By Emma Batha
LONDON, Nov 30 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - European countries should offer a "welcome package" to refugees and migrants rather than build fences to keep them out, according to the head of a global medical charity who described the current response as "totally shameful".
Around 1.3 million refugees and migrants, mainly from the Middle East and Asia, arrived in Europe last year, triggering bitter disputes between countries over how to handle the influx and prompting some to erect barriers along their borders.
Joanne Liu, president of Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), said a "callous and hypocritical" deal between the European Union and Turkey to stem the flow had set a dangerous precedent.
Turkey agreed in March to stop migrants and refugees crossing by sea to Greece in exchange for financial aid, accelerated EU membership talks and other concessions.
But Liu said the deal sent a signal that countries could buy their way out of moral and legal responsibilities to provide asylum.
"This is really, really cowardly. It's irresponsible," Liu said ahead of speaking about the crisis on Wednesday at Trust Women, an annual women's right and trafficking conference hosted by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Liu voiced concern that countries were increasingly flouting the 1951 Refugee Convention and other global humanitarian agreements set up to protect the world's most vulnerable people.
"When I met a mother in Greece and I asked her, 'Why did you flee?', she looked at me as if I had asked the most stupid question on earth. And she said, 'Because every day we die in Syria.'.
"Nobody would (risk) their child's life on a rubber boat just for the ride."
More than 12,000 people have died crossing the Mediterranean in the last three years, including many fleeing violence and poverty in Africa who have drowned while trying to reach Italy.
MSF, which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999, is conducting rescue operations in the Mediterranean but announced in June it would no longer take funding from the European Union and member states in protest over their policies.
Liu said those arriving on European shores should be given a "welcome package" - a place to sleep, food, clothing, water, sanitation and protection from abuse.
"I'm not talking about anything fancy. People don't have the basic (things) to feel like a human being," she added.
The Canadian paediatrician, who took over the helm of the charity in 2013, said she had been appalled when she visited Greece last year where tens of thousands of refugees and migrants are scattered in camps and towns across the country.
"(One) woman said if I had known I would have lost everything, including my dignity, I would have rather died under a bomb in Syria. We still hear this everywhere. The human despair is encapsulated in that sentence."
A record 65.3 million people were uprooted worldwide last year, an increase of 50 percent in five years, according to the U.N. refugee agency. Data shows developing countries host 86 percent of refugees, led by Turkey with more than 2.7 million Syrians.
Liu said she was deeply concerned about the increasingly "laissez-faire" attitude towards people forced to flee their homes, adding that doing nothing amounted to abuse.
"Is World War Two really so long ago that Europeans can no longer remember what it means to have to flee from violence when left with no other choice?"
(Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.)
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