Refugees and Going Beyond Borders

By Jean-Michel Piedagnel and Nason Tan, association members 1.

The world, and especially Europe at the moment, is confronted with an “unprecedented” refugee crisis. MSF is actively involved in the response in Europe and it seems that many inside the organization, and outside, feel that the response should be about Europe and other wealthy countries opening their borders or at least ensuring safe routes.

The heartwarming scenes of citizens welcoming refugees in Germany, Austria, Indonesia 2 and Malaysia are also encouraging signs that civil society pressure might succeed in making access to some host countries easier and safer for the refugees, at least while emotions are flying high. It is a good thing. But it won’t be enough.

Europe and those few countries in Southeast Asia cannot open their borders to everyone fleeing wars or persecution. There are tens of millions 3 of people living in these affected regions who may decide that the only future for them and their families lies in Germany, the UK, Australia or Malaysia 4. Eventually these countries will not be able to cope with the massive influx. MSF’s response and advocacy must go beyond a certain number of routes and the seas of Europe. It must go beyond the immediate emotions that we are recently confronted with. Focusing solely on advocating for the opening of European borders will potentially cause more harm to refugees around the world in the long run.

Already there are mixed reactions from the general public to the refugees arriving in Europe. Its citizens are not always convinced they should be so generous. Loss of working and housing opportunities, financial burden on the government and taxpayers and so on are valid concerns that cannot be easily dismissed. No doubt that the ranks of Petra Laszio 5 and her peers will grow in the future as the crisis continues.

And this crisis is here to stay. Once the Europeans’ memories of Aylan on the beach have faded and when confounded with the realities of integrating an uninterrupted flow of refugees, we would not be surprised to see European nations adopting the same stance as Australia 6. A fortified Europe with fences built all around its borders and with immigration detention centers in Niger 7. Is that the answer we may be leading to by focusing on borders and safe routes?

MSF should be careful what it asks for. We should know better, especially if we look beyond the borders of Europe. The refugees crisis is global and we need to advocate for a global response 8.

If history is to teach us something, the Vietnamese boat people crisis 9 is a good example of what we should expect and want as a solution to this worldwide problem. In 1979, the UN organized an international conference that finally brought resolution to this international crisis. It was far from ideal but there was a paradigm shift for these populations.

An international solution is more politically acceptable for governments and populations alike, sinceeveryone contributes on a global basis. It’s by far a more appealing option to rally general support. It addresses more than one issue for the refugees, therefore creating more options to exercise their own choices and their dignity remains intact.

The situation today is not so dissimilar. Here are a few examples of the global problems refugees areconfronted with:

Safe and legal routes to countries are of course an obvious issue but we know politicians can, and will, easily place limits on this one.

Relocations should also be made easier and every country should contribute. Populations in Europe and South East Asia have shown that they are ready to welcome refugees. We need more of that.

Statelessness is a burning issue for Rohingyas refugees and may be for others. There should be an opportunity within an international “burden sharing” agreement to find a solution to this critical problem.

The real crisis is not in Europe. As always, it is in the countries of origin and neighbouring countries of the refugees. It is in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Indonesia and other countries where a large number of refugees are seeking protection.

Refugees should be able to make the choice to stay as close to their country of origin as possible. It is often their priority choice, not to risk a dangerous trip by sea. Today, the World Food Programme has had to cut funding for its food voucher program for Syrian refugees in Jordan. Another push factor from the first refuge.

The lack of legal framework is often an issue. Malaysia for example is not party to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and lacks a legislative and administrative framework to address refugee matters. It also limits access to the labour market and basic services, including health care and education.

A special mention should go to the situation within Syria and Myanmar. 7.6 millionsare internally displaced in Syria, while Rohingyas are in camps with little or no rights. In Syria, the establishment of credible safe havens and the implementation of a no-fly zone should be on the table for serious consideration by the international community 10.

Refugees need to be able to contribute to the local economy, at minimum for self-sustenance so that they can be seen as less of a burden and even as having a positive contribution to the economy.

Our list is not exhaustive but we want to stress how complex and broad this current refugee crisis is. It goes beyond borders issues. Refugees situation in Africa and America has its own issues and specificities too.

We are not saying that MSF needs to shift its global operational focus to work mainly on the current refugee crisis. It’s not MSF’s sole responsibility, we do not have the answer to all these issues, nor should we. But we believe MSF should seize the moment to finally act and think globally:

  • MSF needs to have a global operational response that does not solely focus on the shores of Europe. This is not happening now.
  • MSF needs to continue documenting the medical conditions of refugees, since better knowledge of health issues suffered by refugees and migrants, regardless of geographical location, can only lead to stronger temoignage.
  • MSF needs to define a global advocacy strategy with a clear message: “this is a global crisis that needs a global response”.

We simply owe it to the refugee populations around this world, to our mandate and to our principles to go beyond our own borders and to really act and talk globally on this current crisis.

1Nason is a medical doctor in Malaysia and a member of the MSF HK board. Jean-Michel is member of the International Board. They arewriting this personal contribution as MSF association members and social activists in Malaysia, a country that is a major destination for refugees in South East Asia. Nason is actively involved in providing medical care to refugees through his own NGO. This document only reflects their personal opinions.









10 On operational grounds though we believe that MSF should probably not get involved in that debate.

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