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Doctors Without Borders Spain talks about migrant rescue, refugee emergencies and working in conflict zones
By thinkSPAIN Team Sat, Aug 24, 2019
“WE'RE NOT scared by threats. Nobody's going to convince us that there's anything wrong with rescuing people.”
Chairman of Doctors Without Borders in Spain, David Noguera, spoke out publicly this week over the plight of migrants cast adrift on boats in no man's land, or water, and how the charity community feels Europe has turned its back on those most in need.
The Catalunya-based charity Open Arms hit international headlines this month when its boat of the same name was refused entry to every port, including all those in the nearest safe countries, Italy and Malta – although happily, Italian interior minister Matteo Salvini has relaxed his ban on 'illegal immigration' and allowed the remaining 90 out of 160 migrants on board to dock.
Six countries will each take in a group, including Spain, who will resettle 15.
The others had gradually disembarked in Italian ports due to medical emergencies, including pregnancy complications and imminent labour.
Noguera says the Open Arms situation was a 'pitiful spectacle', a 'competition etween Salvini and the Spanish government', although he does not want to 'single out' Spain's socialist cabinet since 'the opposition has not exactly been up to the job either'.
Now, for Doctors Without Borders – or Médicos Sin Fronteras (MSF), as they are known in Spain – the situation is even more pressing: the charity's boat, the Ocean Viking, has only just been given permission to dock in Malta after over two weeks stranded at sea with 356 migrants on board.
“It was getting desperate. By Thursday, we only had five standard food rations on board, and our doctors were getting seriously concerned about the sharp decline in the passengers' mental health,” Noguera reveals.
“Every day was getting just a little bit harder. This is a rescue boat, so it's not geared up to have 356 people living on it long-term.”
Once the Ocean Viking, part-owned by the French charity SOS Méditerranée, has dropped anchor in Malta, the migrants will be distributed between five countries including France, Germany and the Republic of Ireland – although Spain is not one of them.
Although MSF cheered when Spain's president Pedro Sánchez allowed the migrant rescue boat Aquarius to disembark in Valencia just over a year ago, Noguera worries that little positive movement has been made across Europe since and that Sánchez's appeals for a continent-wide hymn sheet on handling refugee rescue and resettlement have not been heard.
“Whenever there have been people rescuing people – be they charities, merchant ships or fishing boats – they've found themselves trapped in a kind of political game of ping-pong between governments that clearly shows their inability to find a flexible solution to these situations,” Noguera laments.
“Instead of the automatic mechanisms we need to guarantee lives will be saved, we come up against manoeuvres trying to block the work of charities – uncomfortable witnesses to these human dramas.”
What is the solution?
“Once and for all, we need - and have needed for a long time now – a mechanism that, firstly, ensures people who throw themselves onto the sea to escape a desperate situation, often victims of mafia and fraud, can be saved, because these people are the victims, not the offenders.
“And secondly, we need a mechanism that allows them to be taken as swiftly as possible to a safe port where their human rights are guaranteed and they are treated with the dignity they deserve.
“Instead of like as now, with an exhausting case-by-case reactionary situation, solutions dreamt up on the hoof, we need a set procedure.
“In the case of the Ocean Viking and Open Arms, returning to Libya when they were not allowed to dock in any European port was not an option. Libya is a real black hole in terms of basic human rights.”
What constitutes a 'safe port'?
“Any port that's at a reasonable distance from where the migrants have come from and in a country where basic human rights are guaranteed and the migrants' dignity is assured – just as we would all expect for ourselves.
“You find yourself having to remember things that should be so obvious: they're human beings, and the only thing they want, just as any other human being does, is a decent life for themselves and their loved ones.”
Is the Spanish government really doing so badly in terms of migrant help?
“We were truly thankful at the time [of the Aquarius] for the Spanish government's gesture, and especially that of the people of Valencia, all of whom behaved wonderfully and gave us all a lesson on compassion and acceptance. We'd be open to all types of solutions like this in future, but I'm sending out the same message now: Can we please come to an agreement, once and for all, about saving the lives of extremely vulnerable people who have escaped from intolerable ways of life, about getting them to a safe port, and then afterwards, perhaps, deciding upon how we deal with each situation once they're out of harm's way? Can we please find a more human, compassionate procedure that does not generate these levels of death and suffering?
“The answer is yes, we can, but the responsibility for doing so is in the hands of governments.”
Against all odds, will MSF and other charities continue to go into the Mediterranean to save drowning migrants?
“We'll try. We had another boat, but our flag was confiscated by the British government, alleging 'administrative reasons', but in reality in response to pressure from their European allies. We were left without a boat and it's taken us months to prepare another one and find a new flag.
“We'll see, but we certainly have the ability to persist. Our hospitals in Syria and Yemen have been bombed, for example, but we've rebuilt them and carried on.”
Open Arms could be fined up to €901,000 for rescuing migrants. Might MSF have the same problem?
“We don't know, because these things are taken on a case-by-case basis and it seems these occurrences are being invented on the spot – manoeuvres designed to stop charities' work, distance them from the problem and turn them into something unseen. We're inconvenient witnesses to one of Europe's biggest crises.
“But we're also pig-headed people and we're used to working in very difficult contexts, so neither threats of fines or of anything else will scare us. As chairman of MSF I refuse to 'sit down at the table' to 'discuss' whether or not to give food to someone suffering serious malnutrition, or whether or not to operate on someone who has been injured during armed conflict.
“I hope when [Spanish government spokeswoman] Carmen Calvo said charity boats need 'permission to rescue' before they go ahead, she did not mean this as it came out – because otherwise, it's a statement that's going to dog her for the rest of her political career.”
Open Arms, MSF and other charities working in the Mediterranean have been accused of 'criminal activity', of 'aiding illegal immigration' and even compared with human traffickers.
“I believe that however well or badly informed the average person is, they'll realise just how abhorrent these statements are. We're used to having complex relationships with political figures and other key organisations, especially in countries blighted by armed conflict. But the difference here is that these words are being said in Europe. People have a right to freedom of expression, sure, but what they express is a reflection of how humanity seems to be deteriorating. We're becoming sharply aware of how, in a matter of just a few years, xenophobic discourse or 'opinions' which go against basic human rights that we always thought were a given for everyone are becoming almost normal, or at least whitewashed.
“There are people, for example, who glibly say the rescued migrants should be sent back to Libya, where they've suffered torture and persecution. And it seems these xenophobic views are supported or glossed over by politicians – some in a very histrionic manner, such as Salvini, but even in Spain [far-right party Vox has likened Open Arms to human traffickers and slammed them for 'helping illegal immigration'].
“Saving people from drowning in the sea and giving them their basic human rights, like shelter, should never be up for discussion and should always be guaranteed.”
MSF's work around the globe
Doctors Without Borders has workers from almost every country on earth and many of them are local to the site where their skills are needed. Although a charity, the organisation stresses that its workers are not volunteers, but are salaried, because it would be nearly impossible to find enough specialists able to give up months or years of their lives helping out in often dangerous parts of the planet for no pay – and by employing their helpers and giving them a salary, Doctors Without Borders can guarantee it has access to a pool of medically-qualified personnel and other necessary specialists.
Médicos Sin Fronteras (MSF), as the organisation is known in Spain, has a permanent presence in four continents: the Americas (México, Nicaragua, Venezuela, El Salvador and Colombia); Asia, including the Middle East (Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Yemen, the occupied Palestinian territories, India, Bangladesh and Thailand); Africa (Mali, Niger, Sudan, South Sudan, Ethiopia, the Central Africa Republic, Zambia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Angola, Cameroon, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and Guinea-Bissau), and even Europe (Turkey).
Each year, MSF Spain handles hundreds, thousands or millions of cases ranging from treating patients with malaria, haemorrhagic fever, cholera, HIV and AIDS, tuberculosis, kala azar, and serious malnutrition, through to dealing with pregnancy, childbirth, newborn care, mental health, and victims of violence, including gender or domestic violence, rape and torture.
It attends to primary care cases, offers consultations, hospital admissions, surgery, post- and pre-natal advice and care, and provides vaccinations during epidemics including measles and meningitis, and anti-retro viral treatment for HIV sufferers to prolong their lives and quality of life.
As well as essential medical services in parts of the world where these are not guaranteed or are even absent, the charity has distributed over 15.6 million litres of drinking water and 40,600 parcels of food and other basics to families in the past year.
Main projects in 2018
MSF Spain has been closely involved in almost every global emergency in the past year.
In January, the focus was on the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh who were forced out of their homes in neighbouring Myanmar, whilst in February, MSF Spain helped out trapped refugees within Syria who were suffering from extreme cold, hunger and illness.
March saw the charity vaccinating nomad children in the Sahel region of the Sahara desert, mostly in Mali, and April had the team ploughing resources into the Gaza strip after thousands of Palestinians were shot.
Ongoing emergencies in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and civilians maimed by firearms and suffering diphtheria, cholera and malaria in Yemen kept them busy in May and June, whilst the worst-ever refugee migration movement due to inter-community violence in Ethiopia, and the deepening of the conflict in Cameroon, meant all hands on deck in July and August.
A precarious truce in South Sudan required two emergency interventions in the upper Nile and eastern equatorial region in September, and with more and more civilians seeking refuge in the Borno area of Nigeria from areas under military control, MSF reinforced its hospitals in the country in October.
Former fighters of the military faction Séléka sacked and burnt extensive parts of the city of Batangafo in the Central African Republic and over 10,000 people sought refuge in the MSF hospital in November, and 2018 finished with offering basic healthcare for those fleeing Venezuela over the Colombian border and Colombian expats in Venezuela returning home to escape the growing violence in the latter South American country in December.
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