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MSF UK and MSF France open letter to Prime Minister Sunak and President Macron

09 Mar 23
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MSF UK and MSF France open letter to Prime Minister Sunak and President Macron

Ahead of the UK - French Summit on 10 March, where we expect Prime Minister Sunak and President Macron to discuss migration and border security (amongst other issues), the Directors of MSF UK and MSF France wrote to the heads of state outlining the grave impact their joint hostile migration policies are having on the health and wellbeing of migrants, as well as criminalising humanitarian assistance, and asking them to adopt a dignified and human response to migration and open safe routes to the UK.

Dear Prime Minister Sunak and President Macron,

We are writing to you as leaders of the international medical humanitarian organisation Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in both France and the United Kingdom, to highlight our concerns regarding the UK-France Summit on 10 March which we anticipate will focus heavily on the topic of migration and will attract strong political, media and public attention.

This Summit is being held in the wake of the 20th anniversary of the Touquet Treaty, the agreement that externalised British border controls to northern France. According to the French National Consultative Commission on Human Rights, this agreement "led to France becoming the police arm of UK migration policy". Indeed, the Touquet Treaty has paved the way for an ever-increasing militarised approach to migration.

The failure of both states' policies trap migrants in a paradoxical situation. While on one side of the Channel hostile measures are taken to make it impossible for them to settle in France; on the other repressive measures impede them to seek safety in the UK.

Unwanted on both shores, migrants are pushed into limbo, denied their fundamental rights and forced to live in extremely precarious conditions. To add a further level of suffering, a lack of safe and legal migration routes pushes them to find dangerous alternatives to cross the border, putting their lives at risk.

Today on the northern coast of France, migrants experience sustained violence, harassment and misery as French authorities raid and evict informal settlements on an almost daily basis. Sleeping bags, tents and possessions are confiscated or destroyed and migrants are repeatedly displaced, forced to stay constantly on the move in undignified and dangerous conditions.

People sleep in fields with little or no access to shelter, are exposed to cold and rain, and have no access to showers or toilets or the means to wash their clothes.

Amongst them are vulnerable groups including unaccompanied children, pregnant women, and people with medical conditions, who are left without protection or medical support.

Only some associations and local citizens intervene to try to meet their basic needs, but as your governments' policies deliberately target people providing humanitarian assistance, these groups and individuals are essentially criminalised which forces them to limit the support they can provide.

Migrants therefore ultimately suffer due to this restriction of their access to food, water, sanitation and distributions of clean clothing and essential hygiene products.

MSF witnesses that these punitive and hostile measures targeting people seeking safety have significant physical and mental health consequences. For example, in 2022 70 percent of the unaccompanied children included in MSF's programmes in France were sleeping on the street.

A five-year study of unaccompanied children's mental health published by MSF and the Comede in 2021 found that 50 percent of the children included in MSF's program in the Paris region suffered from severe distress associated with precarious living conditions, and 62 percent suffered from severe depression, which is inextricably linked to their migration path and the reception conditions in France.

Meanwhile, in the UK, migrants face an equally hostile environment. In recent years the UK government has closed or dramatically reduced access to pathways available to people seeking safety both inside and outside of Europe.

For those who do manage to arrive via their own means, delays in the UK asylum system have led to tens of thousands of people being accommodated for months and sometimes years in inadequate living conditions, with little or no access to appropriate healthcare, while waiting for their claims to be processed.

In September 2022, there were 143,377 asylum applications yet to be determined, of which 97,717 had been waiting for more than six months. This has led to significant physical and mental health consequences for men, women, and children seeking protection.

In late 2022 bottlenecks in the system led to severe overcrowding at the Manston asylum processing centre in Kent, where thousands of people were held unlawfully and forced to sleep on the floor of tents in unsafe and unsanitary conditions, resulting in outbreaks of scabies and diphtheria and multiple reports of violence and abuse.

The cruel plan to permanently expel people seeking safety to Rwanda, in a desperate and futile attempt to deter people from coming to the UK, is already causing severe damage to the health and wellbeing of people who have been targeted for removal, before anyone has even been sent there.

The new Illegal Migration Bill announced this week by the UK Home Secretary now seeks to ban those crossing the Channel in small boats from claiming asylum in the UK, punishing them for arriving irregularly despite the lack of safe routes into the country, in a clear breach of the Refugee Convention.

Mr Sunak, you stated that anyone who arrives by boat will be immediately detained and removed 'in weeks' to their country of origin, to another 'safe' country of passage, or expelled to Rwanda. However, the UK does not have return agreements in place to deport most people arriving by boat, and the majority of people seeking safety in the UK will not eventually be sent to Rwanda, due to it not being an appropriate location for their specific case.

Therefore, despite the UK government's protestations and promises, most people could not be removed from the UK, but neither will they be able to progress an asylum application, work, or access support from statutory services.

They will instead find themselves stuck in indefinite detention, in limbo, somewhere in the UK. As apparently no provisions have yet been made to accommodate the tens of thousands of people who will continue to arrive in the UK in boats each year, the entire plan appears unrealistic and unworkable, a proposal that will be extremely costly and which, in reality, can only be intended to exacerbate the distress, suffering and vulnerability of people living in the most precarious of circumstances.

This relentless intimidation, violence and degrading treatment perpetrated in the name of 'border enforcement' by both countries has proven entirely ineffective at stopping people from arriving in northern France or attempting to cross the Channel to find refuge in the UK.

Deterrence measures only push people seeking safety into ever more dangerous, desperate, and sometimes fatal, journeys. This has been most acutely and tragically demonstrated via the occurrence of two shipwrecks in the Channel in the last 16 months, which left 36 men, women, and children drowned or presumed dead.

After more than 20 years of failed policies and more than €1.28 billion of French and British public funds wasted, it is time for you and your governments to admit that deterrence measures are ineffective and costly in human terms.

The criminalisation of migration and of humanitarian assistance only acts to deflect your governments' responsibility onto smuggling networks and to encourage a climate of hostility.

States have a legal obligation to guarantee human rights and make sure that their policies do not endanger people seeking safety, including by expanding safe and legal routes for people on the move.

It is high time for France and the UK to shift from policies which deliberately create suffering, exclusion, and deaths at sea, to a dignified, human, and responsible approach to migration.

This Summit could serve as the opportunity to make that shift, so it is with huge disappointment that we anticipate it will only result in further agreements and more funds being pledged towards increased border enforcement and state violence, without addressing the need to urgently create safe routes for people to reach the UK and to improve and broaden reception conditions in France and the UK.

Yours sincerely,

Dr Natalie Roberts, Executive Director, MSF UK

Thierry Allafort-Duverger, General Director, MSF France

Tell the UK Government to provide safe routes for people seeking sanctuary

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