Bourbon Argos: Search and Rescue Operations October 2016

Humanitarian reasons versus political interests

Rony Brauman

Medical doctor, specialized in tropical medicine and epidemiology. Involved in humanitarian action since 1977, he has been on numerous missions, mainly in contexts of armed conflicts and IDP situations. President of Médecins sans Frontières from 1982 to1994, he also teaches at the Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute (HCRI) and is a regular contributor to Alternatives Economiques. He has published several books and articles, including "Guerre humanitaires ? Mensonges et Intox" (Textuel, 2018), "La Médecine Humanitaire" (PUF, 2010), "Penser dans l'urgence" (Editions du Seuil, 2006) and "Utopies Sanitaires" (Editions Le Pommier, 2000).

Date de publication

Opinion column published in Le Figaro on 11 July 2018.

Humanitarian organisations coming to the rescue of migrants in the Mediterranean Sea are kindly required either to watch them drown or to hand them over to human traffickers and torturers. We have seen countless political statements, opinion polls and editorials on the need to take a harder line against African migrants and accusing NGOs of being the accomplices of “smugglers”. We have even heard it said that these NGOs are organising the departures of those aspiring to migrate to Europe coincide with the presence of a rescue ship, making relief workers conscious actors in a criminal enterprise.

It must be said that this accusation is not scandalous in itself, as comparable issues have existed in other circumstances over the last few decades. As I denounced these actions at the time, I’m hardly going to deny that such things happen. Yes, humanitarianism sometimes find itself serving violent causes and France - among others – is well aware of this, after the havoc it wreaked in Libya with its disastrous “humanitarian war”.

But in this particular case the situation is being turned on its head. The criminals are in fact those to whom European governments want us to hand over the migrants, those with whom relief workers are now being ordered to collaborate. And the relief workers are those endeavouring to help the prey escape from the claws of their predators. Because the majority of Libyan coast guards are not coast guards at all, and to call them that is an insult to the profession. As already certified by numerous witnesses and investigations, they are in fact working hand-in-hand with armed groups in Libya who live by their own laws. Torture, extortion, sex slavery, servitude - this is the fate awaiting migrants handed back to the so-called “coast-guards”, which explains why some would rather die at sea than return to a living hell. This is a situation to which no humanitarian aid organisation can resign itself, even in the name of national interest. President Macron should not be asking Antigone to collaborate with Creon.

For all that, humanitarian reason differs from political interests, and relief workers cannot and must not claim to define migration policy. Their organisations do not try to do so, actually, contrary to what is said in some circles in an attempt to blacken their name still further. But NGOs are concerned, as are those who support them, about the invasion of the public space by rhetoric that is palpably hostile to foreigners.

This concern is the reflection of another concern of a different nature but equally legitimate: the arrival of waves of migrants deemed unmanageable in a context of mass unemployment and rising nationalist tensions. It would be insulting to accuse those who harbour this concern of racism, as their fears cannot be reduced to hatred of others. We do not live in a world of unconditional hospitality; cultures – individual and collective – do not mix easily; relationships are not spontaneously harmonious, and even if these facts are exploited by dangerous demagogues, there is nothing racist about recognising and registering them. Nor, for that matter, is it irenic or narcissistic to point out that we have seen a thorough mixing of populations in Europe throughout the 20th century, especially since the end of the war, without this causing any major friction.

But we cannot condemn people for being afraid, especially if a moral stance is all we have to offer in response. What we need more than anything is a fresh perspective.  

Europe’s increasingly hard-line policies, reflected in rhetoric and practices of rejection, have already had an effect, with a considerable reduction in the number of departures and a simultaneous increase in the number of interceptions by the Libyan “coast guards” (10,000 in 2018). However, this does not mean that migration is no longer an issue, and repression is not a tenable long-term response to it. What is more, Africa’s loss of its active and audacious youth will have serious consequences for the continent. This is why the current situation cannot be allowed to continue. It is urgent for governments and civil society in departure and destination countries to come together to organise international mobility. Many of those who have left everything behind them actually want to return to their home country but cannot do so without falling back into the clutches of criminal organisations, police states or totalitarian regimes, or simply losing any hope of coming back again. Yet these people are the vectors of renewal, the actors of future development, much more so than the experts and institutions currently pursuing this objective.

This possibility of moving back and forth has its limitations. There will be restrictions and thus disappointment for some. But it will reduce the role of human traffickers, give new hope to Africa and contain fears in Europe, at least in part, by showing a political desire and a collective capacity to control this phenomenon.

To cite this content :
Rony Brauman, “Humanitarian reasons versus political interests”, 11 juillet 2018, URL :

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