Stephen Cornish: Rescuing refugees ‘a moral imperative’ not a crime

MSF worked in collaboration with Sea-Watch on board the Sea-Watch 4 until February 2021, providing medical care and supporting with humanitarian assistance for rescued people. (Credit: Médecins Sans Frontières)

As countries across Europe adopt increasingly tough migration policies, NGOs are being prosecuted for acts of solidarity with refugees, asylum seekers and migrants. We speak to Stephen Cornish, director general of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Switzerland, and Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish Iranian journalist and author who was imprisoned in Australia’s offshore asylum system for six years, about the threat this growing hostility poses to Europe’s democracies.

On 4 March 2021, Italian prosecutors charged dozens of people from humanitarian organisations including Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and Save the Children with colluding with people smugglers while carrying out rescue operations in the Mediterranean. After an investigation spanning nearly four years, crew members, mission heads and legal representatives who saved thousands of people from drowning at sea are facing years in prison, sending shockwaves through the humanitarian community.

“It’s hard to imagine how saving a life can become a criminalised activity,” says Stephen Cornish, director of MSF Switzerland, speaking to Geneva Solutions. The organisation, which denies the accusations, estimates that its six humanitarian ships helped save more than 81,000 lives at sea. “It would be like criminalising the fire department for going to put out a fire.”

The investigation is one of dozens brought against NGOs running search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean since 2016, when a handful of humanitarian organisations including MSF and SOS Mediteranee launched vessels in response to a rise in the number of people attempting the perilous journey from countries such as Libya and Turkey to claim asylum in Europe. Over the past few years, these vessels have been frequently detained by authorities or trapped at sea for weeks at a time, refused entry to ports where they can safely disembark.

Cornish explains that the growing hostility towards NGO-led search and rescue efforts fits into a broader trend of European States criminalising organisations for trying to help asylum seekers and refugees - a topic that was the focus of a panel discussion held at the Geneva International Film Festival and Forum on Human Rights (FIFDH) earlier this month, co-presented by MSF.

As countries across Europe adopt increasingly tough migration policies, NGOs are being prosecuted for helping people trying to seek safety within their borders, with legal acts of solidarity painted as collusion with traffickers and smugglers.

Rising hostility. Hostility towards rescue agencies has grown since the height of the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ in 2015, says Cornish, when over one million people - the majority of whom were refugees fleeing the war in Syria - fled to Europe by sea over the course of the year, mainly arriving in Greece and Italy.

The EU’s failure to share responsibility for the dramatic rise in the number of people seeking asylum in Europe left countries such as Greece and Italy overwhelmed, Cornish says: “People initially responded with charity and welcome, but then the failure was at a government level not to share the responsibility, and to repopulate people across different states.”

As anti-refugee politics became increasingly mainstream across Europe, countries began to tighten their borders and scrabble for ways to reduce ‘irregular’ migration into the bloc. Last week marked five years since the introduction of the EU-Turkey Deal - a key pillar of these efforts. The agreement called on Turkey to prevent asylum seekers and migrants from reaching the EU in exchange for financial assistance and the promise of the eventual creation of legal resettlement pathways to Europe.

Five years on, Turkey hosts more refugees than any other country in the world, with the EU accused of outsourcing its migration management and turning a blind eye to the poor living conditions facing many refugees in the country. The agreement is also widely viewed as creating the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the Greek islands, which became a final destination for thousands of asylum seekers trapped in overcrowded camps waiting for their applications to be processed.

The inhumane conditions in refugee camps on the Greek islands are well documented, with reports of squalid facilities, violence, abuse and a lack of basic amenities commonplace. At times, there have been 40,000 people living in camps designed for a few thousand. As well as Syria, the majority of people are fleeing war and persecution in countries such as Afghanistan, Somalia, Palestine and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and one in four are children. The horrific fire that engulfed the notoriously overcrowded Moria camp on Lesvos in 2020, leaving 13,000 people without shelter, became a tragic symbol of Europe’s failed migration policy.

MSF has been operating in refugee camps on the Greek Islands for a number of years. (Credit: Médecins Sans Frontières)
MSF has been operational on the Greek islands of Lesvos, Samos and Chios for many years, although it ceased operations inside Moria citing mass deportation and potential refoulement of asylum seekers and refugees. It no longer accepts EU funding in opposition to the policy.

“[The impact of the EU Turkey Deal] has been horrendous,” says Cornish. “There are still 15,000 people trapped in limbo, in no man's land in Greece with no way forward and no way back, and suffering at the hands of supposed democracies.”

“We see suicides, we see self-harm in children, we see long term PTSD and people with no hope, no ability to move forward or backward, trapped in punishment,” he says. “We put people in hell holes, and then when hell breaks loose, we pretend like we don't see it.”

The deal has recently been extended until 2022, when the EU’s New Pact on Migration and Asylum is expected to come into force. The New Pact focuses on fast-tracking screening and asylum processes at Europe’s external borders and includes a system of “mandatory solidarity” by which member states do not have to commit to resettling refugees but can instead fund repatriation. It has been widely criticised by humanitarian organisations for repeating the mistakes of the EU-Turkey Deal and failing to improve the situation for asylum seekers and refugees.

“Everything we've seen that failed in the US and failed in Australia, and is failing in Greece and Italy, we'd like to now make more semi-permanent policy,” says Cornish of the New Pact, which is currently being negotiated by member states and in the European Parliament. “As we harden these policies, all we do is push people into the hands of traffickers. We push them to take riskier routes and have higher death tolls and greater suffering.”

Tougher policies. While the number of asylum seekers and migrants crossing the Mediterranean has decreased dramatically since 2015, migration has continued to be a highly politicised issue across Europe. Countries have adopted increasingly hostile policies which humanitarian organisations say fail to address flaws in existing systems, to the detriment of the people these systems were initially created to help.

Last week, the UK announced an overhaul of its asylum policy, which was met with outrage from humanitarian actors. Under the new plans, migrants and asylum seekers who arrive in the UK by routes deemed illegal will be indefinitely liable for removal even if they are granted asylum, creating a two-tier system which has been criticised as a violation of international law and eroding the right to asylum.

UK home secretary Priti Patel argues that current European policies “play into the hands of people smugglers”, however human rights and migration experts argue that, while governments fail to expand safe and legal routes, it is inhumane and unjust to punish asylum seekers for resorting to irregular routes when the only other option is an interminable wait in one of Europe’s refugee camps.

“Since a number of years [ago], we have made it almost impossible to be able to flee and request asylum from a conflict zone,” says Cornish. “We put all of these hurdles in place to make it impossible to be able to declare asylum and come [to Europe], and then we criminalise anybody jumping the line because we say they’re not following the procedures.”

“We make our countries into fortresses that you can't come into and then we criminalise you and berate you...for doing what anyone would do,” he continues. “If you were in a conflict zone and your family was at risk, you would do whatever it takes to get around whatever barrier was put in your way in order to be able to flee to safety and to be able to provide for the basic needs of your family, but we don’t allow that.”

Lessons from Australia. It has also been reported that the UK government wants to make legislative changes that would make it possible for asylum seekers in the UK to be moved overseas while their asylum claim is pending - a policy that echoes Australia’s offshore processing regime, instituted twice from 2001 to 2008 and 2012 to present.

Under the policy, people who arrived in Australia by boat were immediately sent to “offshore processing centres” on the pacific island of Nauru or Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, where they were detained supposedly until their asylum claim was processed and they could be resettled in a third country.

Although over 85 per cent of people sent to Nauru and Manus were recognised as refugees, the majority were left in limbo for years awaiting resettlement. Conditions in the islands’ detention camps - which held up to 2500 people at a time - have been widely condemned as inhumane, with detainees subjected to systemic abuse and human rights violations.

Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish Iranian refugee who was detained on Manus Island for six years after attempting to reach Australia by boat in 2013, experienced the horror of the country’s offshore asylum policy first-hand. He spoke to Geneva Solutions ahead of the FIFDH event he took part in alongside Stephen Cornish.

Behrouz Boochani, photographed in Christchurch, New Zealand, 2019. (Keystone / AP Photo / Mark Baker)
“[Australia] tortured people for many years. It’s unbelievable,” he says, speaking from his home in New Zealand, where he claimed asylum in late 2019 after escaping Manus with the help of the UN and Amnesty International. “They banished people [and] tortured them for many years in indefinite detention. They created a tragedy.”

Boochani, a journalist and activist who fled persecution for his work reporting on Kurdish rights in Iran, was forcibly transferred to the detention facility on Manus Island after arriving on Australia’s Christmas Island in 2013. He went on to spend 2269 days trapped in Australia’s offshore processing regime, during which he and thousands of other asylum seekers and refugees were kept in inhumane conditions, denied their basic human rights and subjected to mental and physical torture and abuse. At least 12 people died in the camps - some murdered by guards, others through medical neglect and some from suicide.

Boochani documented his experiences on Manus Island in his bestselling book No Friend But The Mountains, which he wrote in secret from detention, sending each chapter text by text in Farsi to his translator Omid Tofighian.

In 2015, the UN found Australia’s system to be violating the International Convention Against Torture, and the detention centre on Manus was shut down in 2016 after being found to be “illegal and unconstitutional” by the Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea, although hundreds of men including Boochani remained trapped on the island for years. Around 250 people are still stuck in limbo on Manus and Nauru awaiting resettlement, and 100 are trapped in detention in Australia as a result of the government’s offshore policy.

Last year, the International Criminal Court’s prosecutor ruled that indefinite detention offshore broke international law, saying the imprisonment of refugees and asylum seekers formed the basis of a crime against humanity. However, Boochani warns that the country’s policy has become a model for other countries.

“The dangerous side is that Australia is introducing this policy to countries in Europe, especially the UK,” says Boochani, who continued his work as a journalist writing for publications such as the Guardian from Manus. “Australia became a model for many of these countries. And for many years, we were warning about this, we were talking about it, but no one heard us.”

Although Australia still technically maintains its policy of sending asylum seekers who arrive by boat offshore, this has not happened since 2014. Instead, boats are intercepted by the navy and pushed back to sea, and asylum seekers who reach Australia are deported to their countries of origin - actions which are widely seen as violations of international refugee law, but which the UK’s new policy appears to model itself on.

“This policy damaged the political culture in Australia [and] the democracy in Australia,” says Boochani. “It damaged the principles in Australia and damaged morality in Australia. I think if the UK followed this policy, you cannot say that [you’ve] just damaged the refugees, you've damaged your principles, your democracy, your system, your morality, and your political culture too.”

MSF’s Cornish shares Boochani’s concern that Europe’s asylum policies are damaging the democracy and social fabric of countries, partly fuelling the rise in far-right politics that has gained traction across the continent in recent years.

“They are cynical policies, and they are followed by dangerous rhetoric, and then individuals, political groups, some social movements, take their cues from that,” says Cornish, “and it leads to rising xenophobia, violence, and the lack of the healthy initial response which is our human spirit and our innate understanding that when someone's in danger, or someone needs something, you extend your hand.”

Pandemic politics brings tougher controls. Over the past 12 months, countries across Europe have tightened their borders to halt the spread of Covid-19. However, many states have been accused of using the pandemic as an excuse to deny people’s right to asylum. Ongoing asylum processes have largely ground to a halt while the number of people applying for asylum dropped by 30 per cent in the first nine months of 2020.

MSF worked in collaboration with Sea-Watch on board the Sea-Watch 4 until February 2021, providing medical care and supporting with humanitarian assistance for rescued people.(Credit: Médecins Sans Frontières)

There have also been reports of mounting deportations and systemic violent pushbacks at Europe’s external land borders by the EU border agency Frontex. At sea, NGOs have also collected evidence of refugees being intercepted and illegally pushed back to Turkey from Greek waters. International human rights and refugee law requires states to protect the right of people to seek asylum and protection from refoulement even if they enter irregularly. The increasingly frequent pushbacks have prompted calls by the UN Refugee Agency for an urgent investigation.

“Respecting human lives and refugee rights is not a choice, it’s a legal and moral obligation. While countries have the legitimate right to manage their borders in accordance with international law, they must also respect human rights. Pushbacks are simply illegal,” said UNHCR’s assistant commissioner for protection Gillian Triggs in a statement.

Although the worst of the pandemic will hopefully soon pass, there are concerns that violations that have been perpetrated so easily in its shadow will persist. But in the face of Europe’s increasingly hostile policies, legal challenges from governments, intimidation and threats, Cornish says humanitarian organisations such as his are more determined than ever to continue doing their duty.

“There's no way that we will put into question the right, the dignity of coming to the assistance of another who’s in grave peril of dying,” he says.

“It is the moral imperative to help [others] in need, to meet their basic needs, to give dignity as we would want to receive it ourselves. And the more that these policies double down, the more they [criminalise], the more determined we will be to find new and more effective ways to deliver assistance...and to ensure that we are living up to the ideals that founded our societies, that we were raised on, and that our states claim to uphold. They badly lost their way for a little while, and our job is to redouble our efforts until they find it.”