Michaël Neuman & Isabelle Defourny
Director of studies at Crash / Médecins sans Frontières, Michaël Neuman graduated in Contemporary History and International Relations (University Paris-I). He joined Médecins sans Frontières in 1999 and has worked both on the ground (Balkans, Sudan, Caucasus, West Africa) and in headquarters (New York, Paris as deputy director responsible for programmes). He has also carried out research on issues of immigration and geopolitics. He is co-editor of "Humanitarian negotiations Revealed, the MSF experience" (London: Hurst and Co, 2011). He is also the co-editor of "Saving lives and staying alive. Humanitarian Security in the Age of Risk Management" (London: Hurst and Co, 2016).
Operations Director at MSF-OCP.
This op-ed was published on November 23rd, 2022 in the French newspaper Le Monde.
Sea rescue operations are once again in the spotlight after the senseless efforts by Italian authorities to prevent the disembarkation of survivors pulled from the waters by the ships of three non-governmental organizations – including Doctors Without Borders – and the political-diplomatic negotiations that followed.
These problems are occurring against the backdrop of years of harassment of migrants and the people who help them, repeated lies told about the latter – in particular about their alleged complicity with human traffickers – and the dismantling of the rescue system in the Mediterranean.
In response to these accusations, we say: forgive us for inconveniencing you by not letting them drown. It is obscene to accuse our organizations of encouraging crossings when European states – led by France and Italy – have constantly promoted, by supporting the Libyan coast guard, an external discharge system, and detention based entirely on violence. In 2022 alone, more than 17,000 people, including men, women, and children, were returned to Libya and often incarcerated in detention centers where they are subjected to abuses and deprivations.
Complicit in these crimes
But who are these "Libyan coast guards" if not a disparate assembly of armed militias, simple political-military entrepreneurs of violence? These groups, whose close links with human trafficking networks have been widely demonstrated, receive financial support from the European Union and Italy and are endorsed by all European governments. In reality, you are the first to be complicit in these crimes.
Once brought back to the detention centers, most of the people intercepted are subjected to appalling blackmail: forced to either pay a ransom to be released or remain locked in fetid cages for months on end; or otherwise join the "voluntary return" program in their country of origin, organized by the International Organization for Migration.
Only a select few eventually receive protection from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which does nothing to protect them from violence and detention but serves as the first step – for a very small number – toward possible relocation to a European country.
"Let them return to Africa?" In reality, however, this policy is not being debated at all by French and European authorities. More than 25,000 people have died in the Mediterranean since 2014, and nearly two thousand in 2022 alone. Here again, no debate within the French and European authorities, and even less questioning.
Lessons in humanity
Many politicians and government officials prefer to accuse NGOs of playing into the hands of smugglers – and of preventing them from operating – when in fact they are simply contributing to a humanitarian evacuation from Libya, the need for which is recognized by the United Nations agencies and the European Commission themselves.
France seemed to want to atone for its conscience by agreeing to receive the 234 survivors of the Ocean Viking. Yet, this humanitarian gesture can hardly make us forget France's active participation in causing deaths in the Mediterranean: at the same time that France decided to open the military port of Toulon to the Ocean Viking, we learned of the death by hypothermia of two people in Italy, a young woman, and a child, at the end of their journey across the Mediterranean.
The French authorities have the audacity to lecture Italy on humanity, while they themselves struggle to demonstrate respect for the values that govern our country's reception policy.
What are these values worth when France criminalizes volunteers, encourages illegal discharge at the borders, brutalizes migrants, lets 27 people drown in the English Channel with no reaction, as that was the case a year ago, and unhesitatingly renews an agreement with Great Britain that delegates control of the British border to the French police?
Racist dimension of its policy
In recent years, it is only the welcoming of tens of thousands of Ukrainians that has allowed France to present a more attractive face, with the result that the racial – if not outright racist - dimension of its policy has become apparent to all.
These same authorities are calling for a European solution. However, the European organization of migration is nothing but an illusion, except when it brings together national egoisms and xenophobic reflexes. Today, Europe is a dream that is running aground on the rocks of a mortifying policy. Solidarity measures are accumulating without ever being respected, whether it is to provide relief to Greece or Italy. And the populist governments and candidates in our neighboring countries are quite happy to take advantage of this shortcoming.
What the sad events we have witnessed also illustrates is the failure of a "thirty-year-old" migration policy that never stops clashing with the reality of what is actually going on. For many years now, as far as the migration phenomenon is concerned, lies and posturing have prevailed over facts. Yet, migration is part of the life of the world; wishing to prevent it by drowning is as inhumane as it is ineffective.
Our leaders have a responsibility to have the courage to discuss migration in a calm manner, without partisan lies. We agree that it is not our responsibility, as a relief organization, to define for them what the French or European migration policies should be. Nevertheless, when it comes to mitigating their consequences, the result of unjust and appalling practices, we reaffirm our willingness to be there for those whom the authorities intend to drown in silence.
To cite this content :
Michaël Neuman, Isabelle Defourny, 'Forgive us for inconveniencing you by not letting them drown', 2 December 2022, URL : https://msf-crash.org/index.php/en/publications/camps-refugees-idps/forgive-us-inconveniencing-you-not-letting-them-drown
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Michaël Neuman spent ten days in Libya with Médecins Sans Frontières teams working in detention centres for migrants. From his stay, he brings back the following impressions that illustrate the gloomy situation of the people who are held there, for months or years, and the even more difficult situation of all those subject to kidnapping and torture.
Numerous politicians, from Daniel Cohn-Bendit to Marine Le Pen and including Emmanuel Macron, denounce what they claim is collusion between organisations helping migrants (humanitarian workers) and smugglers (criminals). One group operates in full public view, the other out of sight, but both are said to be working together to help people illegally cross borders.
Humanitarian aid organisations carrying out rescues at sea were made into the accomplices of human traffickers. This accusation is as absurd as it is unacceptable. Not only do rescue operations at sea save people from drowning, but they evacuate people in situations of immediate danger in Libya, MSF recalls.