MSF chief: The way Europe treats refugees is ‘a disgrace’

Liu pointed out that one lesson learnt from the Ebola pandemic is that the authorities should share more information on cross-border diseases, such as the Zika virus. [Chatham House/Flickr]

Joanne Liu, the energetic president of Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), says that the response to refugees in Greece is “indecent”. She contends that refugees should be offered a “welcome package” when they arrive in Europe.

Joanne Liu is a Canadian doctor. She was elected President of Médecins Sans Frontières in June 2013.

Liu spoke with EURACTIV’s Jorge Valero at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

Your organisation was at the forefront of the global response against the Ebola virus. What lessons did you learn from this crisis?

In a global crisis, the global response is done through the lens of health security. This means that authorities prioritise the national self-interest and national security. Therefore, the imperative is not bringing help to the affected communities, but to ensure the protection of their nations.

The response to the Ebola crisis was a caricature of this. The first reaction was to close borders to protect themselves. We had to convince people to come to West Africa, because if you want to extinguish a fire, you need to enter into the burning building. We started to control the Ebola crisis only when we acted more massively and meaningfully in West Africa.

>>Read: Austria seeks EU aid suspension for countries rejecting ‘failed’ refugees

We will only learn what needs to be learnt if people start putting the national interest aside and to do what is best for the affected communities.

This is not the approach we are witnessing in Europe in dealing with the refugee crisis, as the member states are introducing border controls and sealing the external borders. Is there any parallel between the response given to the Ebola pandemic and to the refugee crisis?

You are right in making some sort of link between the global response to Ebola virus and the global response to the refugee crisis. Again, it is done through the lens of national security. And it is a pity, because it is not addressing the issue at its source. We are closing borders, but this is not the solution. The reality is that the refugee/migrant crisis will not be solved on its own. We are focusing on Europe, but the number of refugees here is only a marginal figure, because the bulk of the 60 million refugees in the world are relocated in Africa. 

German Finance Minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, said that Europe needs to invest billions of euros in Africa. Is that the right step?

We are a bit shocked by this, I must say.

By what?

By implementing measures to keep refugees away from Europe.

>>Read: Swiss, like Danes, seize assets from refugees to recoup costs

But he was referring to the efforts needed to keep migrants in their home nations, because 60% of the people arriving to Europe are migrants and not refugees, according to the European Commission…

I cannot agree fully with these figures. I don’t think that we have the full picture yet. Besides, we must also try to refrain from labelling people leaving their countries. Even if you don’t live in a war zone, I think it is a good reason to flee if you cannot feed your children. Nobody leaves home because it would be a fun trip. Most of times, it is a survival issue. The UN special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, François Crépeau, refers to this phenomenon as “migration for survival”, which I think is an appropriate term.

Is it not useful to distinguish between refugees and migrants?

People use this distinction to reduce the burden you are supposed to be addressing. The reality is that people are fleeing their homes to survive. Somehow, not all of them meet the criteria for being a refugee.

I agree with that, but it doesn’t mean that we cannot give them a decent ‘welcome package’ when they arrive to Lesbos. They should have food. They should have water and shelter. They should be treated as human beings. I was there in September, and we did not have what I would call a decent welcome package.

>>Read: Hungary shows EU aid does not ‘buy’ solidarity for refugees

What do you think about the response given by the member states to the refugees that arrived in Europe?

Each refugee should have the right to get a minimum package. It is a disgrace that this is not happening. The richest nations are not living up to the delivery of the minimum package that a refugee should be entitled to. I find this unacceptable and indecent. I understand the challenges, but don’t they have challenges in Darfur? 

Regarding the Zika virus, how worried are you about the spread of this disease?

It’s a worrying situation. First of all, we need to know what the magnitude of the problem is. In my view, we don’t have a global picture yet. We need to share our knowledge to figure out what is going on and to decide the best strategy to address it, or what we can do with the affected victims. It is a bit too early.

Coming back to the Ebola crisis, one lesson learnt was the need to pool our knowledge and know-how related to cross-border diseases. This is why I am a huge advocate of open data platforms, to share and make accessible to all the actors involved in these crises the knowledge we have, so we can harness all the benefits.

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