16 Jun 16 16 Jan 18

From MSF Canada's executive director: We must uphold promises to global refugee community

Stephen Cornish
Directeur général de MSF Canada
« Ces enfants, ces femmes et ces hommes vivant dans une situation d'extrême précarité méritent, après l'enfer de l'exode, qu'on se préoccupe d'eux et qu'on leur offre une assistance digne pour qu'ils puissent rebâtir leur vie et s'épanouir. »

This article was originally published on Huffington Post.

By Stephen Cornish, executive director of Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Canada

“I was beaten with bare hands, with sticks, with guns. If you move, they beat you. If you talk, they beat you. We spent two months like that, being beaten every day.” 

That is how Agnes, an Eritrean woman rescued by Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)’s search-and-rescue operations from a sinking migrant boat in the Mediterranean Sea, described her ordeal at the hands of people-smugglers.

“I knew that the journey would be very dangerous and difficult,” she continued, “especially for my daughter. But what was the alternative? We could not survive in Eritrea or Sudan. Our government does not allow people to leave. With our documents in Eritrea, there was no other way for us to get to Europe.”

A global displacement crisis

Agnes is just one of the 60 million people worldwide who have been uprooted and displaced from their homes by conflict, disaster or oppression — the greatest number since World War II. Her story highlights not only the brutal violence that many migrants are subjected to while trying to reach their intended destinations, but also the dilemma they face: whether to risk the horrors of criminal-run migration routes or remain trapped in untenable situations at home. The lack of a more humane choice is the direct result of government policies that deliberately place obstacles in the paths of those who wish to seek refuge or asylum in new countries.

Next Monday, June 20, is World Refugee Day, a time to acknowledge the fact that millions of people like Agnes remain in desperate limbo, displaced from their homes and cut off from peace, security and stability. MSF delivers humanitarian medical care to many of these people first-hand: to those who have been uprooted by war, are stuck in transit camps or have risked the dangers of underground people-smuggling networks. MSF teams have witnessed the suffering and conflict that have led people to embark on these terrifying journeys — and the humanitarian consequences of the international community’s failure to protect their rights and freedoms.

The current global migration crisis is exacerbated by governments shirking their obligations to protect people during their most vulnerable moments. States are increasingly disregarding their responsibilities to uphold the rights of migrants and refugees, and are failing to treat them with humanity and dignity — violations of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 1951 Refugee Convention and the Fourth Geneva Convention.

Outsourcing international responsibilities

Despite being signatories to these agreements, in which the rights for asylum seekers have been codified, many countries pre-empt them by instituting ever more restrictive interdiction policies in attempts to tighten their borders. Several wealthier nations use development aid and political incentives to effectively shift their responsibility to protect refugees onto developing and fragile countries — or simply make a deal to do so outright, as with the European Union’s cynical and deplorable recent decision to outsource its management of Syrian refugees to Turkey. Internally, countries are using restrictive immigration policies, such as limiting access to social services like healthcare; creating obstacles to accessing the asylum system process; and in contravention of UN norms increasing use of prolonged detention for immigration matters.

Elsewhere, physical and bureaucratic barriers are erected by states to prevent refugees from seeking asylum within their borders. Migrants are stopped by armed and defended border controls, like the 175-kilometre razor-wire fence that was built by Hungary on its Serbian border. They are housed in under-served and prolonged detention camps in host countries in an attempt to dissuade new arrivals, as seen by the hundreds of thousands of Syrians in Lebanon and Jordan living in inadequate shelters.

Fleeing violence, only to find hardship

These measures force migrants into situations that can oft times be as dangerous as in the countries from which they are fleeing, pushing them underground and into the hands of people smugglers who charge exorbitant prices for deadly treks across deserts and waterways and often inflict physical abuse and sexual violence along the way.

Even those fortunate enough to survive these journeys often find no welcome mat. Many migrants who are able to reach their destinations are undocumented, and remain underground due to hardening national legislation and regional deterrence policies. This creates a fear around seeking out basic services and medical care because of migrants’ uncertain legal status. Remaining vulnerable, fearful and without basic healthcare for lengthy periods further impacts their well-being as they will risk surfacing only for dire emergencies.

A comprehensive political solution is needed, in which states live up to their obligations and respect the refugee framework and international laws they agreed to uphold. Governments and international bodies need to address the wars and deprivation that force people to flee. They must humanely and adequately support refugees who are in transit, stuck in camps and in detention.

The global migration crisis will remain a defining issue of our time; and it is one which I believe we must collectively meet together. To do so, a paradigm shift is urgently needed. An extremely vulnerable migratory population of children, women and men deserve dignified care and the opportunity to rebuild their lives and prosper. As citizens and governments of the world, we have the means; together we must now collectively decide if we have the will.

Stephen Cornish is the executive director of Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Canada

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