A new report released by Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) stresses that the EU has “catastrophically failed” in its responsibility to respond to the urgent humanitarian and medical needs of refugees and migrants arriving at Europe’s borders. The continued focus on securing borders and deterrence, coupled with anti-immigration policies developed since the 1990s and ad hoc asylum systems in the Member States have contributed to the current reception crisis.
The MSF report, ’Obstacles Course to Europe’ comes at a particularly timely moment as EU countries including Sweden, Germany and Austria, which in 2015 received high numbers of asylum claims, have reinstated border controls with neighbouring states to significantly restrict the flow of refugees. The passport-free Schengen Zone seems to be suspended, at least temporarily. At the same time, from Calais to the Balkans and Greece, many thousands of migrants are living in makeshift camps in dismal, unsanitary conditions, stuck in limbo. Rather than constructively putting into practice Chancellor Merkel’s ’We can do it’ approach by providing full support to localities receiving refugees and migrants, fostering integration and mutual understanding, and implementing ways of relocating newcomers across Europe in solidarity, the focus has once again shifted to making ’Fortress Europe’ as impenetrable as possible. Many countries’ outright refusal to host refugees or only accept extremely limited numbers and rising xenophobia across the continent fuelled by far-right political parties and movements in many European countries, make for a bleak outlook for 2016. As the global displacement crisis is likely to continue for many years, the consequence of these latest attempts to ward off migrants will be an increase in people smuggling, and ever more dangerous and complex routes taken by migrants to reach Europe. By effectively pushing the borders back to Greece and Italy and denying onward travel, these countries will be under even greater pressure to provide adequate and humane reception services and respond to the diverse health needs of newcomers. The MSF report calls on Europe to dismantle its obstacle course and to provide assistance and safe, legal passage to refugees and migrants fleeing wars, hunger and desperate conditions, in line with international obligations and commitments. MSF highlight that vulnerable populations’ health is suffering from EU policies which offer no legal pathways to reach Europe and poor conditions on arrival. Many migrants suffer from physical problems and mental health trauma as a result of their difficult journeys and the experiences they have made en route and in Europe, including discrimination and verbal and physical violence. Subjecting them to the ’asylum lottery’ only makes things worse.
Can Europe afford to aggravate a humanitarian crisis right in our midst? The health, social and economic impacts of denying migrants universal access to healthcare to the many thousands of people in desperate need of primary and preventative care would be not only immoral but a shortsighted false economy with repercussions felt for years and even decades to come.