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World Humanitarian Day

Guest opinion: Humanitarian helpers in danger in Mediterranean

Civilian sea rescuers have been threatened with weapons while trying to help refugees. World Humanitarian Day is particularly difficult to mark this year, writes Volker Westerbarkey from Doctors Without Borders.

Doctors Without Borders has been heavily involved in refugee rescue efforts for more than two years: First, we had teams aboard rescue ships in the Mediterranean, and for the past year we have also been present at detention camps in Libya, where migrants are arbitrarily kept in inhumane conditions.

We are responding here to two dramatic humanitarian crises: the hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees exposed to extreme violence and dangers in Libya, and the more than 2,400 who have drowned in the Mediterranean this year alone.

The European Union has opted for isolation rather than meeting its responsibility to protect people at its borders, thus increasingly frustrating rescue efforts by organizations such as Doctors Without Borders. This is a bitter reality to reckon with today, on World Humanitarian Day.

On August 11, Libyan authorities announced they were creating their own search-and-rescue zone. This is a huge area of international waters off the Libyan coast that is to be off-limits to civilian humanitarian ships. In a scandalous development, the Libyan coast guard, which is heavily supported by the EU, has threatened to push humanitarian rescuers out of this zone, by force if necessary.

Rescuers under threat

Volker Westerbarkey

Volker Westerbarkey is the chairman of Doctors Without Borders in Germany

The climate is becoming more hostile for civilian rescue operations. Italy and the EU have issued a code of conduct for NGOs, which partly hinders their sea rescue efforts. Italy has now even deployed naval vessels to Libyan waters. The goal is clear: The EU and its member states are working with Libya to prevent people from fleeing the North African country - an unacceptable assault on the life and dignity of those in urgent need of protection.

Doctors Without Borders and other organizations will be unable to uphold internationally recognized humanitarian principles and international law on sea rescue and refugee protection should Libyan authorities carry through with their announced plans. It is illegal to return people to unsafe areas. Doctors Without Borders rejects a system that attempts, at any price, to deny people protection and security.

Such a policy has disastrous consequences above all for those trying to escape the dire situation in Libya. If humanitarian rescue ships are pushed out of the Mediterranean, it means that fewer people will be saved from drowning. Those who do not drown will be caught and returned to Libya, where anarchy, arbitrary detention, torture and sexual abuse run rampant.

Isolation taking precedence over protection

Our assessment of EU policy on World Humanitarian Day is a bitter one. Despite all the solemn statements about humanitarian principles, we see a very different reality: Isolating Europe often comes before protecting people in need of refuge.

Listen to audio 09:28

WorldLink: Tensions stir in the Mediterranean

With the EU-Turkey deal, EU heads of state - with Chancellor Angela Merkel leading the way - created the blueprints for a Fortress Europe. A domino effect of closed borders ensued, meaning that even people in war zones, such as Syria, are unable get out. Hundreds of thousands of would-be refugees remain stranded there under wretched conditions in desert regions and makeshift camps. Their suffering has not lessened; it is only further removed from Europe's borders - far from cameras and the public eye.

Our refugee work in more than 40 countries clearly shows that there is an urgent need for safe and legal escape routes for those who require them. The EU is hardly helpful. Its border policy is shameful for a continent that knows all too well from its own experience how much people suffer from flight and expulsion.

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