Montreal-based former Doctors Without Borders head discusses leading aid agency in an era of fear

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The Canadian who led Doctors Without Borders (MSF) for six years has returned home after her two terms with the organization. Mike Armstrong sat down with Dr. Joanne Liu to discuss her experiences, with some of the biggest humanitarian crises of the decade, and life after MSF. – Oct 9, 2019

The Canadian woman who headed up Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) for six years says the international community is losing its sense of global solidarity.

Dr. Joanne Liu, who led the medical aid organization through some of the worst medical crises of the last decade, says governments are too slow to react. Instead of mobilizing when a crisis starts, they wait until they feel threatened, she says.

“When fear is your trigger, you’re always going to be late,” Liu said.

READ MORE: World conflicts increase risk of infectious diseases killing millions — panel

Liu was elected as MSF’s international president in 2013. She was re-elected to a second three-year term in 2016. Her replacement, Dr. Christos Christou, took over earlier this month.

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Reflecting on her time heading the organization, Liu says the world is living through an era of fear and it’s impacting aid work around the globe.

During the 2014-15 Ebola crisis, more than 26,000 people were infected and 11,000 were killed. Hundreds of health-care workers died, including MSF staff.

Liu says lives were lost because western governments only got involved when cases started turning up in western countries.

“We were massively deployed and we were overwhelmed,” Liu says. “It’s a tragedy.”

WATCH (Dec. 22, 2018): Tackling the migrant crisis

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Tackling the migrant crisis – Dec 22, 2018

One of the major international issues in recent years has been the millions of people forced to leave their homes due to conflict and persecution.

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According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are more than 70 million people who have been forcibly displaced worldwide.

While about 40 million of those people are still in their countries of origin, there are 25.9 million refugees and 3.5 million asylum seekers, according to the UNHCR.

Liu says those numbers have had governments erecting fences instead of helping, adding that there is a false narrative that paints migrants as an enemy to be defended against.

READ MORE: 700 migrants stranded in Libya detention centre filled with garbage, disease, sewage

“It’s not because you cross a border that you’re stripped of your basic rights,” Liu said. “That’s what we’ve been doing over the last few years.”

Previously, MSF and a partner organization had a ship on the Mediterranean Sea that conducts search-and-rescue operations between Libya and Europe — often called the world’s deadliest migration route.

But operations were halted for several months over what MSF calls a smear campaign after Italian authorities claimed the MSF ship Aquarius was disposing of medical waste by throwing it in the water. MSF denied the allegations.

MSF and SOS Méditerranée put a new ship, the Ocean Viking, back in the water in July 2019.

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READ MORE: Rescue boat carrying 82 migrants allowed to dock at southern Italian island

Liu says that, too often, governments are refusing to honour their commitments under the 1951 Refugee Convention and instead criminalizing rescue efforts.

“Right now, helping someone who is drowning is criminal. It’s illegal,” Liu says. “That I cannot accept.”

One of the biggest tragedies of her tenure was the bombing of an MSF hospital in northeastern Afghanistan in October 2015. Five U.S. airstrikes hit the facility in the city of Kunduz, killing 42 people, including 14 MSF staff, according to the medical aid organization.

A U.S. government report into what went wrong ruled the incident was an accident. There were no criminal charges.

WATCH (May 2, 2016): Video shows moment rocket destroys Doctors Without Borders-supported hospital in Aleppo

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Video shows moment rocket destroys Doctors Without Borders supported hospital in Aleppo – May 2, 2016

Liu says hospitals are supposed to be protected during conflicts.

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“This time of fear has eroded the protections,” she said. “It has blurred what used to be a very, very clear red line.”

After leading an organization with 45,000 staff in 71 countries, Liu is now looking to slow down. She’s moving back to Montreal and will work as a pediatrician at Sainte-Justine children’s hospital.

She will still be making life-and-death decisions, but on a smaller scale. Liu says she’s going to “chill” and relax while she looks for another way to make a difference and help others.

However, working with MSF was a dream Liu had had since she was 13 years old; she’s nervous about whether she’ll be able to find another organization with the same ethos and heart.

“It’s going to be hard,” Liu says.