Championing humanitarian rights

For World Humanitarian Day, Kitty Mohan, chair of the BMA international committee and a consultant in communicable disease control in the south-east, looks at the breadth and depth of the BMA’s humanitarian work

Location: International
Published: Friday 18 August 2023
kitty mohan

The world today is marked by a confluence of crises, ranging from conflicts and persecution to climate catastrophes, with direct impacts on clinicians and the communities they look after. Humanitarian needs arising from these emergencies have reached an all-time high, demanding collaborative efforts and joint action by multiple institutions to deliver effective aid and assistance in a timely manner. 

Driven by a commitment to alleviate suffering and promote well-being, the BMA has long supported healthcare staff and patients in need of humanitarian assistance, both at home and abroad. It is through this work that we understand humanitarian situations to be far from isolated events; rather, they are often complex and protracted in nature.  

Accordingly, our actions and interventions are wide ranging: we have swiftly mobilised resources and funds to support health workers and communities caught in emerging crises; but as immediate relief alone is not enough, we also work tirelessly to influence policies and practices to act in solidarity with and support displaced people in the aftermath of humanitarian crises.  


Support for Sudanese Doctors

In May 2023, Sudan’s tentative steps towards democracy took a tragic turn, leading to the swift collapse of the Sudanese state, with civilians caught in the crossfire between rival factions. Many of those civilians were NHS doctors, who lived in the UK but did not hold British citizenship.  

When the British government announced its intention to airlift only British citizens out of Sudan, the BMA facilitated discussions between the Sudanese Doctors Association and the UK Department of Health and Social Care. We lobbied to ensure all NHS doctors stranded in Sudan, including those with visa restrictions, were eligible for evacuation. This ultimately forced a government U-turn for the more than 70 NHS doctors still trapped in Sudan, who were granted access to airlift rescue from Khartoum. 


Support at home

Anyone fleeing violence and persecution has the fundamental right to seek safety and protection. The BMA has long fought for the development of a fair, humane and effective refugee system, in keeping with our obligations under international humanitarian and human rights law, including rights to necessary and appropriate health care irrespective of an individual’s route into the UK. 

Hence, we have found ourselves deeply troubled by the Government's approach to those seeking sanctuary in the UK. The newly passed Illegal Migration Act 2023 criminalises routes to safety, expands detention powers, and makes it easier to forcibly remove every person who arrives irregularly – regardless of whether they are seeking refuge or have been trafficked – to a third country. 

Unsurprisingly, the legislation ignited a firestorm of criticism within the medical community: in the absence of safe regular routes for asylum in the UK, the legislation will not fulfil its stated aim of ‘stopping the boats’, but rather, it will cause profound harm to the health, wellbeing and dignity of people seeking safety and to survivors of trafficking in the UK.  

We warned of the health implications that will arise from the highly controversial Rwanda Asylum Plan. We also warned against immigration detention that profoundly harms the mental health and well-being of those seeking asylum, with the severity linked to the length of detention. But at large, the Government disregarded expert medical advice and pressed on with their hostile immigration plans. 

As doctors who have dedicated their lives to the relief of suffering, we will continue stand firm in our commitment to protect the health and wellbeing of those we look after. Irrespective of the outcome, we will continue to challenge the Government’s immigration policies and champion alternative, community-based solutions that prioritise compassion, dignity and the provision of timely, safe and effective healthcare.