South Africa, show up Europe’s dirty anti-refugee deal

We are witnessing the greatest displacement of humanity in decades — more than 60 million people forced from their homes by war, misery or oppression from places like Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea, Somalia or South Sudan.

Perversely, we are also seeing a rise of institutionalised inhumanity. Asylum seekers and refugees are being willfully pushed back into the peril they escaped from, or worse, remain trapped in warzones with no choice but to stay and die.

For years my colleagues at Médecins Sans Frontières have been treating victims of Europe’s deterrence approach when it comes to people on the move, while we have witnessed the original horrors that these people flee from. We’ve reset bones broken by police, treated children shot in the head by rubber bullets, and scooped up countless lifejackets from the sea that bear no life at all.

We watched with increasing alarm as the European Union and Turkey signed a deal in March compensating Turkey financially and politically to block desperate people from Europe’s shores and accept deportees from squalid prison camps in Greece.

This cynical, dirty deal marks a historic abdication of Europe’s moral and legal responsibilities to provide asylum to those in great need.
Europe is outsourcing the care of refugees to a country that may also deny them the right to claim asylum. If replicated by many nations worldwide, the concept of refugee will cease to exist.

Europe is sending a dangerous signal to the rest of the world: countries can buy their way out of providing asylum. The ramifications of this deal will reverberate globally, possibly leading to a domino effect among states, and also here in Africa.

Kenya may be the first to face an acid test for humanity. On May 6, the government announced that it is disbanding its department of refugee affairs as a first step to the permanent closure of the Dadaab refugee camp — citing national security reasons and decreased international funding for refugee assistance.  

We at Médecins Sans Frontières agree with Kenyan Principal Secretary for the Interior Karanja Kibicho, who recently expressed his concern about the international community’s weakened refugee response in Kenya and a realignment of its resources to Europe’s crisis.

We also agree that the “persistent double standards” of many Western nations are unacceptable. They turn their backs on refugees fleeing war, oppression and despair, while expecting nations such as Kenya to provide protection to hundreds of thousands of refugees from Somalia, South Sudan and elsewhere.

The government of Kenya has a responsibility to provide security and protection to its population. But, under the refugee conventions to which Kenya and other African nations, including South Africa, are signatories, this responsibility also extends to those who have fled conflict, persecution, and those who continue to flee.

Even in South Africa the ability of refugees to seek asylum is coming under threat with the Refugees Amendment Bill. Some proposed amendments would expose people forced to flee unlivable conditions elsewhere on our continent, to increased vulnerability because it diminishes protections under law and the Constitution of South Africa. It also suggests moving refugee reception centres to South Africa’s borders, and obliging neighbouring states to house refugees. Rather than endorsing the broken and inhumane policies of Europe and others, now, more than ever, is the time for Kenya and South Africa to embrace and continue traditions of providing safe refuge.

If potential solutions are not pursued in Kenya, with the support of the international community, refugees from Dadaab will be forced to return to Somalia where the conditions for their safe, dignified acceptance do not exist after 25 years of war. They face terrible options, among which is a perilous journey north to cross the sea to Europe.

European leaders have made a choice that should raise serious questions for the citizens of Europe and for us in Africa: In 2016, who still counts as human? Whose lives matter? What happened to empathy? And where has solidarity gone when faced with the anguish and despair of those whose lives have been shattered?

For African leaders to take their cue from European leaders would be disastrous to humanity. Kenya, South Africa and Africa as whole can take the lead and set an example to others, including Europe, on how to humanely treat people fleeing war and conflict. Today, it is in the hands of Africans to help the world reclaim humanity.

Mohammed Dalwai is the president of Médecins Sans Frontières Southern Africa

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