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MSF Crisis Info #12: MSF European Migration Activities, 23 February 2016

News and Press Release
Originally published



In 2015, the total number of arrivals by boat to Europe largely surpassed the 219,000 figure of 2014 numbers, with the UNHCR reporting that a total of 1,014,836 people reached Europe by boat in 2015. The largest number has come via Greece (856,723) then Italy (153,600) with smaller numbers arriving in Spain (2797) and Malta (105). According to the UNHCR - 84% came from refugee-producing countries, with 49% from Syria, 21% from Afghanistan and 9% from Iraq. 17% were women and 25% were children under the age of 18.

Despite the winter conditions, people have not stopped fleeing and since the beginning of 2016, more than 101,316 people have arrived in Europe, mainly from the Aegean Sea. Tragically, more than 400 people have died or gone missing this year alone.

For more information the IOM and UNHCR have excellent websites with up to date information on arrivals, demographics and deaths.

MSF Key messages

In 2015, European policies led to a dramatic worsening the refugee crisis: 2015 will be remembered as the year in which Europe catastrophically failed in its responsibility to respond to the urgent need for assistance and protection of over a million men, women and children. Not only did the European Union and European governments collectively fail to address the urgent humanitarian and medical needs of refugees and migrants arriving at external and internal EU borders, but their policies and actions actively contributed to the worsening of the so-called “refugee crisis” and the health and wellbeing of those who fled.

Europe’s restrictive policies put some of the world’s most vulnerable people in more danger, causing more suffering, as they risk it all to try to bring themselves, and their families, to safety. European countries (and transit countries) have the responsibility to ensure their policies guarantee the right to seek asylum and respect fundamental rights and human dignity.

People will continue to risk their lives in the hands of smugglers as long as there are no safe alternatives: There are very few safe channels that people can take to reach protection, safety and a better life. With Europe’s land borders sealed, people are forced into the hands of smugglers and into leaky, overcrowded boats on the Mediterranean and Aegean seas. As of 20 February, 94.269 people had arrived in Greece from Turkey by sea; this brings the total number of arrivals to the Greek islands since 1 January 2015 to more than 950,000. The daily average of nearly 2,000 arrivals is nearly ten times the daily average of a year ago. The Aegean Sea has become the most deadly route for people trying to reach Greece from Turkey. To date, more than 400 people were reported death in the Mediterranean Sea.

Search and rescue is not a solution to the situation, safe and legal alternatives are, but resources must be sufficiently allocated to mitigate for more unnecessary loss of life: In the last 6 months of 2015, we have seen an increase of vessels contributing to search and rescue efforts in the Central Mediterranean (mainly through FRONTEX, EUNAVFOR) . Combined with the decrease of the arrivals in the Central Mediterranean, this led to an improvement in the assistance of boats in distress. This also led to MSF to decide to put an end to its last SAR vessel still at sea, the Argos on 31st of December 2015. It remains European states’ responsibility and imperative to maintain and provide adequate and proactive resources to rescue lives at sea. We very much hope these resources will be sufficient next year and that our boats will no longer be needed. For this, a creation of a dedicated mechanism to ensure adequate search and rescue capacity in the Mediterranean, with the primary remit to save lives, is essential. In the coming months, the situation may rapidly change and number of arrivals will certainly increase again. EU must ensure that an adequate search and rescue capacity is assured when the numbers will rise. Moreover, the focus of European policies on targeting smugglers, who remain a symptom of the lack of safe and legal channels, should not take precedence over the urgency of providing lifesaving assistance and appropriate humanitarian assistance for those who risk their life in search of safety and a better life.

In the Aegean Sea, MSF has launched rescue activities in the Aegean Sea off the island of Lesvos in collaboration with the international organization Greenpeace. But its resources are not sufficient and further rescue operations should be put in place in the Aegean Sea, where numbers of people crossing from Turkey to Greece remains very high (nearly 2,000 people a day) and where winter and conditions at sea are making this trip every day more dangerous. The announcement on 11 February that NATO would patrol the Aegean Sea to intercept refugee and migrant boats is another worrying indication of the military focus of the European response, which is not adequate to address the assistance and protection needs of those fleeing for their lives.

The humanitarian consequences of border closures: Rash decisions to close borders and a lack of coordination between different European states have created incredible stress and dangerous conditions for thousands of people on the move. MSF has documented the domino effect of border closure: each time a border closes, thousands of people are abruptly halted, stranded in no man’s lands, with little to no humanitarian assistance, and ultimately, forced onto more dangerous routes or into the hands of smugglers. Authorizing transit across the Balkans had so far been the only realistic response to the failure of the European asylum system and Greece’s inability to offer assistance and protection. These sudden policy changes, implemented without any consideration of people’s protection, medical or shelter needs, shows once again the incapacity of European and Western Balkans States to provide coherent and humane solutions to the needs of desperate people in search of protection. Everyone has the right to seek asylum, and refugee status and protection needs cannot be judged based on nationality alone.

Contrary to what governments claim, the construction of fences at the EU’s external borders over the past years has not lead to a decrease in the number of people trying to cross and seek protection in the European Union: it has only pushed people to take more risks by crossing the sea instead of safer land borders and has forced them to resort to a thriving smuggling business. As reception places and access to asylum procedures in Greece, the main country of entry, remain largely insufficient and below standards, recent announcements of further border closure along the Balkan route- potentially ring-fencing/entrapping tens of thousands of people in Greece - are of great concern to MSF. There is potentially a deeper humanitarian crisis in the making.

European countries are only accepting a small share of the total number of displaced: Most of the world’s displaced people live elsewhere in their home countries or in the counties surrounding their home countries, relatively few are granted asylum elsewhere. For example, twelve million Syrians have been displaced by the ongoing conflict. Eight million have fled to other parts of Syria. Four million live as refugees in the countries that surround Syria – many of these countries are now overwhelmed (one in four people living in Lebanon are now Syrian refugees). Only a million people have made it to Europe – that is less than 2% of the total number of European population. It is more than time for European countries to adopt more humane and asylum policies.

Externalized border controls in transit countries and countries of origin cannot be the EU's solution to the European refugee crisis: The enforcement of migration cooperation deals between the EU and its member states with third countries is resulting in unacceptable humanitarian consequences, including high levels of violence and a sustained erosion of refugee and asylum law. The EU can no longer turn a blind eye to the well documented abuses associated with such externalization of border controls. Unless concrete protection measures to assure equal treatment and the dignity, safety and protection of people on the move are in place, abuses of migrants and refugees will worsen with increased externalization of border control. Our experience in Morocco and Libya amongst others has shown such policies to have severe medical humanitarian consequences, with people suffering high levels of abuse and ill-treatment.

Key Recommendations

The urgent need for safe passage: The only way to save life and alleviate the suffering of these people is to provide them with a safe passage through:

  • The swift provision of safe and legal channels for people seeking asylum, in particular allowing asylum seekers to apply for asylum at external land borders, including the Evros land border between Turkey and Greece. This also includes making wider use of legal entry schemes, such as for example family reunification, humanitarian visas, simplified visa requirements, resettlement and relocation.

  • The creation legal migration pathways to decrease the demand for irregular migration and smuggling networks.

  • The creation of an ambitious search and rescue mechanism to save lives at sea. This operation should proactively search for boats in distress as close to departure points as possible and should be accompanied by pre-identified disembarkation points where humane disembarkation procedures, including adequate reception conditions, medical care and vulnerability assessments, are in place.

  • Investing in reception according to EU standards instead of deterrence measures only. Europe must move away from a fortress approach to a reception approach designed to address the needs and specific vulnerabilities of people arriving at its borders, in particular their medical and mental health needs.

  • In the absence of a functioning common European asylum system, investing more ambitiously in intra-EU relocation schemes and the creation of safe passage through the EU.

  • Putting an end to acts of violence and abuse from state authorities.