An Interview with Françoise Sivignon – President of MdM France

Doctors of the World is calling on aid organizations and EU leaders to speak with one voice on the refugee crisis at the UN summit in New York.

Vulnerable refugees, aid organizations and European citizens alike are bearing the brunt of a lacking common response, says Doctors of the World/Médecins du Monde (MdM) France’s President Françoise Sivignon after a recent visit to refugee camps in Athens and Lesbos. Sivignon represented the MdM international network at the humanitarian summit in Istanbul last May and is ready to take the lead again at the upcoming UN summit on migration in New York. ‘MdM has a major role to play. We can and should use our experience to speak with one voice and pressure our governments to show more leadership and commitment.’

‘I am very proud to represent an international network that is making a huge difference and supports Greece as much as possible in this double humanitarian crisis. This is mainly thanks to our experience with migration and people facing vulnerabilities all over the world, plus the fact that we have a local chapter here with over 26 years of experience and hundreds of very committed professionals and volunteers.’

 

We are 4 months into the EU-Turkey deal. What has been the impact on the humanitarian situation in Greece so far?

 

A: We denounced the deal from the very beginning because we were strongly convinced that outsourcing the management of migrant routes and humanitarian response to Turkey, a country that already host 2,733,000 migrants from Syria and an unknown large number of up to a million migrants from Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan & African countries, is not the solution. Unfortunately, our fear became reality. Refugees take bigger risks on even more dangerous smuggle routes to Europe while the mental and physical health of the thousands of refugees bottlenecked in Greece is rapidly deteriorating. We have no transparency about what’s going on in Turkey. An estimated 800.000 refugees are waiting to make the dangerous sea crossing from Libya to Italy. The horrifying testimonies about life in Libya our teams in Calabria gathered from survivors don’t let any doubt that these people will try to risk everything.

 

Q: Many aid organizations withdrew from camps in protest to the deal, MdM didn’t. Was it an apolitical strategy?

A: Just the opposite. You can’t be apolitical in a political crisis, because that’s what the refugee crisis is. As a medical organization healthcare has always been our main priority, but the line between health and politics is often blurred. Political decisions affect our work wherever we are. This is the case in Greece as much as it is in France or anywhere else. MdM decided to stay in order to provide support to refugees and report on every incident of human rights violations in the camps. But denouncing the deal is not enough, we need to do more.

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Q: You mean taking legal steps like MdM did a year ago when it took the French government to court for their neglect of over 7000 refugees in Calais?

A: All EU member states signed the Geneva Convention on human rights, including Greece. It is our duty as humanitarian actors to make sure member states at least respect the agreements they already accepted. Just as we did in Calais and many other cases that don’t necessarily involve refugees, MdM is working on a similar project with a legal organization in Greece, Avocats sans Frontières (Lawyers without Borders). The problem here is, however, that we are dealing with a shared responsibility. Greece is the painful example of what a lack of solidarity between Member States and a lack of common response from the European leadership can lead to.

Q: With recent attacks in Germany, Belgium and France, solidarity for refugees in Europe is challenged. What role can MdM play?

A: ‘We have a major role to play. Because of years of experience working on migration in Europe, in transit countries and in countries of origin where we have been active for years, MdM is in a good position to put pressure on governments to respect human rights and influence public opinion. In Turkey for example, we are in the middle of establishing a local Turkish MdM chapter which will give us a unique position to address issues there. In France, MdM has set up a media campaign to change the narrative on refugees, not as victims or criminals but the way they really are: resilient people who are eager to integrate and work. But we still need a global impact to change things on a more structural level.

Q: What are your expectations for the next UN sustainable development summit in New York?

A: ‘What we need now more than ever is political leadership. War, conflicts and climate change will only increase the number of displaced people all over the world. The turning point already started last May, at the humanitarian summit in Istanbul. It was the first time all the stake-holders, local and international NGO’s and representatives of all EU Member States sat around the table and agreed the current humanitarian ecosystem needs improvement. We decided to work together on this. This was a huge step. The summit in New York can really make a difference, if we are committed to speak with one voice. Only if we cooperate on the refugee front will we be able to increase the will to secure legal and safe access for and denounce institutional violence against migrants and refugees coming to Europe, as well as protection for unaccompanied minors.