Médecins Sans Frontières or MSF ( also known as Doctors Without Borders), one of Europe’s biggest humanitarian organization, has recently released a statement criticizing the European Union’s (EU) “deterrence policies and intensifying attempts to push people and their suffering away from European shores,” and the signing of the EU-Turkey deal. The organization has thus announced that it would refuse all European funding and would indefinitely suspend its activities in the refugee camp of Lesbos, Greece.
MSF received, in 2015, over 62.8 million euros of aid from European countries and institutions. Nevertheless, this amount only represents 8% of its annual budget, which is secured thanks to its 5.7 million private donators. The organization has also assured the international community that its projects would not be hindered by this decision.
A History of Political Outspokenness
Although MSF’s decision has come as a surprise to most, the humanitarian agency has a long tradition of political and ethical outspokenness. The institution’s mission statement includes a commitment to “bearing witness” and “speak[ing] out publicly” against cases of “extreme acts of violence against individuals or groups.” The organism also emphasizes the pledge made by its former President upon reception of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999 that “We are not sure that words can always save lives, but we know that silence can certainly kill.”
Throughout its history, the organization stood against blatant crimes of violence. It was thus evicted from Ethiopia in 1985 for “speaking out against the government’s misuse of aid to forcibly relocate millions of its people resulting in tens of thousands of deaths.” Similarly, in the case of the refugee crisis, Jerome Oberreit, International Secretary General of MSF, has accused EU member states of a “shameful European response focused on deterrence rather than providing people with the assistance and protection they need […] The EU-Turkey deal goes one step further and has placed the very concept of ‘refugee’ and the protection it offers in danger.”
An Unethical Agreement
The EU-Turkey deal lays out the forced return of all refugees currently in Greece and whose asylum request has been rejected to Turkey, in exchange of $6.7 billion in financial aid, fast-tracked EU membership talks and the adoption of visa-free travel for Turkish citizens in Europe. Although it was unanimously supported by all European member states, the plan endangers refugees’ most basic rights and protections. Turkey is indeed not a full signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention and as such many Syrians in Turkey still cannot access education or healthcare services and struggle to find employment. Because of the financial burden – Turkey has spent $10 billion so far – and the overburdening of the administration, which has already registered more than 2.7 million asylum seekers, the Turkish government has decided to deport many refugees back to their unsecured homelands. One Syrian refugee in Turkey described his experience as “unsafe” and dismally added: “we fled death, but have come to a place where we have no life.”
Beyond the numerous violations of international law and the risk refugees face within Turkey, the very viability of the treaty is threatened by the inability – or unwillingness – of both parties to fulfill their commitments. The Turkish government has been accused of selecting only refugees exposing serious medical conditions or ill-educated to be resettled in Europe. Moreover, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has admitted that the establishment of visa-free travels before the July 1st deadline was “unlikely,” and has announced 72 new conditions Turkey needs to comply with before it could be achieved including guarantees of an “independent judicial system, […] independent media and […] a strong parliament.”
Until the renegotiation of these conditions, the resettlement process has come to a halt and although 400 asylum-seekers have returned to Turkey and 177 refugees were resettled in Europe, 8.500 asylum seekers are still believed to remain in Greece, waiting with a sword of Damocles hanging over their heads. And while Merkel’s intention to inspire democratic change in Turkey is honorable, using the refugee crisis as nothing but a bargaining chip is not only morally reprehensible but politically unsound. Indeed, if Turkey considers that the agreement will not be respected by the EU it might very well decide to open its borders and let the flow of refugees cross into Europe, unchecked and unrestrained.
A New Era for Humanitarian Organizations?
Although the declaration constitutes the organization’s first major political condemnation of Western policies, MSF’s intensifying criticism of the EU refugee policy seems to have inaugurated a larger movement within the humanitarian community. Numerous charities and relief agencies have followed MSF’s example by pulling out of Greece and even the UNHCR has recently denounced the rise of xenophobia in Europe and the EU-Turkey deal as “not consistent with international law.” Contrary to its previous denunciations, MSF virulent criticism of the EU-Turkey deal could generate significant political results. Ministers from Belgium and Sweden have expressed their regret at the organization’s decision and have called for a change in the EU policy in order to continue their successful collaboration with MSF.
Beyond the EU refugee crisis, MSF’s move could also influence other refugee situations and Europe’s own xenophobic sentiment. The organization has indeed launched a serious campaign in an attempt to win the public opinion and undermine anti-refugee sentiment in Europe in the form of a comical webserie called “Je ne suis pas Johnny” (“I am not Johnny”). Furthermore, because the EU has expanded the EU-Turkish deal model to African countries, Kenya recently cited the EU-Turkey deal as a justification for closing the world’s largest refugee camp, making over 300.000 people homeless overnight and possibly triggering a humanitarian and political crisis in the region. MSF’s refusal to accept EU money may certainly act as a wake-up call to EU lawmakers and officials and considerably improve the lives of thousands of refugees around the world.
Therefore, although some have criticized MSF for its partiality, this author considers that MSF’s practical criticism of the EU refugee policy is a courageous one and serves as a model, inaugurating a new era for humanitarian organizations and hopefully breaking the cycle of silence that has plagued the humanitarian community.