OPINION

[Thierry Coppens] Politics and indifference condemn refugees to suffer and die

By Korea Herald
  • Published : Jun 13, 2019 - 17:47
  • Updated : Jun 13, 2019 - 17:47

June 20 is World Refugee Day. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, an unprecedented 68.5 million people around the world have been forced from home, and among them are nearly 25.4 million refugees. To put it in perspective, nearly 1 person is forcibly displaced every two seconds as a result of conflict or persecution.

Whether it’s people fleeing from Afghanistan, Syria, South Sudan, Honduras or Yemen, their reasons for flight are universally the same: to seek safety and a better future for themselves and their children. Refugees need our protection, empathy and support.

Sadly this is not the case. There is and has been a disturbing trend of anti-refugee public sentiment in countries around the world. From the EU’s migration deterrence policies and efforts to stop humanitarian search and rescue in the Mediterranean Sea to the forcible detention of asylum seekers and refugees from Australia to Nauru Island to migration crackdowns in the United States, these actions serve to keep refugees out and justify their containment, detention, inhumane treatment and deportation. 

Today, refugees are stigmatized and portrayed as criminals and undesirables -- thus undeserving of basic human rights and dignity. The criminalization makes refugees who have been already traumatized by violence in their home country vulnerable to mistreatment, exploitation and abuse. And organizations that provide humanitarian assistance to refugees are criminals by extension. 

The testimonies from refugees rescued by MSF in the Mediterranean are horrific. In order to get to Europe, people make harrowing journeys through Libya where they are subjected to unscrupulous people smugglers. There are stories of torture, gang rape, and beatings. People stranded in Libya are held in detention centers, where they face dangerous and inhumane conditions without recourse to an appeal. Their voyage by sea is perilous. 

People are transported in overcrowded, unsafe boats with flimsy life vests, where they face death by drowning, exposure and thirst. However MSF had to terminate its operations by the rescue ship Aquarius last year as a result of pressure from several European states to halt humanitarian search and rescues in the Mediterranean.

The global community for the most part has been turning a blind eye to what’s happening. But the mixture of politics, antipathy and indifference toward the plight of refugees is not only seen in Europe. 

Due to Australia’s offshore processing policy, hundreds of asylum seekers and refugees have been indefinitely contained on Nauru Island. With some on the island for up to five years, they have little hope of finding a place of safe resettlement, and MSF has identified extreme cases of mental health suffering, including schizophrenia, depression and suicide attempts. The level of suffering on Nauru is among the most severe MSF has ever seen. Despite the need for mental health support, MSF had to end its services and was forced off the island by local authorities in 2018. 

South Korea is not immune. Last year, more than 500 Yemenis arrived on Jeju Island, fleeing the world’s worst humanitarian crisis (according to the United Nations) and seeking asylum in South Korea. Their arrival sparked a backlash, with marches across the country and an online petition to the Blue House calling for their deportation. Amid the public scrutiny and outcry, most Yemenis were granted temporary visas on humanitarian grounds and they have slowly been rebuilding their lives in a new country with assistance from local communities and civil society groups. 

While the sudden influx of Yemenis has caught the country off guard, it has opened dialogue about the humanitarian treatment of refugees in a society unaccustomed to hosting people from different cultures and religions. Government, civil society and local communities have been working together to support the refugees who in turn can contribute to Korean economy and society.

People bemoan how many refugees there are in the US, Europe and South Korea, but in reality, the world’s poorest countries shoulder the burden of the global refugee crisis. Developing regions host 85 per cent of the world’s refugees and provide asylum to them. Lebanon for example hosts the largest number of refugees relative to its national population, where 1 in 6 is a refugee. Developed nations can and should do more to play their part. 

Anger towards refugees is misplaced. The anger should be directed to the global community and at the lack of political will to resolve wars and armed conflicts, the source of violence and insecurity that cause people to flee in the first place. Practically speaking, conflict resolution is complicated and takes years to resolve. Therefore energy and resources should go towards increasing the capacity and will of countries, institutions and societies to better protect refugees. 

Fleeing your home due to violence or persecution is not a crime, it is a human right. And medical and humanitarian assistance for vulnerable people is a basic need. At the most fundamental level, it’s about treating human beings with dignity and respect. To deny this to others goes against humanity and denies what makes us human.


Thierry Coppens is the General Director of Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) Korea, an international medical humanitarian organization that provides medical assistance to people affected by conflict, epidemics, disasters, or exclusion from health care. -- Ed.