The humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders, often known by its French acronym MSF (Medecines Sans Frontières), which provides aid to some of the most vulnerable people in some of the most dangerous war zones on Earth, announced yesterday that it would shut down operations in a Greek refugee camp that is one of the front lines of the European refugee crisis.
The group is responding to a new European Union plan for dealing with the refugee crisis, under which it will forcibly send refugees who arrive in Greece back to Turkey. MSF says it considers this "unfair and inhumane" and will refuse to participate, even complicitly, by providing services at the refugee camp of Moria on the Greek island of Lesvos.
"We will not allow our assistance to be instrumentalized for a mass expulsion operation, and we refuse to be part of a system that has no regard for the humanitarian or protection needs of asylum seekers and migrants," Marie Elisabeth Ingres, the group's head of mission in Greece, said in a stinging press release.
That means an organization that continues to work in war zones in South Sudan, Yemen, and Syria has concluded that its position in a European refugee camp is morally untenable. And that speaks to just how desperate and reactive the European Union has become in dealing with — but not solving — the growing refugee crisis.
The new EU plan: help Greece at the expense of refugees
Under the terms of the new refugee deal, which was announced on March 18 (it's not clear whether it's yet been put into effect), refugees and other "irregular migrants" who arrive in Greece — tens of thousands land on Greek islands every month — will be shipped to Turkey.
That's the "mass expulsion" MSF is warning about.
In exchange for accepting those refugees, Turkey — which is already hosting 1.9 million refugees — will get up to €6 billion in aid over the next two years, plus a promise from Europe to resettle one Syrian refugee from Turkey for each Syrian sent back from Greece, although that resettlement program is capped at 78,000 refugees.
That could provide some relief for Greece, which has struggled under the burden of hosting large refugee camps as Europe experiences its largest refugee crisis since World War II.
But as MSF and other groups point out, that relief comes at the expense of refugees, who will now face even more danger than they already do.
Why the EU's new refugee plan is so dangerous
MSF's decision to quit the Moria refugee camp in Greece over the new EU plan speaks to just how dangerous that plan is for refugees. And that danger comes in two forms.
The first is that Turkey simply isn't a safe country for refugees. Turkish law forbids Iraqis and Afghans from obtaining refugee status, which means if citizens of those countries are sent to Turkey — as the terms of this deal would require — they could be deported to Iraq or Afghanistan, where they would face persecution.
In fact, Amnesty International has accused Turkey of deporting a group of approximately 30 Afghan asylum seekers to Kabul on the same day the EU-Turkey deal was announced, highlighting the degree to which Turkey is a dangerous place for refugees.
"The ink wasn’t even dry on the EU-Turkey deal when several dozen Afghans were forced back to a country where their lives could be in danger," Amnesty's Europe and Central Asia director John Dalhuisen said in a press statement. "This latest episode highlights the risks of returning asylum seekers to Turkey."
While Syrians are eligible for asylum under Turkish law, that doesn't mean Syrians are necessarily safe there: Human Rights Watch has accused Turkey of pushing refugees back into Syria.
That would seem to be a serious violation of international law, which prohibits sending refugees to any country where they would face persecution.
The second problem with the new EU policy is that because it only affects refugees who arrive in Greece, and because it's so dangerous for refugees to remain in Turkey, the likely effect is to force refugees to take other routes to safety — almost certainly pushing many into routes they would have otherwise avoided because they are too dangerous.
Indeed, the BBC reports that after the announcement of the Greece-Turkey agreement, there has already been a spike in migrant traffic along the very dangerous sea route across the strait of Sicily. The Italian coast guard announced Saturday that it had rescued 900 people trying to make the crossing.
So perhaps you can see why MSF would decide to leave the Moria refugee camp over this policy. The camp, after all, is supposed to be a place where refugees can find protection. But this new policy turns it into a place where they will encounter new dangers of persecution and new risks to their safety. It is small wonder that MSF feels that any involvement in such a system is morally untenable. And although MSF avoids political activism, it's hard not to read this decision as a strong protest against the new EU policy and the effect it will have on vulnerable refugees.
And the fact that MSF will remain in so many war zones but not at Moria is also perhaps a statement, whether it is meant to be or not, about how perverse European refugee policy has become; how much it is not only failing to solve the problem of one of the world's greatest humanitarian crises but is increasingly part of the problem itself.