Tipping point

As refugees from strife-torn West Asian and north African countries flow to Europe, pressure from the public forces European governments to adopt a more humane response to them.

Published : Sep 16, 2015 12:30 IST

The iconic photograph of a paramilitary police officer carrying, on September 2, the lifeless body of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, who died with his mother and brother when boats carrying them and other refugees to the Greek island of Kos capsized near Turkey.

The iconic photograph of a paramilitary police officer carrying, on September 2, the lifeless body of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, who died with his mother and brother when boats carrying them and other refugees to the Greek island of Kos capsized near Turkey.

MUCH like the photograph of a naked little girl fleeing napalm bombs in Mylai coalesced anti-Vietnam war sentiment across the world into a mighty force, it was an image that proved to be the tipping point in the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe, described as the biggest movement of people in the continent since the Second World War. In this case, it was a photograph of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, his lifeless body alone and lying face down on a vast beach in Turkey. Aylan, along with his five-year-old brother and mother drowned when their unstable dinghy capsized during the perilous crossing from Turkey to the island of Kos in Greece, a landing point for refugees fleeing to Europe.

The image propelled an outpouring of popular support for the refugee cause, seen in concrete community action and solidarity towards the influx of refugees and also in the popular pressure on governments to respond to the crisis in a responsible and humane fashion.

Aylan and his family are part of a mounting tally of individuals and family groups who have perished while making the crossing over the Mediterranean to Europe, seen as the promised land of peace and opportunity. The stories that get published or broadcast in the media on the steady toll of deaths appear not to have deterred those who are fleeing war and economic instability in their region. For the refugees from Syria, West Asia and northern Africa, the constant fear of annihilation in their own countries outweighs the risks of travel.

According to the figures compiled by the Missing Migrants Project of the International Organisation for Migrants, Europe has emerged as the world’s most dangerous destination for “irregular” migrants, with the Mediterranean taking the lives of 2,701 people in the first nine months of 2015 out of a total global death toll of 3,729 (figures updated on the project website on September 3). So over 72 per cent of these deaths occurred in the Mediterranean. Further, almost 40 per cent of the deaths were of people from the African continent (including Sub-Saharan countries and the Horn of Africa).

UNICEF claims that a quarter of those seeking refuge in Europe are children. In 2015 alone, more than 106,000 children claimed asylum. These are children who have not only experienced the horrors and risks of travel over dangerous sea and land routes but have been scarred by war in the countries they come from.

In the worst ever incident in the Mediterranean this year, 800 migrants are believed to have drowned in April off the coast of Libya. The three-decked boat with its all-male human cargo (including a large number of unaccompanied minors) capsized when its captain rammed the boat into a Portuguese merchant ship that had come to its rescue. Only 25 people survived the disaster.

It is not just on the high seas that lives have been lost. Seventy-one refugees, including four children, were found dead of asphyxiation in the airless container of a freezer truck in Austria by the police. The decomposed bodies of the travellers, believed to be Syrians, had lain in the truck, abandoned by the driver on a hard shoulder of a highway, for two days.

Europe’s tardy and reluctant response to the refugee crisis has changed in the face of massive and mounting public pressure in favour of providing safe haven to the rising tide of refugees. The influx owes a great deal to the direct impact of Western policies that resulted in a series of armed interventions led by the United States in the countries from where the refugees are fleeing. The destabilisation through war and economic breakdown of societies and countries in West Asia and Africa has added to unresolved conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Somalia. In the past five to six years, Syria has entered the arena of West-driven conflicts resulting in civil war and social chaos. There are new conflicts arising in Central African Republic, South Sudan and Ukraine that have caused further suffering and displacement. The UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, says that in just one year, mass displacement from wars and conflict has reached “unprecedented levels”. The figure today is 59.5 million, “roughly equalling the population of Italy or the United Kingdom” and “not previously seen in the post-World War II era” (UNHCR Global Trends 2014).

No longer can governments refer to those who are knocking at the doors of Europe as “economic migrants” leaving their countries in search of a better life. These are people fleeing for their life out of necessity and not choice, as the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, made clear in an address to the European Union (E.U.) recently. The present juncture is a “defining moment” for the E.U., he said, adding that the influx is a “refugee crisis, not only a migration phenomenon”.

The Arab Spring of 2011 has been the single largest driver of migration to Europe in recent years, thanks to the U.S.-led policy of encouraging “moderate” rebels to overthrow their governments. In Libya, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), led by the United Kingdom and France, and allied with Islamist Salafi-jehadi groups, was successful in “liberating” the country from its tyrannical ruler Muammar Qaddafi, once an ally of the West. Militias run Libya today, and its people are fleeing.

The major contributor to the global increase in displaced persons is of course Syria, again largely owing to Western policies and armed interventions. The rise of the ISIS in Syria, as commentators have pointed out, is the fallout of the West-backed uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which enabled it to grow and gain military experience and power. It is now in control of vast swathes of the country, where it pursues its deadly agenda of ruthlessly wiping out any opposition that stands in the way of its goal of an Islamic caliphate.

The Syrian conflict enters its fifth year and today, with at least 7.6 million Syrians estimated to have been displaced within their own country by the end of 2014, and four million refugees living outside Syria, globally one in every five displaced persons is a Syrian (see http://www.unhcr.org/556725e69.html Table 1 and Figure 3). A recent study (Seth Heller, Global Envision, April 2015) suggests that Syria’s gross domestic product (GDP) dropped by 20.6 per cent in 2013 and by 2014 the economy was so broken that no statistics were available. The same study notes that Syria’s Human Development Index has fallen back to where it was 38 years ago. According to the Global Conflict Tracker produced by the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, more than 200,000 people have been killed in Syria since the start of the war.

The story is much the same in other countries in the region. While defending the nuclear deal that he entered into with Iran, President Barack Obama is reported to have boasted that he has never “shied away from using force when necessary”, adding, “I’ve ordered military action in seven countries.” They include Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Libya. The refugees that are today pouring into Europe come overwhelmingly from these countries.

Responses to the refugee influx in Europe—107,500 migrants reached the E.U.’s borders in July alone—are strung along a spectrum: from openly hostile (governments of Hungary, Czech Republic and a few other Eastern European countries, and right-wing anti-immigration organisations and parties) to warmly welcoming (campaign organisations, spontaneously formed community groups, left-wing parties and politicians, church groups and charities).

What appears clear in a still fluid situation is that the E.U. is being forced to respond to developments on the ground and that the unstoppable refugee flow and the pressure of public opinion are keeping that response broadly within a framework of responsible action. Germany and its Chancellor Angela Merkel are leading the response by stepping up to their responsibility and by trying to forge a common E.U. response to the crisis. Germany and also Sweden, though to a lesser extent, are the countries where the refugees are heading. Germany expects to take in 800,000 asylum-seekers in 2015. Chancellor Angela Merkel has also been urging other countries of the E.U. to take in refugees and has proposed a quota system under which each country must accommodate a certain number of refugees. Most E.U. countries have rejected this, although in leading by example Germany has set a positive precedent. The migratory route for Syrian refugees to Germany runs from Turkey across to Greece by the sea route, and onto Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary and Austria by land. The other route is from Libya to Italy across the Mediterranean Sea, and then on to France and Germany. Germany is an attractive destination for refugees because it has a strong economy and because many refugees have families who are already there. Besides, Germany is one country that they know has a fair asylum assessment and processing system.

Differences, however, continue to run deep in the E.U. on how to deal with the refugee crisis. Viktor Orban, Prime Minister of Hungary, a country that has built a barbed-wire wall with Serbia in order to keep the refugee flow out, has said that Hungarians do not want Muslim refugees in a country where the ethos is Christian. Known for his outspokenly right-wing views, Orban told the European Parliament: “It’s Germany’s problem…. And the moral thing to say to refugees? Please don’t come here.” Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia have backed the Hungarian position. The leaders of the four countries said in a joint statement: “Any proposal leading to introduction of mandatory and permanent quota for solidarity measures would be unacceptable.”

The turning point in the refugee crisis came with the emergence of a powerful new public opinion. This has energised the continent and overturned attitudes, previously peddled by the media and politicians, that saw refugees as “scroungers” and a dead weight to the countries they live in.

It took the anguished and angry public response to the Aylan Kurdi episode to push David Cameron, who until a week before was adamant that Britain would not accept refugees, to change tack. Cameron now says he will take refugees “in the thousands” but with two important riders. The first is that they will be chosen from U.N.-controlled refugee camps outside Syria, and the second is that Britain will start bombing Syria in a month.

In terms of the ratio of refugees/asylum-seekers to the population, Sweden stands first with 233 for every 100,000 of its population; Norway follows with 109, Germany with 56, and France with 46.

For the exhausted refugees who either walked the distance from Hungary’s capital Budapest to Germany, or took a train, to be welcomed by large groups of ordinary citizens who applauded their arrival, must have been a heart-warming experience. The popular support for them has a strong social media footprint. Under the hashtag #refugeeswelcome on Twitter, a vast circle of support for refugees has built up. The goodwill comes from diverse sources—politicians and campaigners; ordinary individuals and celebrities; charities and local councils; even football teams.

Pope Francis has called for parishes to spread the message calling for each home to take in one refugee family. Football teams have mobilised their fans to support refugees, and newspapers and websites are providing lists of organisations that concerned citizens could contribute to. The Guardian published a list of organisations for people to donate to, including the Migrant Offshore Aid Station, Medecins Sans Frontieres, the Aylan Kurdi Fund and the Refugee Council. Refugees Welcome is a scheme described as an “Airbnb for refugees”, and a professional football club fielded a third team consisting entirely of refugees.

Save the Children said that it raised more than £500,000 in the first 24 hours after the picture of Aylan Kurdi was published. The British Red Cross noted that the public was “realising that it’s a massive humanitarian crisis” and had donated “hundreds of thousands” of pounds. A petition calling for the U.K. government to take more refugees has received more than 400,000 signatures, thus ensuring that it will be discussed by Parliament when it reopens after the summer vacation.

Many newspapers put the picture of Aylan on their front pages. The Independent has been proactive in its coverage of the refugee issue. Celebrities like J.K. Rowling added their voice to calls for refugees to be offered sanctuary, and Bob Geldof personally committed to accommodating four families in his home.

CalAid, a voluntary organisation, has told people not to drive to the border post at Calais, as it would cause disruption, but rather donate through centralised distribution systems.

Crowdfunding website Just Giving said £280,000 had been donated in response to the refugee crisis since the beginning of August.

Popular support for the humane and legal treatment of refugees will undoubtedly ease the entry of refugees, and will even encourage more refugees to flee. However, it is for the E.U. and national governments to establish safe routes for them, and introduce a common policy for their rehabilitation within its borders. This aspect of the problem can be addressed fairly quickly, provided the governments ensure safe routes for refugees. For that to happen, however, the problem in the conflict regions must be addressed. A beginning can be made if the Western bloc reverses its policy of destabilising these regions by promoting war and conflict.

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