Médecins Sans Frontière’s selective “Témoignages”: Humanitarian or Political?

Written by Sophia Tesfamariam

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Médecins Sans Frontière’s selective “Témoignages”: Humanitarian or Political?

At a time when most of Europe is grappling with its migrant crisis, the headlines on Eritrea are increasingly less acerbic. A report by the Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat (RMMS) of February 9 last month reads:“…While the total number of migrants and refugees arriving in Italy in 2016 hit a record, the number of Eritrean arrivals in Italy decreased significantly in the past year…”.Another report also confirms that “the number of people seeking asylum in Switzerland has fallen”.

These are the facts; so why then the frothing? Why is Paris-based Medicine Sans Frontier (MSF) so upset and determined to reverse this trend?

It seems that this NGO, known for providing medical assistance in underdeveloped countries and in disasters and crisis around the world, has decided to join the intense political advocacy campaigns directed against Eritrea by the Ethiopian regime and its ilk. Apparently, MSF is angry with the European Union “for changing its asylum policies regarding Eritrea”. This policy shift remains still tentative. But the result is vivid; already entailing a dramatic reduction in the number of Eritreans who risk their lives to make it to Europe under false expectations and sweeping “bona fide” refugee status.

MSF worked in the various UNHCR camps in Ethiopia and Sudan where Eritrean youth stayed before being trafficked across the Sahara and to dangerous voyages across the Mediterranean. The MSF report gives a chilling account of these harrowing voyages, of the suffering of Eritrea’s youth in Ethiopia’s camps and records “sexual violence, exploitation, abuse and detention of children”along their journey. MSF also works on “rescue ships” in the Mediterranean and has had “reception centers” set up in Italy as early as 1999, way before the migrant crisis. It is no wonder then that its report contains graphic details about the trafficking trail and the traumatic experiences of the victims…it seems to have been there from the beginning.

According to its own reports:

  • “…Since 1999, MSF has worked in Italy to provide health care to illegal immigrants and boat refugees…In 2003, MSF opened clinics for immigrants lacking legal status in various regions of the country [Italy} including Rome, Lombardy and Sicily… Sicily is the most popular point for boat refugees to land in Italy. Many are fleeing from conflict or other dangerous situations in their home country and risk their lives during their voyage across the Mediterranean Sea. On Lampedusa, a small island south of Sicily, an MSF nurse provides medical care at a reception center set up to help newly arrived refugees…In southern Italy where agriculture is the main economic activity, thousands of illegal immigrants work as seasonal farm help. The workers are asylum seekers or undocumented refugees. Their living and working conditions are often dismal and they have limited access to health care…”

MSF says its latest report about Eritrea is based on “hundreds of conversations and 106 in-depth testimonies from Eritreans”. These selective “témoignages/ testimonies” were collected mostly in Ethiopian camps and from frightened, tired and weary migrants aboard its rescue ships in the Mediterranean. These “rescue ships” have also come under scrutiny. A 17 February report in the Irish Sun said:

  • “…The fleet of privately-run aid vessels rescuing migrants off the Libyan coast and bringing them to Italy is “of interest” to Italian investigators…Catania prosecutor Carmelo Zuccaro said the boats were not currently suspected of illegal activity but had drawn attention for their sophisticated and expensive operations…By last summer close to ten different NGOs, financed mainly through private donations, were taking part in migrant relief operations off Libya…the EU’s border control agency Frontex raised the possibility of traffickers putting migrants out to sea could be in collusion with the private ships that recover them and bring them to Italy “like taxis”…”

Aquarius is the boat charted by Doctors Without Borders (MSF) but MSF is also said to be operating from boats funded by George Soros’ Open Society. In any case, the Frontex investigations will provide a better insight into the trafficking networks, which include NGOs and media groups, and their financiers.

MSF provides no evidence to support its outlandish accusations against Eritrea in its 44 page report. Its long held bias against Eritrea is documented and this is not the first time that MSF has producing distorted, politically motivated statements about Eritrea, while it has remained conspicuously silent on the atrocities being committed by the minority regime in Ethiopia, right under its nose.

MSF has yet to report on the massacres of innocent protesters in the nationwide protests that have engulfed Ethiopia for over a year. It has not penned a single article or report on the draconian Emergency Declaration that has led to the arbitrary detention of over 22,000 Ethiopians (regime’s figures) and the cold blooded killings of hundreds. It has not “spoken out” on the detention of opposition figures and journalists, or about the abuse of refugees in the many UNHCR funded camps established in Ethiopia.

Judging from the flurry of “Alerts” being disseminated through the NGO and media networks, Arjan Hehenkamp, MSF General Director, seems to be upset with the European Union’s decision to stem the flow of migrants and stop the suffering of Eritreans and others who are being lured to take these dangerous voyages. It should be noted that Arjan Hehencamp works closely with EEPA and Mirjam Van Reisen who serves as one of the “Directors” at the International Commission for Eritrean Refugees (ICER). Miriam Van Reisen is an avowed apologist of colonial occupation of Eritrea and has been involved in a decade-long vilification campaign against the State of Eritrea and its leadership.

The latest report about Eritrea is part of a coordinated anti-Eritrea campaign by MSF and includes political exhibitions (touring the United States and Canada) and forums with members of the Eritrean Quislings League (EQL) and European NGOs such as the European External Policy Advisors (EEPA), run by Mirjam Van Reisen. As alluded to earlier, the latter has long targeted Eritrea and produced voluminous and invective reports about Eritrea to the European Union, US think tanks and the UN Human Rights Council.

MSFs “refugee” processing centers and rescue missions are threatened by EU’s policies. If Eritreans are not making the dangerous treks, filling Ethiopia’s UNHCR sponsored camps and making the dangerous voyages across the Mediterranean, there will be no work-no funding- for MSF or its partners. In 2015, Hehenkamp and Reisen were panelists in a discussion about their work with “refugees on European soil” and agreed that aid organizations must “speak against the European asylum policy” and decided that “the humanitarian principle of neutrality” need not apply this time…

So to “speak out”, MSF decided to accuse Eritrea based on selective self-serving témoignages-some of which contain outright fabrications. Suffice it to mention a couple of examples.

1. One of its testimonies says the following:

  • “…One night, while we moved by train from Mora to Assab, I was on night watch as a guard. That’s when I escaped. I was very scared because, to cross the border, I had to cross Eritrea’s largest river. When I crossed, the Eritrean military shot at me. I dived underwater and swam for my life…”

As far as this author knows, there is no rail service between Mora and Assabin Eritrea. Neither place is near “Eritrea’s largest river”. So unless the person is telling MSF that he or she swam across the Red Sea, this testimony is geographically untenable.

2. This one is about a family that lives in Sudan; not in Eritrea. It reads:

  • “…My husband and I fled Eritrea many years ago. We lived in Sudan for over 20 years. I have four daughters. They were all born in Sudan. Two of them, 19 and 21 years old, went missing. One day they went to school in Khartoum and they never came back. I never heard from them. People tell me they have been kidnapped and sold. I’m desperate to find them…”

Eritrea celebrated its 25th Independence Anniversary in May 2016, so if this family lived in Sudan for over 20years and all their children are born in Sudan, how are they affected by Eritrea’s National Service program, which MSF claims is behind the youth flight?

The emerging changes in EU policy have come after many fact finding missions were conducted in Eritrea by various agencies including those in Denmark, Switzerland, Norway and the UK. Hehencamp wants to divert attention by making false claims about the fate of refugees who are not allowed to remain on European soil.There is a huge drop in numbers making the dangerous treks across deserts and the sea, and also a huge drop in the numbers of people leaving Eritrea for “transit camps” in Ethiopia. Whilst attempts to lure the youth still remain, the realization that the grass is not really greener on the other side is hitting home.

But this of course translates to less lucrative projects for MSF… MSF insists that they be allowed to come to “European soil”, so that they can treat them…because without patients, there would be no funding and no work.

MSF says:

““….Ninety per cent of Eritreans who manage to reach Europe over land and sea are granted asylum. European governments recognise their claims as genuine but despite this are doing all they can to prevent them and other people seeking asylum from reaching EU shores… there are increasing reports of Eritrean refugees being systematically rounded up, arbitrarily detained and forcibly deported to Eritrea. Sending Eritreans back to Eritrea against their will violates the non-refoulement principle of the UN Refugee Convention…”

If MSF had contacted Eritrean Embassies across Europe and in the United States, they would not have made such a statement-as Eritrea does not allow repatriation of any of its citizens without their consent…so if they are sending them out of Europe-they are not sending them to Eritrea…

MSF relies on TPLF regime, its surrogates in the EQL as well as its handlers (some of whom are MSF donors) for its “information” on Eritrea. Whilst it seems versed on everything that the minority regime in Ethiopia is doing and calls for its support, it does not mention any initiatives that the government of Eritrea is taking to address the illicit trafficking of its youth. It also does not mention Eritrea’s call on the United Nations to conduct an independent investigation into the trafficking of Eritrea’s youth, a call that seems to have fallen on deaf ears.

Gerald M. Steinberg & Naftali Balanson in the 2013 paper, “NGO Malpractice: The Political abuse of Medicine, Morality and Science wrote about certain humanitarian NGOs. The report says that MSF, was “one of the highest funded NGOs in the world”. It also said that the profiled NGOs, which included MSF made:

  • “…human rights claims that are inconsistent with the available evidence, tendentiously distort or misrepresent the evidence that does exist, and report as fact claims based on unverifiable allegations. The political, legal, and military analysis is often highly distorted or without basis in fact, and outside the expertise of the NGOs…using their humanitarian work as an opportunity to take partisan positions…activism goes far beyond medicine where NGO members may possess a certain level of expertise…”

By making political assertions about Eritrea and its national policies, MSF goes beyond medicine and infringes on Eritrea’s sovereign rights and right to self-determination.

This is not the first time that MSF has gone out of its way to make political statement about Eritrea, to appease the minority regime in Ethiopia. It should be recalled that MSF in its 13 November 2013 piece: “A timeline of MSF in Somalia”, wrote:

  • “…After the departure of UNOSOM in March 1995, international attention turns away from Somalia. The Somali people are forgotten, even as they are forced to contend with sporadic combat between warlords. The Islamic Courts Union (ICU) progressively gains influence and power with the support of Eritrea…”

MSF did not provide any evidence to support its allegations. It simply parroted the unsubstantiated allegations that were being made by Ethiopia at that time. Eritrea openly objected, at the Summits in IGAD and other international forums, to ill-advised military interventions by Ethiopia and the US. But it did not provide support to warring factions in Somalia. Such allegations led to the unjust and illegal UN sanctions against the State of Eritrea and its people in December 2009.

MSF in the same report mentions the “US-backed Ethiopian military intervention” in Somalia but neglects to mention that it caused the greatest humanitarian emergency in Somalia’s history, one that is plaguing the country to this date and contributed to the rise of Al Shabbab, an entity designated as a terrorist group by the UN.

Strangely enough, MSF admits that it fostered a working relationship with Al-Shabaab in order to conduct its lucrative “humanitarian project” in Somalia. In a book released by Linda Polman, a Dutch author, MSF admits to reluctantly subsidizing Al Shabbab. Polman writes:

  • “…In Somalia, MSF was forced to run many operations by “remote control” because of the risk from Islamist fighters. In 2009, MSF was subjected to a 5% tax on the salary of all MSF employees by the al-Qaida linked al-Shabaab militia, not to mention “registration” costs of $10,000 (£6,300) per project, a $20,000 tax every six months…”

Benoit Leduc, head of mission for MSF, France, further told the Guardian:

  • “… insofar as al-Shabaab controls the majority of the country and Mogadishu in particular [at the time Leduc is speaking of], all we can do is accept reality… and that we don’t choose whom we talk to – including those claiming to be from al-Qaida…”

Yet it dares to accuse Eritrea, without providing any evidence to support its preposterous accusations.

In the same vein, in its latest report, MSF asserts that “prolonged service” is the primary cause of youth migration to Europe. This is the narrative that has been perpetuated by Eritrea’s enemies, and is used by asylum seekers. MSF mentions neither Ethiopia’s 15 year-long occupation of sovereign Eritrean territories, nor the illegal UN sanctions engineered by Ethiopia and the US, the main causes of the “prolonged service”.

Its report and the behind the scenes campaigns (roaming exhibitions of migrants at sea) used to vilify the State of Eritrea and its national development policies, may attract the FAKENEWS media attention for now, but it is an egregious misuse of MSFs humanitarian mandate. MSF’s descent into political advocacy also jeopardizes the “impartiality that allows it to operate in conflict zones around the world”.