MSF protesting against refugee policy

On June 17, 2016 Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) sent out a press release that made it into all Dutch national newspapers: “MSF to no longer take funding from EU member states and institutions.” 

So far the media paid less attention to protests not going hand in hand with refusing financial support by the globally active medical organization, whereas it decried the same refugee-resistant policy. For example its open letter to the leaders of the EU member states earlier this year. It seems that in the West for opposition to be taken seriously, it has to come with financial consequences.
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Why does MSF now seek to distance themselves so forcefully?

Because the ‘Turkey-deal’, the deal arranging that Turkey will receive one billion in funding from Europe ‘for the provision of humanitarian assistance and relief for Syrian refugees in Turkey’, is linked to the closure of European borders for the refugees. After all, every refugee who undertakes the crossing to Greece in a dangerously shaky and overcrowded boat, is sent back to Turkey, and thusly stripped of the right to request for asylum in Europe. However, this basically leads to bartering with the lives of Syrian refugees, and moreover Turkey has been provided with several non-financial promises in their favour as part of this deal. Human rights in this dubious allied country hardly ever enter the conversation. The Balkans had already shut their borders without further incentives from Brussels. MSF exposed the deal, which is not intended to provide refugees their right to shelter in a safe country, but to protect against the uncontrollable flow of refugees into Europe. Europe can be locked, and superficially this looks like an acceptable solution! The EU, after all, is willing to spend one billion on it.

An oil slick?

MSF operates on a worldwide scale and claims to have observed that other countries, such as Afghanistan, Sudan and Eritrea (countries with an equally poor reputation as Turkey, when it concerns the respect for human rights), are also interested in such a deal: to ‘send back’ refugees to the corrupt, discriminatory and sometimes downright criminal regimes they just fled, in exchange for a lot of money.

What does MSF stand for?

MSF’s position, standing up for the rights of refugees, is totally consistent with the Hippocratic Oath that every doctor takes when they are admitted to the profession. A quote from the Dutch version, that the Royal Dutch Medical Association has been using since 2003: “I swear/promise that I will practice medicine as well as I can in service of my fellow man. I will take care of the sick, promote health, alleviate suffering. (….) I will do no harm to the patient.”

Middellandse Zee-Ikram Ngadi
Caregivers MSF offer ashore medial care to refugees. © Ikram N’gadi/MSF

The organization thus emphasizes what one can expect of good doctors (without borders), who operate globally and who don’t differentiate on the basis of political beliefs. They stand up for what doctors pledge: to work in the service of their fellow man. They want to serve a humanitarian purpose: to ensure the wounded, sick, poor and needy, preferably in difficult and dangerous places which are largely deprived of assistance, and to not be daunted by personal risk. However MSF is well aware that it does not operate in a political vacuum; apparently it is fearful of becoming part of the European deal, perhaps even providing the EU countries with an alibi for bartering using people’s lives, if they choose to accept the European millions. Read their statement on

A painful dilemma.

Crucial in MSF’s brave political stance is the question: doesn’t this get the organization caught in a painful dilemma? By the refusal of this much funding, they can potentially provide less assistance than is necessary and leave those in need to their fate. They claim to avoid this dilemma because 92% of their funding comes from private donations. But do they know for sure that those individuals will donate the same or more after this manifesto? Or are there also proponents of closing the borders among those individuals, who will now turn their backs on MSF?

A political dilemma.

EU countries are struggling with the effects of globalization. Because modern means have enabled transportation and communications on a global scale, the unequal distribution of wealth and well-being, health and safety, not only within individual countries and in Europe but also worldwide, has become clear for everyone to see. Further increase in inequality has been predicted. Within countries, the less fortunate fear that their already small piece of the pie will soon be even smaller, just because they have to share with a growing number of immigrants; they fear for their for housing, benefits, jobs, services. Populist political parties are securing the support of these groups, because they know how to give voice to the prevailing perceived threat and feelings of powerlessness. These parties create bogeymen to blame for the problems: those in power, meaning the ruling parties and traditional political parties, which protect their own interests and don’t listen enough to the others. And, of course: foreigners, including refugees, who bring all sorts of undesirable phenomena, such as Islam. EU governments are wary of the growing unrest, the growing influence of populist parties and their own loss of votes in the polls. They are faced with the dilemma of choosing between a generous, welcoming stance towards refugees, which will cause domestic unrest and loss of votes, or a front of half-hearted help, pretending to not see dubious practices of regimes and snubbing fugitives by depriving them of humanitarian rights.

Choosing by doing.

Nevertheless: in my opinion, in these circumstances MSF was forced to choose this position. I hope more unsuspected organizations and people will follow its example. How great would it be if those who support human help for refugees, underline their position by giving more donations to this wonderful organization. That is voting by doing, voting by financial support as a manifesto. I can picture the headlines already: MSF: within half a year 10 million more in private donations after refusing EU funding! 


Photo courtesy MSF

About the author: Marij Bontemps-Hommen

Marij Bontemps-Hommen is pediatrician at the hospital St. Jansdalziekenhuis, Harderwijk.
She is board member for the Critical Ethics of Care foundation.