Europe must accept the boat people fleeing Libya

760 migrants have arrived from Libya after travelling for three days on an old fishing boat. Among the passengers, MSF counted seven children, 63 women; one of them pregnant. Photo: Mattia Insolera

MSF criticises inconsistent European policies claiming to protect civilians by engaging in a war while closing its borders to them.

Paris – An open letter by MSF addressed to the leaders of the states of the European Union involved in the war in Libya is being published today in 11 newspapers across Europe*.

In the letter, the organisation criticises contradictory European policies, which claim to be conducting a war to protect civilians, whilst closing its borders to the victims of that same war, on the pretext of preventing a massive influx of illegal immigrants.

“The European states involved in the war in Libya are shirking their obligations, both legal and moral, and are neglecting the victims of the war to which they are a party,” says Dr Marie-Pierre Allié, President of Médecins Sans Frontières.

“The words and the actions of our leaders, presented against a backdrop of the battle against illegal immigration, actually restrict access to Europe for the victims of war. This political cynicism is shameful.”

MSF draws attention to the discrepancy between the reception offered by Tunisia and Egypt –  which have accepted nearly 630,000 people fleeing neighbouring Libya – and that provided by European states, which have turned back boat people – who are risking their lives to reach Europe – from their territorial lands and waters.

“The people we are seeing in Lampedusa tell us about the threats and violence they have been subjected to in Libya: some have been beaten or have seen their friends die in front of their eyes,” says Loris De Filippi, MSF director of operations. “They arrive exhausted, often suffering from hypothermia, after travelling for long hours and risking their lives. What they find when they reach Europe are unacceptable reception conditions and total uncertainty regarding their future.”

The open letter also notes the legal obligation to protect the rights of victims of war by “guaranteeing their non-refoulement [ie not being returned to places where their lives may be under threat] from Europe’s territorial waters and lands to a war zone, and by ensuring that they are received properly in Europe and have access to asylum procedures when they so request.”

* The open letter is published today in : Die Presse, Der Standard (Austria), Le Soir, De Standaard (Belgium), Berlingske Tidende (Denmark), Le Monde (France), Corriere della Sera, La Repubblica, (Italy),  El País (Spain) Svenska Dagbladet (Sweden), Le Temps (Switzerland), European Voice (UE).

Recipients of the MSF Open letter
Mr Werner Faymann, Federal Chancelor and M. Michael Spindelegger, Vice-Chancelor and Minister for Foreign Affairs (Austria), Mr Yves Leterme, Prime Minister (Belgium), M. Petr Nečas, Prime Minister (Czech Republic), M. Lars Løkke Rasmussen, Prime Minister and M. Lene Espersen, Minister of Foreign Affairs (Denmark), Mrs Angela Merkel, Chancelor (Germany), M. Nicolas Sarkozy, President (France), Mr Rutte, Prime Minister (Netherlands), Mr Silvio Berlusconi, Prime Minister (Italy), Mr Jean-Claude Juncker, Prime Minister (Luxemburg), M. Jens Stoltenberg, Prime Minister (Norway), Mr José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, Prime Minister (Spain), Mr Fredrik Reinfeldt, Prime Minister (Sweden), Mr David Cameron, Prime Minister (United Kingdom), Mr Herman Van Rompuy, President of the European Council, Heads of State or Government of the Member States of the European Union, Mr Jerzy Buzek, President of the European Parliament, Mr José Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission, Mrs Catherine Ashton, Vice-President of the European Commission and High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy.

For more information: Contact Laura Lopez Gonzalez, Interim Communications Officer, MSF South Africa, +27 79 8722 950 or
Borrie La Grange, Head of Communications, MSF South Africa, +27 83 287 5294
MSF teams are aiding victims of the war in Libya in Italy (Lampedusa), Libya (Misrata, Benghazi and Zintan) and Tunisia. They are daily witnesses to the impact of the conflict on civilians.

MSF activities include:

Lampedusa (Italy)

  • MSF looks after the triage of patients at the port and their medical follow-up in the island’s detention and reception centres. It has also taken on the role of evaluating their living conditions and access to healthcare in the centres located in Italy. As of now, around 11,175 migrants and asylum seekers fleeing the conflict in Libya have reached Italy.
  • Since February 2011, MSF has conducted more than 1,700 medical consultations for migrants and refugees in Lampedusa and has provided them with a total of 2,500 hygiene kits, 4,500 blankets and 3,500 bottles of water.


  • MSF teams have been present in Libya since 24 February and are currently working in Zintan, Misrata and Benghazi.
  • In Misrata, about 20 MSF staff have been providing surgical and medical care in three hospitals (Al Abbad, Kasr Ahmed and Ras Tuba) since 18 April and are working to increase the number of patients these hospitals can treat. 
  • In Benghazi, MSF is providing support to the two central pharmacies by supplying essential medicines. MSF has also assessed the situation of families who have been displaced around Benghazi because of the conflict. The team now plans to start activities in Al Bayda camp where 900 families have sought refuge. MSF is also continuing to provide support to the Benghazi medical committee on caring for victims of sexual and gender-based violence, including how to deliver psychological support. It is also continuing its support to patients with chronic diseases through bringing in drugs for HIV and TB patients.
  • Since 30 April, a MSF team has been providing support to medical staff at Zintan hospital, a city in western Libya (southwest of Tripoli), in order to cope with the large numbers of wounded. About a hundred wounded people have been admitted to Zintan hospital since early May following fighting between pro-Gaddafi forces and rebels.
  • MSF psychologists have been providing mental health support since March to people who have fled the Libyan conflict and sought refuge in camps near the border. So far, more than 4,000 consultations have been provided.
  • Since early April, more than 40,000 Libyan families have crossed the Tunisian border to flee the violence in their country. MSF is running mobile clinics so as to provide psychological care to the refugees, who are staying in relocation centres, clinics and with host families along the road from Dehiba to Tataouine. MSF is also providing support to health facilities in the areas where refugees have relocated so as to help local medical staff cope with the increased number of patients coming for consultations.


Related News: Open letter to European leaders regarding the war in Libya

Find out more about MSF in Libya