Call for ‘humanitarian’ approach to refugees

A mass grave is created on Europe’s doorstep as the continent hardens its stance on migration, writes Patricia Madden.

Dublin’s Rotunda Hospital recently hosted an event by Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) at which its member Will Turner highlighted that political policy so far has not met the needs of migrants. The organisation is left to deal with the humanitarian issues at grassroots level, he said.

At the talk, entitled “Life and Death on the Mediterranean”, attendees were given an insight into the reality for north African migrants to the southern borders of Europe. Mr Turner, a logistician for MSF search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean, described the “mass grave created on [Europe’s] doorstep”.

While MSF remains a non-governmental organisation, its call for State assistance in its operations is clear. In closing the talk, director of MSF in Ireland Jane-Ann McKenna added that the organisation had held talks with Minister for Defence Simon Coveney earlier in the day on the organisation of further search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean.

© Ikram N'gad

© Ikram N’gad

MSF would like to make a meaningful impact in challenging current policy but feel there is a lack of understanding for the migrants’ position. “Europe is hardening its stance,” said Mr Turner. He maintained that the “push’ factor overrides the “pull” factor, however, and that these people have taken a very difficult decision to leave their homes. They are fleeing from war-torn countries and oppressive regimes. They feel that they have no other choice than to migrate.

Mr Turner spent five months, from May to September last, aboard the MY Phoenix. It is one of three search-and-rescue ships that have operated in the Mediterranean in 2015. The other two, the Bourbon Argos and the Dignity I, carried out the main rescues. The MY Phoenix was positioned as a post-rescue care provider. Its crew rescued 7,000 people during this time with a total of 20,000 helped by the operation over all.

Mr Turner called for more “humanitarian integration than military” reaction. He highlighted that EU action so far has not been focused on the primary needs of refugees but rather on stamping out smugglers, which can in turn worsen migrant conditions. He and MSF want to convey the dismal conditions for refugees. The people rescued at sea are in need of medical attention and have been left without access to basic requirements such as sufficient nutrition.

The boats used by smugglers are, effectively, large dinghies. As EU intervention has mainly targeted smugglers and aimed at destroying boats, people are forced into even less safe, “mass-produced Chinese rubber inflatable boats” that can be packed with up to 130 people. Mr Turner believed that this tactic “doesn’t treat the issue at its core’.

He explained that up to half of the people smuggled are placed in cramped conditions in the hold of the boat. These make for highly unsanitary surroundings. People must relieve themselves and so there is urine and excrement as well as the fumes of the boat’s engine, which means greater risk of infection and issues such as asphyxiation arise.

MSF do not look only at search and rescue in isolation but also at cultural integration. Aboard some of their rescue boats, they have what they call “cultural mediators” who not only serve as translators but as a cushion for migrants as they are about to enter a foreign culture different from their own.

Also the talk put forward the need for more “hotspots” where people could be registered on the continent. Only about one-third of asylum seekers register in Italy and Greece, with the rest moving, “unofficially”, through Europe. This means these people are effectively unaccounted for.


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