For just a moment in September 2015 it seemed that the wave of compassion generated by the photograph of a three-year-old boy lying dead on a Turkish beach might lead to meaningful change. Alan Kurdi, along with his 35-year-old mother, Rehan, and five-year-old brother, Galip, drowned in a desperate attempt to cross the five-kilometer stretch of water between Turkey and the Greek island of Kos in a dangerously unsuitable boat. The family, ethnic Kurds driven from their home in Syria by the civil war, had sought refuge in Turkey while awaiting the outcome of an application to join family in Canada. It was rejected and the boys’ father, Abdullah, resorted to desperate measures. He alone survived. “We want the world’s attention on us,” the grief-stricken father told the press as he described how his children had slipped from his hands. “My kids have to be the wake-up call to the whole world.”
Three years on, it’s clear that they weren’t. This September, another Syrian boy, 5-year-old Khaled Nejmeh, drowned as his family tried to cross from Lebanon to Cyprus. His passing, like that of thousands of others since 2015, has been completely ignored. Europe, it seems, has become utterly desensitized to the tragedy on its southern border.
According to the latest figures, as of November 30, from the UN’s refugee agency, 2,119 migrants have drowned so far this year attempting to cross the Mediterranean. This brings the total number of refugees drowned since 2014 to 17,663, of whom one fifth were children.
Though Europe has taken in some Syrian refugees, the European Union has preferred to keep the problem at arm’s length, paying millions to countries along the north African coastline to intercept and detain migrants. The consequences can be seen in the dreadful makeshift camps in Libya, where the refugees, unwanted by their reluctant hosts but unable to go home, exist in squalor.
This callous subcontracting by Europe of its dirty work is bad enough, but during the past year several European governments have sunk to new lows. Countries including France, Malta and Italy have turned away ships carrying rescued migrants. Since November 23, 12 people have been stranded at sea after being rescued by a Spanish fishing boat now denied access to a safe harbor. Malta and Italy are insisting that the 12 be returned to Libya, despite the UN refugee agency declaring this an unsafe country to which refugees should not be returned.
But even worse, for the past four months rescue ships operated by three European NGOs have been held in various European ports on spurious technical grounds.
On Universal Children’s Day, on November 20, the European Commission issued a statement declaring that its “commitment to the protection of children worldwide” was “a moral duty.” No child, it said, “is left behind.”
This hollow platitude coincided with the rescue ship Sea-Watch 3 finally being allowed to put to sea, having spent four months impounded in Malta. Two other ships and a search-and-rescue aircraft operated by Swiss Humanitarian Pilots were similarly detained. How many of those lost at sea during those four months might have been saved if those precious assets had not been detained?
In the two months from November 2017 to January 2018, Sea-Watch 3 alone rescued 1,500 people. While the ship was detained, at least 500 people drowned – probably more, says the non-profit NGO, “since no one was there, at the world’s deadliest border, to report their fate.” One in five of the dead were children.
It is difficult to contest the assertion of NGOs that for reasons of internal politics, European governments have been sabotaging their efforts to save the lives of refugees.
The refugee crisis is not of Europe’s making. But some of the richest countries on Earth appear to have lost sight of their responsibility to extend a helping hand to the victims of circumstances so desperate that they see no choice but to risk all.
Driven by fear of a rising tide of ugly populism, whipped up across Europe by political groups peddling unfounded fears about threats posed by migrants in general and Muslims in particular, mainstream politicians have forsaken liberal principles to avoid being swept from power by right-wing landslides.
The Brexit crisis currently engulfing Britain typifies this craven abandonment of morality. In 2013, spooked by the anti-immigration posturing of the right-wing UK Independence Party, the Conservative government promised to stage a referendum on the country’s membership of the European Union if it were returned to power in 2015. As the referendum campaign began, UKIP accused Muslims of “coming here to take us over” and misleadingly using images of Syrian refugees on posters claiming that Britain was at a migration “breaking point.” UKIP’s current leader, Gerard Batten, who says Islam is “a death cult,” wants to repeal hate-crime laws.
Last month, Britain witnessed one consequence of this relentless propaganda, when a video emerged on social media showing a 15-year-old Syrian boy being racially attacked in a school playground in the north of England, where his family had found sanctuary from the conflict that had driven them from their home. His attacker, spewing racist bile, was a 16-year-old British boy, but the ultimate blame does not lie with him – no child, after all, is born hating. His views will have been formed by his elders, who in turn will have fallen prey to the poisonous propaganda of right-wing politicians.
It is they who bear the burden of responsibility for this attack, as they must also answer for the shameful inhumanity that has seen Europe turn its back on drowning children.
Jonathan Gornall is a British journalist, formerly with The Times, who has lived and worked in the Middle East and is now based in the UK. He specializes in health, a subject on which he writes for the British Medical Journal and others.
Photo by Boris Roessler / dpa / AFP/ Mural by Justus Becker and Oguz Sen