Refugee Crisis: Sitting on the fence is not good enough

One family’s desperate attempt to forge a new life for themselves in fleeing the Syrian civil war has focused world attention on the refugees’ plight by means of one extraordinarily powerful image, writes Caroline O’Doherty.

Refugee Crisis: Sitting on the fence is not good enough

IF IT is possible to wring your hands while simultaneously sitting on them, then that is what characterised the response to the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean up to last Wednesday.

There were lots of words but little action; intentions but not implementation; sympathy dished out from a distance without the accompanying tea.

Yes, we made our navy available to assist in the search and rescue missions and about 6,000 people owe their lives to the presence of the LÉ Eithne and sister ship Niamh in the seas that have claimed so many thousands more.

Yes, we have given money — €12m pledged this year — through Irish Aid to organisations such as the Red Cross and other relief agencies working to provide food, water, shelter and medical care to the 12m Syrians displaced by the conflict in their country.

We also agreed to take 520 ready-made refugees, carefully selected from UN run camps in the likes of Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey with predetermined refugee status and all their papers in order.

And we committed to taking 600 of the more disordered kind — the people who survived the sea but then, paperless and destitute, faced another perilous journey through the makeshift camps and bureaucratic nightmare of mainland Europe.

But that was to be it for two years. And well into the second half of year one, we have still only seen a trickle of the numbers promised.

Refugees sleep at Keleti underground railway station in Budapest, Hungary, Friday, yesterday

Geography has been a handy escape route for us in this matter, our location as an island on the western fringes of Europe making us physically hard for a fleeing refugee to reach.

Italy, Greece, and Malta have paid dearly for their place in the Mediterranean sun, daily receiving boatloads of desperate people, providing a soakage pit for the rest of Europe that many member states, ourselves included, have been in no hurry to supplement.

And, unusually for a public so generous in the past, the outpouring of support that normally accompanies humanitarian crises has been somewhat muted.

Ebola in West Africa, hurricanes in the Philippines, and the earthquake in Nepal have plucked at heart strings and brought surges in donations in recent times but all the while the refugee crisis roared on, never quite coming to public consciousness with the same level of urgency and clarity.

And then came last Wednesday, just another day in the Syrian conflict, just another conflict in the never-ending round of war and misery that plagues the Middle East.

For Syria, it was Day 1,632 of its horror. For four years, five months, and three weeks Syrian people have been dying, mourning, hiding, and fleeing while governments spoke simplistically and dismissively, of a “migrant crisis”.

On that day, nothing was different and yet everything changed.

On a beach in Bodrum the popular holiday resort region of south eastern Turkey, the body of a small boy washed up.

Three-year-old Aylan Kurdi lay almost as though sleeping, his neatly trimmed hair unruffled by the waves, his bright red T-shirt vibrant against the pale sands, his rubber-soled shoes that would have added spring to his exuberant step, intact and still.

Aylan Kurdi

His mum and five-year-old brother died too when their small boat was swamped on the night crossing they prayed would bring them to the Greek island of Kos, so tantalisingly close to the safety they craved.

Many other mothers, fathers, and children have died in similar circumstances in the last few years, certainly thousands although the full toll will never be known for such is the nature of death in the dark in the open sea.

Many more have been photographed, dishevelled, distraught, desperate, traumatised, crammed into flimsy boats, stranded on desolate beaches, huddled by roadsides and railtracks, scratching through the dirt under razor-wire fences.

Refugees and migrants arrive from the northeastern Greek island of Lesbos to port of Piraeus yesterday. About 2,500 arrived in total.  Picture: AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis

And yet something about the single image of a solitary toddler washed up on a holiday beach spoke more to an international audience than anything that went before.

There have been moments in the past when the click of a shutter acted as a switch to the world’s conscience.

The unforgettable photograph of nine-year-old Phan Th Kim Phúc running naked and burned from a napalm attack on her village become a milestone in the slow turn of public opinion against the Vietnam War.

Images of matchstick-thin babies dying beside emaciated mothers too weak to swat the flies from their eyes brought a desperately needed response to the first publicised Ethiopian famine.

The defiance of a student in Tiananmen Square as the might of the Chinese army bore down on him revealed the immense struggle for freedom in a powerfully secret state.

Each in their own way did in a flash what interminable policy documents, diplomatic shufflings, roundtable meetings, official statements, and grudging agreements failed to do.

They seized and held the public attention, speaking to hearts and minds at once, explaining with crystal clarity the nature of the problem, telling without words what must be done, commanding a response.

A man holds onto a fence outside a train that was stopped in Bicske, Hungary, yesterday.

Why it was that the picture of Aylan Kurdi provided this long overdue lesson is hard to say.

Maybe it was timing. All week the streets of every town and village of the country were full of the sights and sounds of the annual return to school and small children with neatly trimmed hair and exuberant steps setting out excitedly on their big adventure.

For the vast majority of children of the vast majority of people who saw that photograph, life has been good and is full of promise.

For Aylan Kurdi, life had been lived in the shadow of death during a war that was older than himself and the only promise he could count on was that his parents would do everything in their limited power to secure for him a better life.

His father, Abdullah, was from Kobane, a Syrian city on the Turkish border with a mainly ethnic Kurdish population which became a powerful symbol of resistance against IS last year when it survived a four-month siege, nightly bombings and widespread destruction.

Previously he and his family had lived in the capital, Damascus, but it became too dangerous; and also in the country’s largest city, Aleppo, which has become an even bigger graveyard.

Kobane, within walking distance of Turkey where international news crews sat filming its bombardment, must have seemed the best of the worst prospects.

Once in Turkey, the European Union and the peace and prosperity nurtured inside its borders was within reach. But the Kurdis didn’t even want to bother us here in the EU. Abdullah’s sister has asylum in Canada — where that other iconic child of war, Phan Th Kim Phúc, eventually found sanctuary — and the family hoped to join her there.

It was only when their application was refused — apparently because their lives were insufficiently disrupted to prove need of protection — that they turned their attentions to the EU. It wouldn’t have been the most enticing option. Abdullah would have known about Europe’s attitude to people like him.

He may not have followed the ins and outs of the row over mandatory quotas that ended so shamefully in rejection by EU leaders this summer and he may not have understood the cynical semantics that downgraded his like to “migrants”.

But he will have heard about the chaos in Greece and Italy, he will have learned there were just a few good countries for refugees in Europe and good few more hostile ones, and he will have known that his modest credentials as barber and odd-job man would not impress if he only made it as far as the latter.

He will also undoubtedly have heard about the deaths at sea. But having learned to live with fear these last four and a half years, he set it aside once again, and made preparations to get to Kos.

The first time the family set out, patrol boats sent them back. The second time, the smugglers they had made arrangements with failed to show up.

The third time and last time they were only at sea for a matter of minutes before the small boat began taking in water and moments later the waves engulfed it.

Abdullah’s wife, Rehan, their five-year old son Galip, and Aylan had no chance. Abdullah eventually gave up trying to find them and swam to shore, hoping against hope that somehow they too had made it to safety.

It was less than a 20km journey to Kos — a 20-minute journey on the modern ferries that speed commuters and holidaymakers between the Greek island and Turkey several times a day.

But after all the distance his displaced family had covered since his birth and after the turbulent emotional journey they had endured, it was 20km too far for Aylan.

His death has prompted an extraordinary outpouring of emotion, of dismay and of frustration and it has galvanised public, and to an almost equal extent political, opinion.

And yet, for all the proclamations that more must and will be done to save other children like him, there remains a fear that promises will get bogged down in bureaucracy in the EU.

As Archbishop Diarmuid Martin so beautifully put it as he appealed for immediate action on the day Aylan Kurdi’s photograph appeared on newspaper front pages: “I’m always worried about people who speak in the future tense only.”

His message, and the view that is fast gaining ground, is that hands are not for sitting on, nor for wringing but for reaching out with humanity, solidarity and firm arrangements to help.

Abdullah Kurdi spoke through tears of the moment his smallest child slipped through his hands into the dark sea.

The challenge now is that his memory, and all it stands for, must not be allowed to slip from Europe’s collective grasp.

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