towards rescue agencies has grown since the height of the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ in 2015, says Cornish, when over one million people – the majority of whom were refugees fleeing the war in Syria – fled to Europe by sea over the course of the year, mainly arriving in Greece and Italy. The EU’s failure to share responsibility for the dramatic rise in the number of people seeking asylum in Europe left countries such as Greece and Italy overwhelmed, Cornish says: “People initially responded with charity and welcome, but then the failure was at a government level not to share the responsibility, and to repopulate people across different states.”

As anti-refugee politics became increasingly mainstream across Europe, countries began to tighten their borders and scrabble for ways to reduce ‘irregular’ migration into the bloc. Last week marked five years since the introduction of the EU-Turkey Deal – a key pillar of these efforts. The agreement called on Turkey to prevent asylum seekers and migrants from reaching the EU in exchange for financial assistance and the promise of the eventual creation of legal resettlement pathways to Europe.

Five years on, Turkey hosts more refugees than any other country in the world, with the EU accused of outsourcing its migration management and turning a blind eye to the poor living conditions facing many refugees in the country. The agreement is also widely viewed as creating the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the Greek islands, which became a final destination for thousands of asylum seekers trapped in overcrowded camps waiting for their applications to be processed.

The inhumane conditions in refugee camps on the Greek islands are well documented, with reports of squalid facilities, violence, abuse and a lack of basic amenities commonplace. At times, there have been 40,000 people living in camps designed for a few thousand. As well as Syria, the majority of people are fleeing war and persecution in countries such as Afghanistan, Somalia, Palestine and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and one in four are children. The horrific fire that engulfed the notoriously overcrowded Moria camp on Lesvos in 2020, leaving 13,000 people without shelter, became a tragic symbol of Europe’s failed migration policy.

MSF has been operational on the Greek islands of Lesvos, Samos and Chios for many years, although it ceased operations inside Moria citing mass deportation and potential refoulement of asylum seekers and refugees. It no longer accepts EU funding in opposition to the policy.

“[The impact of the EU Turkey Deal] has been horrendous,” says Cornish. “There are still 15,000 people trapped in limbo, in no man’s land in Greece with no way forward and no way back, and suffering at the hands of supposed democracies.”

We see suicides, we see self-harm in children, we see long term PTSD and people with no hope, no ability to move forward or backward, trapped in punishment,” he says. “We put people in hell holes, and then when hell breaks loose, we pretend like we don’t see it.”

The deal has recently been extended until 2022, when the EU’s New Pact on Migration and Asylum is expected to come into force. The New Pact focuses on fast-tracking screening and asylum processes at Europe’s external borders and includes a system of “mandatory solidarity” by which member states do not have to commit to resettling refugees but can instead fund repatriation. It has been widely criticised by humanitarian organisations for repeating the mistakes of the EU-Turkey Deal and failing to improve the situation for asylum seekers and refugees.

“Everything we’ve seen that failed in the US and failed in Australia, and is failing in Greece and Italy, we’d like to now make more semi-permanent policy,” says Cornish of the New Pact, which is currently being negotiated by member states and in the European Parliament. “As we harden these policies, all we do is push people into the hands of traffickers. We push them to take riskier routes and have higher death tolls and greater suffering.”

While the number of asylum seekers and migrants crossing the Mediterranean has decreased dramatically since 2015, migration has continued to be a highly politicised issue across Europe. Countries have adopted increasingly hostile policies which humanitarian organisations say fail to address flaws in existing systems, to the detriment of the people these systems were initially created to help.

Last week, the UK announced an overhaul of its asylum policy, which was met with outrage from humanitarian actors. Under the new plans, migrants and asylum seekers who arrive in the UK by routes deemed illegal will be indefinitely liable for removal even if they are granted asylum, creating a two-tier system which has been criticised as a violation of international law and eroding the right to asylum.

UK home secretary Priti Patel argues that current European policies “play into the hands of people smugglers”, however human rights and migration experts argue that, while governments fail to expand safe and legal routes, it is inhumane and unjust to punish asylum seekers for resorting to irregular routes when the only other option is an interminable wait in one of Europe’s refugee camps.

“Since a number of years [ago], we have made it almost impossible to be able to flee and request asylum from a conflict zone,” says Cornish. “We put all of these hurdles in place to make it impossible to be able to declare asylum and come [to Europe], and then we criminalise anybody jumping the line because we say they’re not following the procedures.”

Lessons from Australia. It has also been reported that asylum seekers in the UK could be shipped overseas while their asylum claim is pending – a policy that echoes Australia’s offshore processing asylum policy, instituted twice from 2001 to 2008 and 2012 to present.

Under the policy, asylum seekers and migrants who arrived in Australia by boat were immediately sent to offshore processing centres on the pacific islands of Manus and Nauru. The detention camps – which held over 2000 people at a time – have been widely condemned for systemic abuses and human rights violations. Although over 85 per cent of people sent to Nauru and Manus were recognised as refugees, the majority were left there for years awaiting resettlement.

Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish Iranian refugee who was detained on Manus Island for six years after attempting to reach Australia by boat in 2013, experienced the horror of Australia’s inhumane asylum policy first-hand. He spoke to Geneva Solutions ahead of the FIFDH event he took part in alongside Stephen Cornish.

“The dangerous side is that Australia is introducing this policy to countries in Europe, especially the UK,” says Boochani, who continued his work as a journalist writing for publications such as the Guardian from Manus. “Australia became a model for many of these countries. And for many years, we were warning about this, we were talking about it, but no one heard us.” [See also: https://www.trueheroesfilms.org/thedigest/laureates/55687980-7bdc-11e9-8427-f3aebfb2928e]

This policy damaged the political culture in Australia [and] the democracy in Australia,” says Boochani. “It damaged the principles in Australia and damaged morality in Australia. I think if the UK followed this policy, you cannot say that [you’ve] just damaged the refugees, you’ve damaged your principles, your democracy, your system, your morality, and your political culture too.

MSF’s Cornish shares Boochani’s concern that Europe’s asylum policies are damaging the democracy and social fabric of countries, partly fuelling the rise in far-right politics that has gained traction across the continent in recent years.

There have also been reports of mounting deportations and systemic violent pushbacks at Europe’s external land borders by the EU border agency Frontex. At sea, NGOs have also collected evidence of refugees being intercepted and illegally pushed back to Turkey from Greek waters. International human rights and refugee law requires states to protect the right of people to seek asylum and protection from refoulement even if they enter irregularly. The increasingly frequent pushbacks have prompted calls by the UN Refugee Agency for an urgent investigation.

Respecting human lives and refugee rights is not a choice, it’s a legal and moral obligation. While countries have the legitimate right to manage their borders in accordance with international law, they must also respect human rights. Pushbacks are simply illegal,” said UNHCR’s assistant commissioner for protection Gillian Triggs in a statement…

https://genevasolutions.news/peace-humanitarian/cornish-it-s-hard-to-imagine-how-saving-a-life-can-become-a-criminalised-activity

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