‘Haiti is a country that’s drowning’: Migrants recount trauma of fleeing home

Thousands of people have fled Haiti’s capital in recent weeks as gangs continue to run riot in a country plunged into political chaos. More than 2,000 thousand kilometres from Port-au-Prince, a community centre in New York’s Rockland County is welcoming Haitians who have fled the violence. But while they have finally reached the safety of the US, they also bear traumatic memories. 

The Konbit Neg Lakay community centre is one of the first stops that many Haitian migrants make after arriving in New York. The centre’s name means “Together for a Stronger Community” in Creole and it’s a welcoming place for people who have just fled the unrest and gang violence wracking Haiti.

The mural on the centre’s exterior wall brings a splash of colour to the Spring Valley neighbourhood in New York’s Rockland County.

Mural on the wall of Konbit Neg Lakay Haitian Community Centre in Spring Valley, Rockland County, New York on 20 March 2024. © Jessica Le Masurier

It depicts an idyllic scene of rural life in Haiti but the centre’s director Renold Julien experienced some tough times in the country of his birth.

He was an activist in Haiti during what has come to be called the Papa/Baby Doc dictatorship years. From the late 1950s to the mid-1980s, François “Papa Doc” Duvalier was succeeded by son, Jean-Claude, “Baby Doc”, the Haitian regime became synonymous with torture and killings.

Julian left his homeland almost four decades ago for a new life in the US. He opened his community centre, to help other Haitians navigate their arrival in New York, 37 years ago.

The centre receives grants from foundations and NGOs but it struggles to raise enough funds to meet ever increasing demands. For Julien, Konbit Neg Lakay is a work of devotion. 

Konbit Neg Lakay provides newly arrived Haitians with immigration and job services, professional training and language classes. “Everything that an immigrant needs, we have it here,” Julien explains. It struggles to raise enough funds to meet ever increasing demands but for Julien: “It’s a privilege for me to help my brothers and sisters.”

‘We ran to escape from them’

Several Haitians migrants come through a US humanitarian programme but they need a sponsor, Julien explains. Others travel through Mexico and then claim asylum in the US.

A dozen new arrivals from Haiti walk through the centre’s doors every week – many have lost family members to the gang violence back home.

“It has been extremely busy here due to the situation in Haiti because thousands of Haitians have been forced to leave,” says Julien as he  introduces three women who need advice on how to get a job and other essential information.

One of them is a soft-spoken medical student who arrived in the US in November 2023. Kartika Sari Rene, 22, did not want to leave Haiti. She was in her third year of medical school, when her studies were cut short. 

“I was walking with some friends and then some kidnappers were passing by,” she says. “We ran to escape from them. We hid from them. It was really awful.”

Rene’s father was terrified for her safety and forced her to leave the country. She came to the US with her mother, sponsored by family members living in New York. She has started learning English and has obtained a certificate to work as a personal care aide. 

For now, her dream of becoming a pediatrician is on hold. “I love to help people. I can’t stand to see people suffer,” she explains. 

Her friends at medical school in Haiti have also had to pause their studies. It is too dangerous for them to leave their homes.

‘Long, difficult and uncomfortable journey’

Haitian beautician Josette Bienaise also had to flee the country after a traumatic experience. She was shopping in the market when armed gang members started shooting at vendors. “Pap, pap pap,” she says, recounting her experience that day. “I lay down on the ground terrified and prayed. I can still feel the fear in my body.”

In the Konbit Neg Lakay hallway, Jean Marc Mathurin leans against a wall as he recounts the arduous journey that he made to walk through these doors to safety.

“They killed my father,” he confides in a low voice. “He was leaving work at the airport, and they wanted to take his money. He said no, and they murdered him. Then they came and burnt our home. My mother suffered so much she became ill, her sickness killed her.” 

Haitian migrant Jean Marc Mathurin at Konbit Neg Lakay Community Centre in Spring Valley, Rockland Country, New York 20 March 2024.
Haitian migrant Jean Marc Mathurin at Konbit Neg Lakay Community Centre in Spring Valley, Rockland Country, New York 20 March 2024. © Jessica Le Masurier

Mathurin finds a photo of his mother in a hospital bed on his phone and videos of his two young children and the three sisters he left behind in Haiti. He arrived in New York with nothing. He is claiming asylum in the US, but it will be many months before he can legally work here and start sending money back home to his loved ones.

Each time he eats, he thinks of his family going hungry. “People in Haiti sell their homes to make the journey here thinking they will arrive in the US with something but they spend every penny along the way, or thieves steal their money and they get here with nothing, if they even make it here. Some of them get sent back home,” he explains.

There were many times along his escape from Haiti when Mathurin thought he would not make it. He took a flight from Port-au-Prince to Nicaragua, where he travelled mainly on foot to Honduras, Guatemala and into Mexico. “It was a long, difficult and uncomfortable journey.”

When he got to the Rio Grande, in Mexico, he thought it might be impossible to cross. He describes the buoys, erected by the local authorities to thwart migrants, anchored to the riverbed. The buoys have blades that cut you if you try to climb over them, he said.

Mathurin is unable to forget the horrors he witnessed. “There are those who know how to swim, and those who don’t,” he says. “In front of me were two men, a Venezuelan and a Haitian, and they drowned right in front of me.” 

It’s a trauma he likened to his ancestral land. “Haiti is a country that’s drowning. It’s a child without a mother or father. When you have a mum and dad, they tell you not to go out late, not to fall in with the wrong crowd. Haiti is an orphan.”

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France’s foreign doctors suffer insecurity as understaffed hospitals struggle to function

The situation for several thousand foreign doctors working in French hospitals has become more complicated since the end of the exemption scheme put into place during the Covid-19 pandemic. Nearly 1,900 of these practitioners have now lost their right to practise, a great loss for French hospitals already struggling with shortages of medical staff. FRANCE 24 spoke to some of them.

Karima*’s last visit to the prefecture was a complete nightmare, as her residence permit was not renewed. “All I have is a receipt”, she says. This is despite the fact that she has been working as a paediatric orthopaedic surgeon – including in the emergency department, where she is on call at least four nights a month – for the past two years in a hospital in the Parisian suburbs. “My colleagues in general surgery asked me to come help out,” says the surgeon, who is originally from a country in North Africa*. “I’m not going to let them down,” she says, although she doesn’t know how much longer she will be able to practise.

Even though the hospital has agreed to let her work, Karima is concerned that her contract, which is renewed every six months, will be allowed to expire. She is one of some 4,000 medical practitioners with qualifications from outside the European Union known as “Padhue” (for the acronym of praticiens diplômés en dehors de l’Union européenne) who have been working in French hospitals for years in precarious positions such as “acting intern”.

“The work I do is real work, the work of a practitioner, even though I’m on an intern contract for which I get paid 1,400 euros net and which has to be renewed every six months. The prefecture refused to renew my residence permit because of these breaches of contract,” says the doctor, who is constantly going back and forth with the authorities to try and stabilise her situation. “This time, the prefecture is asking me for a work permit provided by the regional health agency, which no longer wants to provide it, as the law has changed.” 

On December 31, 2023, the exemption scheme that allowed establishments to employ Padhue staff under a variety of precarious arrangements expired, making it impossible for them to continue working. As of January 1, these doctors must sit highly selective and competitive examinations known as “knowledge verification tests” (épreuves de vérification des connaissances, or EVC) before they can be reinstated. Posts under the scheme are hard to come by, with 2,700 available for over 8,000 applicants in 2023, some of whom try their luck from abroad. As a result, the majority of the Padhue doctors found themselves out of the running this year.

After an outcry from French unions, the government finally promised to “regularise a number of foreign doctors” and renewed their temporary work permits another year so that they can sit the 2024 EVC.

‘I don’t understand why I’m not being judged on my experience here’

However, Karima’s problems are far from over, as she tried to sit the EVC in paediatric orthopaedic surgery in 2023 but her application was rejected. “They tell me that I don’t have the right diploma, that I need one in paediatric orthopaedics, but my country doesn’t offer this type of diploma! I don’t understand why I’m not being judged on my experience here. I operate on my own, I consult, I have my own patients,” she says. 

When she arrived in France in 2020, she did not have long-term plans to live on this side of the Mediterranean. “I had been sent to France for further training in orthopaedic surgery because I had noticed shortcomings in the department where I was working in North Africa,” she says. But after almost two years as an associate trainee at a university hospital in Nice, Karima found herself stuck in France because of the Covid-19 pandemic and the closure of her country’s borders. She also lost her job in North Africa. 

While in Nice, she worked on the front lines during the Covid-19 pandemic alongside French medical staff, lending a hand in intensive care. “We saved lives. And we’ll continue to do so. It’s what we do. Sometimes in the emergency department, I find myself in a situation where I have to react in a split second, do the right thing and make the right decision to save someone.”

‘I regularly pack my bags’

Sometimes Karima thinks about returning to North Africa. “I ask myself the question if I can go on in this situation. But I have a job that I love, especially the children. I’m attached to my patients. When I see in their eyes that they’re satisfied, I feel useful.” However, she is thinking more and more about leaving, as she wants a life where she can plan beyond a day-to-day basis. “I regularly find myself packing my bags. I hesitate to order new furniture.” Those close to her have suggested that she apply for a job in Germany “Some of my colleagues have gone there. They were accepted on the basis of their applications and took German language courses,” she says.

Against the backdrop of its overwhelmed healthcare system, France is in desperate need of additional medical staff, but risks losing thousands of these doctors to other European countries.  

Watch moreA country short of doctors: Exploring France’s ‘medical deserts’


Dr Aristide Yayi, originally from Burkina Faso, came to demonstrate in front of the health ministry in Paris, France to defend the rights of foreign doctors working in France on February 15, 2024. © Bahar Makooi, FRANCE 24

Dr Aristide Yayi is originally from Burkina Faso and qualified in forensic medicine in Dakar, Senegal. He has been working for three years as a general practitioner at the only residential care home for senior citizens (“Ehpads”, in France) in Commercy, a small town in the northeastern Meuse department. France’s elder care sector is in desperate need of doctors. “My contract runs until July 2024. After that, I don’t know what’s going to happen,” says Yayi. He wants to develop a pain management service for the Ehpad residents, but this project may never see the light of day if his situation does not become more stable. “I’ve been on one training course after another, with six-month contracts as an ‘acting intern’. It’s always uncertain and precarious. I feel like I’m being treated like a junior doctor,” he says.

Hospital services under threat without foreign doctors

Several hospital department heads, particularly in the Paris region, have warned that they will be “forced to close” if no more foreign doctors are hired. At his January 16 press conference, President Emmanuel Macron admitted that France needed these practitioners, saying he wanted to “regularise a number of foreign doctors, who help to hold our system together”. This promise was reiterated by newly-appointed Prime Minister Gabriel Attal in his general policy speech at the end of January. 

French unions are now demanding that this rhetoric be followed by action. At a meeting with the health ministry on February 15, they welcomed the previous day’s publication of the decree renewing temporary work permits for foreign doctors who undertake to sit the 2024 EVC. However, Olivier Varnet, general secretary of the National Union of Hospital Doctors FO, criticised the decree, saying it was “a first step” that “merely postpones the problem for a year”.

Meanwhile, foreign doctors are suffering, as almost 1,900 of them are unable to work at the moment. “My old department is desperately looking for someone to replace me. They’re really struggling. I was in charge of two units with 20 patients each. It’s absurd,” says Mostapha, who worked in a follow-up care and rehabilitation unit in Normandy. His contract as an “associate practitioner” was suspended on January 1, as he was not permitted to sit the knowledge verification tests. “The hospital wanted to keep me, but the regional health authority didn’t authorise it,” he says.

‘Some candidates failed, even with top marks’

A graduate of the Faculty of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation in Algiers, he followed his wife, a French national, to France three years ago. “I don’t have any problems with my papers – I have a 10-year residence permit,” he says.

Mostapha joined his fellow doctors and a French union delegation received on February 16, 2024 by the Ministry of Health in Paris, France.
Mostapha joined his fellow doctors and a French union delegation in a meeting at the French health ministry on February 16, 2024. © Bahar Makooi, FRANCE 24

Mostapha hopes that his case will be examined more closely and that the new decree will enable him to return to work. However, he doesn’t really believe that taking the exam will help him get his career back on track: “I’m planning to take it again because for the moment there’s no other solution, although the chances of passing it are getting smaller and smaller because of the number of posts. It’s worse than selective.”

Many unions believe that the exam is more reflective of a quota system than an actual “verification of knowledge”. “Some candidates failed with an average of more than 15 [out of 20, a highly competitive result],” says Laurent Laporte, general secretary of the CGT’s Federal Union of Doctors, Engineers, Managers and Technicians. The unions say the test is “too academic”, “random”, “opaque” and “discriminatory for doctors working more than 60 hours a week”. The health ministry promised on February 15 to “reformulate the EVC” by making it more practical. 

*This person wishes to remain anonymous

This article has been translated from the original in French

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France’s undocumented migrants face uncertain future under new immigration law

Despite facing serious labour shortages, the French government passed a more restrictive immigration bill this week after watering down measures that would have streamlined the legalisation of foreign workers. But some of the law’s new provisions may still offer a glimmer of hope for the country’s hundreds of thousands of undocumented migrants. 

Until it became unstuck, the sticking point – as far as France’s right wing was concerned – for the Macron government’s sweeping immigration bill was how to deal with the country’s undocumented migrants.

In presenting the bill’s initial text a year ago, Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin and Labour Minister Olivier Dussopt included provisions making it easier to legalise undocumented migrants working in sectors with labour shortages. But representatives from Marine Le Pen‘s far-right National Rally party repeatedly stated they would not endorse legislation granting undocumented workers legal status. 

After the language of the bill was significantly weakened in a joint committee, Le Pen saw an opening for a strategic victory and changed course; it passed the National Assembly (lower house) on Tuesday with Le Pen’s endorsement.

While it does not go as far as the original text, the new law gives undocumented workers in high-demand occupations a path to obtaining residency permits. Speaking a day after the law was passed, Darmanin said he expects the number of legalisations (régularisations) to double, with “ten thousand additional foreign workers each year“.

At the same time, the law will make it more difficult – and more risky – for undocumented workers in France: a law abolished by former president François Hollande that allowed police to fine foreigners up to €3,750 if they are found to be in the country unlawfully has been reintroduced. The bill also steps up sanctions against companies employing illegal workers.

Sans papiers

The number of undocumented workers, or what the French call the “sans papiers” (without papers), is impossible to calculate. Darmanin himself estimates the number to be between 600,000 and 900,000.

Amadou* moved to France from Mali on a work visa in 2001 (overstaying a legal visa is the most common path to becoming an undocumented migrant in Europe).

Finding work has never been a problem. He has primarily worked in the hospitality sector and in retirement homes – he currently works at a restaurant in Paris’s 7th arrondissement (district). “I’ve been working in France for 19 years without a holiday, without any sick days or absences,” he says.

Amadou first applied for working papers – to no avail – in 2012. The second time he applied, in 2018, he was denied because he didn’t have children or a partner to support. Since then, despite help from his employer, he has been unable to get another meeting.

Amadou belongs to an association that supports undocumented migrants in Montreuil, a suburb just east of Paris. He often participates in protests but realises he and people like him are largely powerless. “I’d like to get my papers but, considering it’s [the politicians] who decide, we are not their priority,” he says.

France’s right-wing Les Republicains party and the far-right National Rally are reluctant to endorse a path towards legalisation because they believe migrants choose France for its advantageous social system. Therefore, the logic goes, making life difficult for migrants will prevent more migrants from coming – an idea that has no grounding in research.

Read moreMacron accused of doing far-right’s bidding with stricter immigration law

By contrast, studies have found that legalising migrants has positive macroeconomic and fiscal outcomes in developed countries.

Citing research from the Institute of Labour Economics, French economist Pierre Cahuc argued for the significant advantages that legalisation can have on a country’s economy in the French financial daily Les Echos.

“It is a crucial factor to take into account in the context of low growth and an ageing population,” Cahuc said. “From a purely fiscal standpoint, legalisation could also have a positive impact since declared work generates income for the state coffers.”

Violaine Carrère, a lawyer at Gisti, an immigrant information and support group, agrees. “When you are on a payroll, you pay into social security. And with a real salary, you can spend more.” 

Not only does it benefit the economy, Carrère says, becoming legal enables migrants “to integrate fully and lead a dignified life”.

“Staying stuck, working all the time – it’s not a life that many people would want to live,” says Amadou.

“Everyone wants to be happy, have a good life, a roof and a family. If you’re a sans papier it’s all out of reach.”

Labour shortages

Under French President Emmanuel Macron, unemployment has fallen to 7.4% of the workforce, the lowest level in more than a decade. He has pledged to continue this mission, pushing for full employment (which the country’s labour organisation considers to be 5%).

At the same time, eight out of 10 professions in France saw labour shortages in 2022, according to the Directorate for Research, Studies and Statistics (Direction de l’Animation de la recherche, des Études et des Statistiques). This increased from seven out of 10 in 2021 due to France’s ageing population and a wave of resignations.

Targeting low domestic unemployment rates while seeking a concurrent increase in migrant labour might seem contradictory. But it is simply not possible to make up for France’s worker shortfalls with a supply of domestic labour that is mostly young – some 17% of French youth are unemployed, significantly higher than the EU average. 

Research is focusing on three central reasons for this, says migration policy analyst Anna Piccinni. The first and second are skill disparities and remuneration: much of the increasingly qualified youth are not motivated by low-skilled jobs, especially if the salary level is not what they expect.

Piccinni’s third reason is that labour shortages are often localised and migrants offer a more mobile labour force – filling the gaps that non-migrant workers might be unable or unwilling to fill. “Often, shortages of low-skilled labour are not in urban areas, where the youth move for their studies and then stick around for jobs,” she says. “Migrants have the potential to fill these gaps.”

Indeed, she points out that many municipalities across Europe are now creating incentives to retain migrant populations – such as Altena, a small town in Germany known for its successful integration scheme.

This point has not been lost on France’s business community. Speaking to Radio Classique in the lead-up to Tuesday’s vote, Patrick Martin, who heads the French entrepreneurs’ union, said relying on a foreign labour force is necessary for the country.

“We are already experiencing enormous recruitment pressure,” Martin said. “We have to call a spade a spade and make a choice” to allow a larger immigrant workforce.

For Piccinni, this cannot be achieved without fewer bureaucratic hurdles for issuing work permits to migrants who have already demonstrated a commitment to participating in the economy. “This has to be part of the solution,” she says.

Even the most anti-immigration governments in Europe are doing this, she points out. Georgia Meloni’s government in Italy signed a decree in March allowing 82,000 non-EU migrant workers to work in the country because of seasonal labour shortages.

“Beyond the perception of migration as a threat to social cohesion and security, some governments are aware and willing to recognise the role it has in [fulfilling] employers’ needs,” Piccinni says.

* Not his real name

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Macron accused of doing far-right’s bidding with passage of stricter immigration law

French President Emmanuel Macron is under renewed fire after urging his minority government to vote for a strengthened immigration bill that was endorsed by the far right. The late Tuesday vote, which divided Macron’s coalition MPs and prompted his health minister to resign a day later, was heralded by far-right leader Marine Le Pen as an “ideological victory” upon its passage. 

In a speech following his April 2022 re-election, Emmanuel Macron was well aware he owed his victory to left-leaning voters who considered him the lesser of two evils as he faced off a challenge from Marine Le Pen. “I know that many of our compatriots voted for me not to support the ideas I represent but to block those of the far right,” he acknowledged.

Less than two years later, Macron is facing criticism that he betrayed those same constituents by aligning with the far right after his minority government helped pass an immigration law that was heavily influenced by the right-wing Les Républicains party and supported by the far-right National Rally.

Soon after it was passed, the law was heralded by far-right National Rally leader Marine Le Pen who proclaimed an “ideological victory”.

Macron and members of his government rejected that assessment in a round of interviews on Wednesday.  

Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne told France Inter she felt a “sense of duty fulfilled” after the adoption of the immigration law. Faced with strong criticism from the left, NGOs and even within her own government, Borne insisted that the law “respects our values”.

‘Préférence Nationale’

The immigration law includes several measures inspired by the National Rally’s policy platform. For example, access to certain social benefits will be conditional on a longer period of legal residence in France.

What’s more, sanctions against companies employing undocumented workers will be stepped up.

Measures like these and others concern critics who say the Macron government has accepted policies affiliated with an ideology of “préférence nationale” – policies that legitimise discrimination against foreign nationals in favour of French citizens concerning access to employment, housing and social protections.

“This law does not encompass the entirety or even the majority of Marine Le Pen’s presidential programme, but some of her policies – especially regarding national preference – certainly made the cut even if the law does not go as far as the National Rally wants,” said Jean-Yves Camus, a specialist on the far right and the director of the Observatoire des Radicalités Politiques.

“It’s an exaggeration to talk about an extreme-right text – I would call it instead a ‘hard-right’ text – but we are still opening the door to national preference. We are not fully there, but the door is ajar,” says Caroline Janvier, an MP from Macron’s Renaissance party who voted against the immigration law on Tuesday. 

‘Kiss of death’

It is precisely the addition of national preference policies that tipped the vote on Tuesday night.

Until the mid-afternoon, representatives from the National Rally repeatedly stated they would not endorse the bill, deeming it impossible to approve a text that grants undocumented workers legal status. But seeing the possibility of a strategic victory on the issue of national preference, Le Pen reversed course.

“One can rejoice in an ideological victory … national preference is now inscribed in law, meaning the French will have an advantage over foreigners in accessing certain social benefits,” Le Pen said on Tuesday.

Janvier described Le Pen’s endorsement as the “kiss of death” – a “political move” to make Macron’s government look complicit with the far right in the eyes of left-leaning constituents.

National Rally members were not the only ones pleased by Tuesday’s vote. “There was a kind of jubilation among MPs from Les Républicains over having chipped away at a taboo: that of equality between French and foreigners,” said Camus. “For them, this means that the cultural hegemony of the left has begun to crumble. Beyond the immigration issue, a moral taboo has been broken.”

But Camus said the party’s hopes of luring away far-right supporters are likely in vain. “Les Républicains continue to pursue a strategy of undermining the National Rally by hijacking their policy platform. The only problem is that this strategy doesn’t work. The National Rally continues to rise in the polls,” he said.

Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine Le Pen’s father and the founder of National Rally predecessor the National Front, may have said it best: “Voters always prefer the original to the copy.” 

Victory by ‘background noise’

Macron could have prevented this shift by choosing, in the face of Les Républicains demands, to withdraw the bill and start from scratch. But he deemed it preferable to go through with the vote, even if it meant dividing his coalition.

In total, 27 MPs in the government’s coalition voted against the bill that passed while 32 abstained. Health Minister Aurélien Rousseau resigned from his role in protest the following day.

Borne insisted on France Inter on Wednesday that “there is no crisis in the coalition” while government spokesperson Olivier Véran said that same day there was “no ministerial rebellion”.

Macron defended his decision in an interview with the “C à Vous” TV programme on Wednesday evening. “It is a shield that we needed,” he said, adding that the law “will allow us to fight against what nourishes the National Rally party” – namely immigration fears.

Read moreFiercely contested immigration law is a ‘shield that we needed’, Macron says

Whatever the case, the lines are no longer the same as 20 years ago, Camus said. “With this law, we have accepted the far-right vision of immigration as a danger.”

He said the National Rally’s success is due to persistent “background noise”: “This law would not have been approved without half a century of emphasis on national preference and the idea that immigration is a burden, that we pay a price for it or that it is a factor in criminality.”

To offset the right’s most extreme measures, the Macron government appears to be adopting a novel strategy: to accept Les Républicains’ demands, knowing full well that some of them will be invalidated by the Constitutional Council, the country’s highest constitutional court.

The president submitted the immigration bill to the high court on Wednesday to “decide on its conformity in whole or in part with the Constitution”, Véran announced. Borne has also suggested that some of the bill’s measures are unconstitutional and that the text would likely “evolve”.

But it’s a risky bet, according to Camus. “French people will have a hard time understanding that the law has been emptied of its substance,” he warned.

“This will inevitably benefit the National Rally and the idea, which is already beginning to take hold, that a ‘government of judges’ works against the interests of the country.”

This article was translated from the original in French.

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Biden willing to ‘compromise’ on US border policy as Senate Republicans block Ukraine aid

As Senate Republicans blocked the advance of tens of billions of dollars in military and economic assistance for Ukraine Wednesday, President Joe Biden berated their tactics as “stunning” and dangerous. Yet he also signaled an openness to what GOP lawmakers ultimately want: border policy changes.

Biden at the White House warned of dire consequences for Kyiv – and a “gift” to Russia’s Vladimir Putin – if Congress fails to pass a $110 billion package of wartime funding for Ukraine and Israel as well as other national security priorities. Hours later, Senate Republicans defiantly voted to stop the package from advancing, something that they had threatened to do all week.

“They’re willing to literally kneecap Ukraine on the battlefield and damage our national security in the process,” Biden said.

But even as he lashed Republicans for their stance, Biden stressed that he is willing to “make significant compromises on the border,” if that’s what it takes to get the package through Congress. 

That statement has raised at least some hope that progress can be made in the days ahead as the Senate grinds through negotiations on border security, one of the most fraught issues in American politics. Biden’s remarks Wednesday were his clearest overture yet to Republicans and came at a critical time, with a path through Congress for the emergency funds rapidly disappearing and America’s support for multiple allies in doubt.

“If we don’t support Ukraine, what is the rest of the world going to do?” Biden added.

The president’s statement came hours after he huddled virtually with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and leaders of the Group of Seven advanced democracies, which have staunchly supported Ukraine against Russia’s invasion.

“We need to fix the broken border system. It is broken,” Biden said, adding that he’s ”ready to change policy as well.” He did not name specific policy proposals and accused Republicans of wanting a political issue more than bipartisan compromise.

Sen. James Lankford, the Oklahoma Republican who has been leading Senate negotiations over border policy, was encouraged by what he heard, saying it seemed like the president is “ready to be able to sit down and talk.”

Senators of both parties acknowledged they will need to move quickly if a deal is to be struck. Congress is scheduled to be in Washington for just a handful more days before the end of the year. The White House, meanwhile, has sounded the alarm about what would happen if they don’t approve more funding soon, saying Ukraine’s military would be stalled, or even overrun. 

“When deadlines come, everybody’s undivided attention is there and we realize: ’OK. Now it’s time to actually solve this,’” Lankford said.

Democrats involved in the negotiations also said a direct hand from the president, as well as from Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, could be helpful.

“This kind of thorny, difficult problem is exactly what Joe Biden and Mitch McConnell have worked on before. And we could use their help and their leadership on this,” said Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., another negotiator. 

So far, McConnell, while an ardent supporter of Ukraine aid, has sided with Republicans who are holding firm against the security package unless it includes changes to America’s border policies. Every Republican voted against it advancing Wednesday evening.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., called the failed test vote a “a sad night in the history of the Senate and our country.” He urged Republicans to present a border proposal that is “serious, instead of the extreme policies they have presented thus far.”

Republican negotiators were expected to send a new proposal to Democrats after the failed vote. 

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., who has been involved in the negotiations, said the Republicans’ hard-charging bargain left little room for agreement and he remained skeptical that a deal can be struck.

“They have to figure out whether they want to negotiate or whether they want to make take-it-or-leave-it demands,” Murphy said.

Republicans argue the record numbers of migrants crossing the southern border pose a security threat because border authorities cannot adequately screen them. They also say they cannot justify to their constituents sending billions of dollars to other countries while failing to address the border at home.

So far, senators have found agreement on raising the initial standard for migrants to enter the asylum system. But they’ve been at odds over placing limitations on humanitarian parole, a program that allows the executive branch to temporarily admit migrants without action from Congress. 

But Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, said the Senate talks were “never going to be able to negotiate the kind of meaningful substantive policy changes” that Republicans want. He called Biden’s remarks “positive” and said the negotiations should next include the president, McConnell and House Speaker Mike Johnson.

The president’s willingness to directly engage on the issue comes at a political risk. Immigrant advocates and some Democratic senators have sounded alarm about curtailing the asylum system. 

Sen. Alex Padilla, a California Democrat who led a statement with 10 other senators last month calling for an increase in legal immigration to be included in negotiations, said he would be watching closely what Biden agrees to on border security.

“Devil’s in the details,” Padilla said, adding that the direction of the Senate talks have been “concerning from day one.”

Even if the president and senators somehow find a way forward on border security, any agreement would face significant obstacles in the House. Hardline conservatives who control the chamber have vowed to block it unless it tacks to a broad set of forceful border and immigration policies.

Johnson, who as speaker has already expressed deep skepticism of funding for Ukraine, has signaled he won’t support the aid package if it does not adhere to H.R. 2, a bill that would remake the U.S. immigration system with conservative priorities. 

“The American people deserve nothing less.” Johnson said in a statement.


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French doctors vow to ‘disobey’ bill stripping undocumented migrants of healthcare rights

A push by France’s conservative-led Senate to strip undocumented migrants of their access to free healthcare has sparked a public outcry among workers across the medical profession, many of whom have pledged to ignore a measure they describe as an ethical, sanitary and financial aberration.

Medical practitioners voiced their dismay in a flurry of media statements after senators from the right-wing Les Républicains amended a government-sponsored immigration bill last week to axe a scheme known as State Medical Aid (AME) – which provides free healthcare to undocumented migrants who have settled in France.

The amended bill, which will be examined by the National Assembly next month, was swiftly panned by health officials, who warned that it would present a threat to public health and that long-term costs would far exceed any initial savings.

The head of the Paris hospital consortium AP-HP said scrapping the AME would allow diseases to spread undected and ultimately increase the burden on France’s health system. The Federation of French Hospitals (FHF) described it as “humanitarian, sanitary and financial heresy”.

On Saturday, some 3,500 health workers signed a letter pledging to “continue to treat undocumented patients free of charge and based on their needs, in accordance with the Hippocratic Oath” they took. “Patients from here and elsewhere, our doors are open to you. And will remain so,” they added.

That would effectively mean working for free, said Antoine Pelissolo, a psychiatrist at a hospital east of Paris who co-authored the letter. “If they see a patient who is not covered (by health insurance), they will not be paid,” Pelissolo told AFP. “It’s a very strong stand.”

‘Guided by ideology rather than medical concern’

Set up in 2000, the AME gives undocumented migrants access to the free healthcare provided under France’s health insurance scheme. Beneficiaries must prove they have resided in France for at least three months and have a monthly income of less than €810 ($860).

The scheme has long been a favourite punching bag for critics on the right and far right, who accuse it of inciting illegal immigration – at a growing cost to French taxpayers.  

Last year, the AME counted 411,364 beneficiaries for a total cost of €1.2 billion, up from €900 million in 2018, according to the Inspection Générale des Affaires Sociales (IGAS), a government auditor.  

During debates in the Senate last week, Bruno Retailleau, the head of Les Républicains’ delegation, flagged the “steady increase in recent years, both in the number of AME beneficiaries and its total cost”. He added: “It is only natural that we look for ways to cut certain costs.”

In its amended bill, Retailleau’s party replaced the scheme with a more restrictive “emergency medical assistance” (AMU), which would cover only cases of “severe illness and acute pain”.

Read moreUndocumented workers left in limbo as French immigration bill delayed

The move betrays a sketchy understanding of healthcare, said Professor Pierre Tattevin, the deputy head of the French Infectious Diseases Society (SPILF), noting that the aim for medical workers is precisely to treat diseases before they become severe and acutely painful.

“It’s called prevention: if you treat something early, it will cost you less in the long run,” he explained, arguing that the debate over AME was “guided by ideology rather than medical concern”.

Cost of reform set to outweigh savings

While AME spending has increased in recent years, in line with immigration numbers, it still accounts for just 0.5% of France’s public health spending. According to an IGAS report from 2019, the scheme’s beneficiaries have lower healthcare costs than the general public, averaging around €2,600 per year – against a national average of roughly €3,000.

“The idea that AME costs us money is completely misguided,” said Tattevin. “Scrapping it would cost us a lot dearer than any savings it might generate.”

Earlier this month, some 3,000 health workers signed an op-ed in Le Monde warning that AME’s abolition “would lead to a deterioration in the health of undocumented workers, and more generally that of the population as a whole”.


Signatories included Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, the 2008 Nobel Prize laureate who helped discover HIV/AIDS, and Jean-François Delfraissy, the head of the scientific council that advised the French government during the Covid-19 pandemic.

They pointed to a recent precedent in Spain, where a 2012 law “restricting access to healthcare for illegal immigrants led to an increase in the incidence of infectious diseases and higher mortality rates”. The reform was finally repealed in 2018.

“If you bar part of the population from access to care, it will necessarily have repercussions,” said Tattevin, who also signed the Le Monde op-ed. “It could take months or years to show, but we would end up with hidden epidemics that eventually affect the wider public too,” he added.

A negotiating ploy?

Experts have largely debunked another criticism levelled at State Medical Aid: that its purported generosity induces migrants to choose France over other destinations.

In 2019, France’s former Human Rights Ombudsman, Jacques Toubon, lamented the “false idea that the ‘generosity’ of a scheme such as the AME would lead to an increase in illegal migratory flows by creating a ‘pull effect’”. Instead, he argued, “studies show that the need for care is a completely marginal cause of immigration”.

A 2022 study by France’s National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) found that fewer than 10% of France’s undocumented migrants cited healthcare as a factor in their decision to move to the country. A separate survey by the IRDES healthcare research institute found that only half of those eligible for AME actually benefit from the scheme, owing to administrative obstacles and a lack of information.

Read moreMost migrants eligible for French state medical aid have not accessed their rights

Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne echoed Toubon’s words in a speech to the National Assembly in December 2022, aiming to “dispel misconceptions” about AME.

“No, state medical aid does not fuel illegal immigration. It’s a question of protection and public health,” she told lawmakers at the time. “No plans to migrate to France are motivated solely by the existence of this scheme.”

While Borne reiterated her stance last week, France’s hardline Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin, the immigration bill’s chief sponsor, has previously voiced support for a reform of AME in a bid to win over support from the right – only to backtrack in recent days.

On Sunday, Health Minister Aurélien Rousseau pledged to defend the scheme, saying he “understood” the doctors’ complaints. “The government will fight to ensure that they do not have to exercise civil disobedience,” he told France Info radio.

“One has the impression that it’s all part of a negotiation, that EMA’s abolition has been thrown in the mix only to be removed at the last minute,” said Tattevin. “That way they can say they’re open to compromise and argue that their law isn’t as harsh as critics say.”

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View Q&A: Lampedusa shows migration is integral to human history

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent in any way the editorial position of Euronews.

Following the latest spike in boat arrivals to the Italian island of Lampedusa, Euronews View spoke to MEP Pietro Bartolo about what migration means for Italy and Europe and whether the continent can find a viable and fair way to solve the crisis.

The small Italian island of Lampedusa made international headlines again last week after a surge in boat arrivals to Europe saw at least 11,560 people land on its shores.


The 6,000 resident-strong island, which is closer to the Tunisian coast than mainland Italy has been the focal point of migrant routes for decades. 

However, the latest spike in arrivals was seen as yet another sign of a growing predicament for Europe, with Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen both visiting Lampedusa to pledge a doubling down on the continent’s efforts to curb it.

At the same time, critics believe a concrete solution to the humanitarian crisis, which has become a highly divisive issue for most Europeans, is yet to be found. 

Meanwhile, thousands remain stranded in what has been described as difficult conditions, with many more expected to make the same dangerous journey across the Mediterranean Sea.

Euronews View spoke to MEP Pietro Bartolo (PD, S&D), a surgeon and Lampedusa native who served as the chief medical officer for refugees and migrants arriving on the island for 27 years, about perceptions of migrant arrivals in Italy and Europe, merits of the current political approach to the ever-unfolding situation, and whether Europe can find a viable and fair way to solve the crisis.

Euronews View: For many people, especially journalists and activists, the latest news out of Lampedusa felt like a ‘Groundhog Day’-type scenario, where no matter what is done, the story repeats itself. What is it that we have failed to learn?

Pietro Bartolo: The story that seems to be repeating, in my opinion, is that of bad agreements with third countries from which migrants depart or transit. 

We have ample experience showing that reducing migration and asylum policies to externalising borders and the so-called “strategic partnerships”, especially if signed with countries that have poor human rights and rule of law records — from Turkey to Libya, and now Tunisia — does not solve the problem. 

On the contrary, the numbers tell us that departures are increasing. Moreover, it is a disgraceful strategy that goes against the values of the Union, giving a blank check to dictators in order to keep the flow tap closed, without questioning what the fate of those who want to reach Europe for a hopefully better future will be. 

Therefore, if there is one truth that we have not learned, it is that the EU must change its approach when shaping its migration policies; we need legal channels of entry.

Euronews View: You were born in Lampedusa and know the island community quite well. Has the reaction of Italians living on the island to people arriving changed over time?


Pietro Bartolo: The inhabitants of Lampedusa have always been a model of solidarity and hospitality. 

Even after the high number of arrivals of the last days on the island, a real solidarity race has taken place, with people who have opened their homes to feed, welcome and temporarily assist migrants. 

This has always been the approach of the Lampedusans. Due to its geographical location, Lampedusa is the first strip of land between Africa and Europe, a natural landing place for those crossing the Mediterranean, both for flocks of birds and for people fleeing war, hunger and violence. 

This marked the identity of those who live here. In addition, Lampedusa is a land of fishermen, and for fishermen everything that comes from the sea is welcome.

Euronews View: In your opinion, what are Europeans failing to see or don’t understand when it comes to refugees and migrants arriving on the continent?


Pietro Bartolo: They do not realise that migration is not an emergency but something structural, it has always happened and is an integral part of the history of humanity.

Those who flee political and religious persecution, hunger and poverty in search of a better future, have the right to try. 

People must understand that this epochal challenge of our century is not only a problem concerning countries bordering the Mediterranean, but must be dealt with at the European level. 

Only a sharing of responsibility and a collective effort by all 27 member states will lead to concrete results.

Euronews View: How do you comment on last week’s visit of European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Italy PM Giorgia Meloni to the island?


Pietro Bartolo: Unfortunately, it’s one of many symbolic visits that does not lead to concrete proposals on how to deal with a dramatic situation, and we’ve had plenty of these visits in the last decade. 

I was greatly disappointed by the European Commission President’s support for the EU-Tunisia agreement.

Euronews View: How do you feel about people, including experts and journalists outside of Italy, believing that most Italians agree with Meloni’s stance on migration?

Pietro Bartolo: I do not think things are that way. They want us to believe that this is the truth but it is not, and my election serves as a type of proof to the contrary. 

During the last European election campaign, I spoke only about migration, bearing witness to what I saw and touched first-hand in the thirty years in which I was a doctor, acting as the responsible medic who gave migrants their first medical examination after disembarking on the island. 

If you add up the votes in the two constituencies in which I was elected, I had the most, second in overall number of preferences only to [the far-right Lega party leader Matteo] Salvini, who topped the list in all constituencies. 

I will also tell you another thing: in the encounters I have over the weekend in schools with students but also in other contexts throughout Italy, there is always someone who approaches and tells me: “Thank you, listening to you was enlightening. They’ve taught us a whole different narrative these years.” 

We must never stop telling the truth about the migration phenomenon. Not only for those who seek to rebuild their lives but also for Europe and its citizens.

Euronews View: What would be a fair solution to the issue, and is it realistic to expect the political will needed to implement it following the upcoming European election in 2024?

Pietro Bartolo: I hope that there will be a significant reform in this legislature already. I realise it may seem unrealistic, but we cannot discourage ourselves and give up on such an important issue. 

The EU has the opportunity to amend once and for all the Dublin Regulation which puts the weight of managing migration disproportionately on the countries of first entry.

Ultraconservatives and Eurosceptics prefer to fuel fears and hatred of migrants for electoral reasons. 

They talk about illegal immigration, pretending not to see that today those who arrive in Europe are mainly asylum seekers, people fleeing wars, violence or natural calamities. 

The negotiations to approve the new Pact on Migration are underway, and I will do everything I can to bring about a change of course towards solidarity and sharing of responsibility, and to find a way to mediate it that goes in the direction that progressive forces have been hoping for for years now. 

We need to change the paradigm and address the migration phenomenon with a humane, rational, and long-term approach.

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Crimes ‘beyond imagination’: Saudi border guards killed hundreds of migrants, HRW report says

Between March 2022 and June 2023, Saudi border guards killed hundreds of Ethiopian migrants attempting to cross the border from Yemen into the oil-rich kingdom, according to a new Human Rights Watch report released on Monday. The report comes as Saudi Arabia implements an anti-migrant policy at home and a campaign to boost its image abroad.

The rocky, mountainous region around Sadaa – a hardscrabble city in northern Yemen right by the Saudi border – has turned into lethal terrain, according to human rights groups. Bodies of dead or seriously wounded migrants, mostly from Ethiopia, have been spotted in satellite imagery and social media posts from the border, providing harrowing testimony of abuses, notes the latest report by the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW).

“They Fired on Us Like Rain”, an HRW report released on Monday, August 21, records widespread abuses committed on the Yemen-Saudi border between March 2022 and June 2023.

“Saudi border guards have used explosive weapons and shot people at close range, including women and children, in a pattern that is widespread and systematic. If committed as part of a Saudi government policy to murder migrants, these killings would be a crime against humanity,” notes the report.

‘Guards forced 17-year-old boy to rape girl survivors’

Over the past few months, reports have been mounting of grievous violations on the migration track known as the “Eastern Route” or the “Yemeni Route”, which runs from the Horn of Africa, across the Gulf of Aden, through Yemen and into Saudi Arabia.

A July 5 report by the Mixed Migration Centre, an independent data institution within the Danish Refugee Council, said Ethiopians were being “systematically” killed by “security officials operating under Saudi Arabian state authority”.

In October 2022, the UN published its Expert Communications by special rapporteurs and working groups highlighting cross-border killings, “using artillery shelling and small arms fired by Saudi security forces”. Nearly 430 people were killed between January 1 and April 30, 2022, according to the communique.

The latest HRW report provides witness accounts of Ethiopian migrants who tried to cross the border from Yemen to Saudi Arabia – and it makes grim reading.

‘I saw 30 killed people on the spot’

In February 2023, a 14-year-old from Ethiopia’s Oromia region, identified in the HRW report as “Hamdiya”, attempted to cross the Yemeni-Saudi border in a group of around 60 people.

The horror unfolded immediately after they crossed into Saudi territory, when they came under attack by border guards, Hamdiya told HRW.  

“I saw people killed in a way I have never imagined,” said Hamdiya. “I saw 30 killed people on the spot.”

In a bid to escape the repeated firing, the Ethiopian teenager crawled under a rock and at some point, fell asleep. “I could feel people sleeping around me. I realised what I thought were people sleeping around me were actually dead bodies. I woke up and I was alone,” she said.

Like Hamdiya, many witnesses claimed to have been shot with mortars or other explosive weapons by Saudi border guards.

‘The dead bodies are there’

In one incident, a survivor recounted that he was part of a group of 170 people who attempted to cross the border when they came under fire. “I know 90 people were killed, because some returned to that place to pick up the dead bodies – they counted around 90 dead bodies,” he explained.

Another interviewee went to the Saudi border to collect the body of a girl from his village. “Her body was piled up on top of 20 bodies,” he said. “It is really impossible to count the number. It is beyond the imagination. People are going in different groups day to day. The dead bodies are there.”

While the exact number of migrants killed while crossing the border is impossible to determine, the HRW report was compiled from interviews with 42 Ethiopians or relatives of Ethiopians who attempted the border crossing. The rights group also analysed more than 350 videos and photographs posted on social media or gathered from other sources in addition to satellite imagery.

Data gathering from the remote border area is hampered by the lack of international mechanisms to monitor the human rights situation in Yemen.

Barely two years ago, the UN Human Rights Council voted to disband the Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen (GEE), an international investigating body, following a “tireless lobbying campaign” by Saudi Arabia, according to a 2021 HRW statement.

The decision has left no system of accountability in the world’s poorest Arab nation ravaged by a civil war that has killed more than 150,000 people. It is also failing citizens on another continent who are fleeing poverty and ethnic conflict.

‘Saudization’ increases targeting of migrants

An estimated 750,000 Ethiopians currently live in Saudi Arabia according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Roughly 500,000 entered the country illegally, according to the IOM, forcing them to hide from Saudi authorities.

The oil-rich Gulf kingdom has long been a magnet for impoverished migrants in the region, particularly from Yemen, which shares a 1,300-kilometre border with Saudi Arabia. Non-Saudi nationals account for more than 30 percent of the kingdom’s population.

But in 2017, Riyadh implemented a massive “Saudization” policy, aimed at reducing its dependence on migrant workers. It resulted in intensified police crackdowns, detentions of illegal migrants and massive expulsion campaigns.

Riyadh’s “Saudization” policy came as fighting raged in neighbouring Yemen and in the Horn of Africa, turning migrants into pawns in regional tensions.

Pawns in regional conflicts

In Yemen, a civil war erupted in 2014 when Iran-backed Houthi rebels swept down from their northern stronghold and chased the internationally recognised government from the capital, Sanaa. A Saudi-led coalition intervened the following year on behalf of the government, and in time the conflict turned into a proxy war between Riyadh and Tehran.

The restoration of ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran in April sparked hopes of an end to the conflict. But Houthi attacks have picked up over the past few weeks, prompting a warning by UN special envoy for Yemen Hans Grundberg of “public threats to return to war”.

Across the Gulf of Aden, conflict erupted in Ethiopia in the northern Tigray region, between Ethiopian military forces and Tigrayan troops along with allied Oromo militants. Following a Tigrayan peace deal in November, fighting erupted in the Amhara region over the Ethiopian military’s efforts to disband Amhara militias who fought with the army against Tigrayan rebels, exposing the country’s deteriorating ethnic relations.

Saudi Arabia has long been a destination for Ethiopian migrants, but following the conflicts in the region, their situation has turned desperate. In April 2020, Houthi fighters forcibly expelled thousands of Ethiopian migrants from northern Yemen, forcing them to cross the border into Saudi Arabia. Several dozen of them were killed and many survivors sent to detention centres on the border. Violations in Yemeni detention centres have been extreme, with rights groups documenting allegations of torture and rape.

The latest escalation of violations along the Saudi-Yemen border appears to be “deliberate” and “targeted”, according to HRW.

“While Human Rights Watch has previously documented killings of migrants at the border with Yemen and Saudi Arabia since 2014, the killings documented in this report appear to be a deliberate escalation in both the number and manner of targeted killings,” notes the report.

“In recent years, Saudi Arabia has invested heavily in deflecting attention from its abysmal human rights record at home and abroad, spending billions of dollars to host major entertainment, cultural, and sporting events,” the report notes.

Less than five years after Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was dismembered in Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul, Western nations are warming up to the kingdom’s crown prince and de-facto ruler, Mohammed bin Salman, as the Ukraine war unleashes tectonic geopolitical shifts, particularly in the energy sector.

The findings of the latest report highlight the need for international calls for accountability, according to Nadia Hardman, author of the HRW report.

“Concerned governments should publicly call for Saudi Arabia to end any policy, whether explicit or in effect, to target migrants with explosive weapons and close-range attacks,” noted Hardman. “Human Rights Watch calls on organisers and participants in major international events sponsored by the Saudi government to speak out publicly on rights issues or, when whitewashing Saudi Arabia’s human rights record is the primary purpose, not to participate.”

This article is a translation of the original in French.

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Alarm sounded over migrants stranded in no man’s land on Europe border

What’s happening in Greece’s Evros region “shows the dark side of EU migration policy”, one analyst told Euronews.

NGOs have raised the alarm over a large group of people stranded in a de facto no man’s land on the European Union border. 


Alarm Phone, a hotline for refugees and migrants in distress, was alerted in mid-July to 52 people – including pregnant women, children as young as three years old and the elderly – stuck on a small islet in the Evros River (known in Turkish as the Meriç River), which separates Greece and Turkey. 

They have been stranded there ever since, with the group claiming to have been violently attacked each time they try to escape to either country.  

The Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN) on Tuesday accused the Greek and Turkish armies of playing “football” with the group, pushing them back and forth between each other’s territory, as their humanitarian situation grows increasingly “dire”.

Greece’s Ministry of Civil Protection has been approached for comment. 

In a statement published on Monday, Alarm Phone alleged the besieged group – mostly from Syria and Iraq – had suffered “barbaric violence” during the weeks-long “odyssey” – despite repeated appeals to the authorities to evacuate them.

Authorities have also been called on to urgently provide food, water and medical care, with some members of the group injured and suffering health issues.

Two members of the group are reportedly missing, presumed dead. 

“The violent act of leaving people for days being stuck on an islet not only risks physical injuries, but is a mental torment in and of itself that traumatises people,” wrote Alarm Phone. 

Following the 2015 European Migration Crisis, Greece has been routinely accused of systematically detaining migrants and forcing them out of the EU in a practice known as pushbacks. 

Greek officials deny they are happening. 

Multiple pushbacks have been recorded by the BVMN and other NGOs where migrants are loaded onto small inflatable dinghies – often by masked men –  and dumped on small barren islands within the fast-flowing Evros River.


They then remain in de facto no man’s land, outside the territory of either Greece or Turkey. Owing to the unclear status of the islets, authorities have claimed in the past they are outside of their jurisdiction, and therefore also outside their responsibility. 

Migrants have reportedly died while trying to swim off the islands or been forced to stay there for prolonged periods of time in wet clothes and freezing conditions, typically without water or supplies, after being forced to jump into the water and wade to the islands. 

“The situation at the Evros land border between Greece and Turkey is untenable,” said Hope Barker, policy analyst at BVMN. “Violence is routine and an everyday occurrence, people on the move are dying and going missing.”

“What’s happening in Evros shows the dark side of EU migration policy that has been pushed away from the eyes of Northern European states and is playing out in the shadowy militarised zones of frontline states where it can neither be seen nor heard.”

Alarm Phone said it alerted the Greek authorities on 13 July about the trapped group. Greek officials informed them on 22 July that despite “extensive searches… no human presence was found,” they said.


The BVMN called Greece’s claim “implausible” given the “extensive funding” they received from the EU to police the border, alleging they were “concealing pushback operations”. 

Days later, on 28 July, the group informed Alarm Phone they had been stormed by “police and mercenaries… [who] started to hit the world,” forcing some to flee into the water. 

The group sent a video purporting to show the abuse, though Euronews cannot verify its authenticity.

Facing an untenable situation, the group reportedly tried to leave the islet on 3 August, but were intercepted by what they called “police”. 

One woman alleged she and other female members of the group were made to strip, with the men forced to stare at them, before they were returned to the island.


The group claimed to have been assaulted once again on 7 August, which the BVMN reported put them in “extreme distress“, with some members of the group now in a “critical medical condition”.

These reports are consistent with a well-established pattern documented by BVMN and other NGOs regarding pushbacks from Greece. 

In 196 push-back victims’ testimonies collected by the BVMN since 2019, 92% contained reports of physical beatings and 58% of individuals being forcibly undressed. 

Forced stripping has also been documented by Human Rights Watch, besides assaults and theft against migrants in the Evros region by the Greek authorities. 

Greece denies engaging in illegal activity at their borders. 

All individuals inside the EU are protected from inhuman or degrading treatment and punishment, under the bloc’s Charter of Fundamental Rights. 

Turkey, which signed a €16 billion with the EU to stop people travelling irregularly to Greece, is obligated to offer people the right to claim asylum under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is currently home to the world’s largest refugee population, hosting 3.7 million people according to the UNHCR. 

“Greece protects the external borders of the European Union, in total compliance with international law and in full respect of the [EU] Charter of Fundamental Rights,” Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi insisted early last year.

BVMN policy analyst Barker called on the EU to stem pushbacks, which the UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, has warned that they “risk becoming normalised, and policy based”.  

“The EU cannot wash its hands of what is happening in the Evros border region, this is a direct result of their pushback policy which has become the silent, unspoken, yet central pillar of EU migration management,” said BVMN policy analyst Barker. 

“When people are systematically not given access to asylum, have their rights violated, and are attacked, and the Commission says nothing – they are complicit.”

Strandings on these islets are far from isolated. In August 2022, the BVMN documented a case of a large group of mostly Syrian nationals, who were trapped there for weeks in the extreme heat, without access to food or water.

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These people face 20 years in jail for saving lives at sea

Even as outrage simmers over the hundreds of migrants dying at sea every year off Europe’s coast, rescuers are still being persecuted for helping save lives.

Kathrin Schmidt helped save some 14,000 people who made the perilous journey across the Mediterranean to seek safety and a better future in Europe between 2016 and 2017. 

Now, she faces charges that could see her behind bars for as long as 20 years.

Schmidt was head of operations aboard Iuventa, a rescue ship helping migrants in distress in the Med, when the vessel was seized by Italian authorities and her life-saving work abruptly interrupted.

Together with several of her colleagues, she was accused of “aiding and abetting illegal immigration” – a charge that carries a 20-year prison sentence. 

At least 20 people, including NGO workers from other groups and four Iuventa crew members, are still involved in an ongoing trial in Italy.

A ‘politically motivated’ trial

Talking to Euronews, Schmidt is frustrated that, years later, she’s still stuck in a trial that’s moving forward slowly, but in a direction she finds “hard to buy into.”

“The whole trial is insane,” she said.

“They’re accusing us of cooperating with smugglers, of working clandestinely with underground organisations, saying that the people we rescued didn’t need rescuing.”

“They said that there was no need to rescue them because those were arranged handovers of people – but what we’re talking about were flimsy, overcrowded, tiny rubber boats or wooden boats that had hundreds of people on them, with a few people in critical medical conditions and no water or food,” she added.

According to Schmidt, the trial against her and the other rescuers is “very politically motivated.” 

“There’s a political agenda behind the criminal law and the proceedings,” she claimed. 

The Italian government has defended its harsh policies on illegal migration, and those helping migrants off its coasts, saying that the country is subjected to unbearable pressure from the surging number of people arriving on its shores, with little to no help from other EU countries.

Another EU country which reports a high number of migrants arriving in its territory every year is Greece, where the current government has also taken a harsh, criminalising stance on migrations.

On 14 June, an overcrowded fishing boat carrying an estimated 750 people capsized off the coast of Greece in one of the biggest tragedies in the Mediterranean in years. 

Officials retrieved the 82 bodies, while hundreds are still considered missing. Only 104 people aboard survived.

Greek authorities, taking a strict approach to illegal migration, have been harshly criticised and accused of not acting quickly enough to help the clearly struggling vessel. Testimonies from survivors said the Greek Coast Guard had tied up the vessel and tried to pull it before it capsized — a move that’s highly unusual in these cases and which witnesses said caused the boat to sway.

Greek authorities denied this happened and defended the actions of the Coast Guard. Talking to state broadcaster ERT, Hellenic Coast Guard spokesman Nikos Alexiou said that.,“There was no effort to tug the boat.”

He added: “You cannot carry out a violent diversion on such a vessel with so many people on board, without them wanting to, without any sort of cooperation.”

Tiring rescuers down

Schmidt, who before boarding the Iuventa had done work with NGOs helping migrants in Lesbos and the Aegean Sea, wanted to rescue people travelling across the Mediterranean Sea to “do justice to her privilege.”

“You’re in a position where you have the agency to act and to help others – a position of power and privilege that comes with a responsibility,” she said. 

Now, she feels like the seizing of the Iuventa and the trial against her took away her freedom of choosing where to work and what to do.

“You could say it has turned my life upside down a little bit, because it has taken the decision away from me of where I want to work or what I want to spend my time doing,” she said.

“The impact of this trial is tremendous, and I find it very important to say that this trial is just one little bit in a context of strategic and systematic criminalisation of people on the move,” she continued.

According to Picum, a network of organisations providing assistance to and advocating for the rights of undocumented migrants in Europe, “the criminalisation of solidarity with migrants remains a widespread phenomenon across the EU.”

The group said that at least 89 people were criminalised in the EU between January 2021 and March 2022 for helping migrants in distress at sea, with most of them being charged with facilitation of entry, transit or stay, or migrant smuggling.

Migrants too have also increasingly been criminalised in countries like Italy and Greece, where they’re seen as a threat to national security rather than asylum seekers in need of assistance.

For Schmidt, getting the charges against her and her colleagues dropped is “not about protecting myself from going to prison,” but to secure a political win that will let people know rescuing migrants at sea is the right thing to do.

“We are living through extremely difficult times in Europe and we are heading into a disaster on all sorts of levels,” she said, adding that persecuting rescuers is a political strategy aimed at exhausting NGOs wanting to help. 

The trial has been “draining” and tiring, she confirmed. 

“It’s taking resources, time and money and it’s weakening all political structures. [The trial] is a systematic tool that states use to oppress resistance movements, to shut people up and to shut people down.”

Border protection over saving lives

In May, defence lawyers for Schmidt and other rescuers from Doctors Without Borders and Save the Children pushed forward a request to consider the crime of aiding and abetting migration illegal, since this would contradict fundamental rights stated in the Italian Constitution and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.

At a hearing last week, an Italian court in Trapani, Sicily, ruled that border protection prevails over human rights, rejecting the defence lawyers’ request.

“We wanted the High Courts to decide once and for all on the balance between border protection and the protection of human beings,” said Francesca Cancellaro, Iuventa’s lawyer.

“But the judge denied Iuventa and everyone this possibility. The decision is unsatisfactory as much for the outcome as for the arguments that support it. But we will certainly not stop here.”

“With so many people desperate enough to risk their lives to access protection and safety in Europe, it is urgent that a reform of the offence of ‘facilitation of irregular migration’ takes place,” Elisa De Pieri, researcher at the Europe regional office of Amnesty International, said commenting on the Italian court’s decision.

There needs to be an “immediate end to its harmful and abusive application to people saving lives,” she added. 

But the battle to defend solidarity over border protection continues.

Schmidt doesn’t think she will actually be forced to go to jail for 20 years. “I just don’t see that,” she said with confidence.

The Iuventa ship, meanwhile, has remained blocked in an Italian port for six years now. More than 10,000 people are estimated to have died in the Mediterranean off the coast of Italy between 2018 and 2023.

A total of 959 migrants have drowned off the coast of the country or is still considered missing in the months between January and May 2023 alone.

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