By Siddharth Aiyanna (NALSAR, Batch of 2020)
The image of an exanimate, dark haired toddler in a red shirt with his face planted in the sand on a Turkish beach took the world by storm when circulated on the 3rd of September this year. The young Syrian boy, Aylan Kurdi, his brother Ghalib and their parents were bound for Kos in Greece from Bodrum in Turkey. However, only Abdullah Kurdi, their father, survived. The boy was one of at least twelve Syrians who drowned when two boats carrying 23 people capsized. This incident unfortunately was not standalone.
Kos is attracting hordes of people who aspire to reach countries like Hungary and Germany. Hundreds of refugees have met with the same unfortunate fate as the Kurdi family, and have drowned while crossing the Mediterranean in unsafe boats run by exploitative criminal networks that offer little safety despite the large amounts of money they demand. Adding to the peril is the unfriendly attitude of the developed countries of the west to these refugees, the effect of which has seen the death of 2,500 people in the recent summer alone. Further, refugees face civilian discontent, which has manifested itself through protests against the refugees in Hungary and the borders of Serbia. Law and order has also become a concern that needs to be dealt with.
Refugees are those individuals who suffer or fear persecution in their country of origin on account of their race, religion, nationality, political ideology or are escaping the ravages of war. While refugees have existed through the ages, at present we have a whopping 19 million people who are displaced from their homeland and seek a place to live in safety, of which over 366,000 have entered Europe having crossed the Mediterranean Sea. Currently, the refugees are fleeing war, political persecution or other kinds of violence in places like Syria, Libya, Somalia and Myanmar. The Syrian civil war is undoubtedly the largest factor contributing to the growing number of refugees. The situation refugees face are exacerbated by the sheer numbers, apathy of the nations of the world and pitiable living conditions in refugee camps, where they end up more often than not. The dearth of resources in nations willing to host them adds to the problem, for example, a large number of Syrians have taken refuge in Lebanon and Turkey who struggle to support them. The UN itself would require 8.4 billion USD, to provide basic necessities to Syrian refugees alone. The single largest factor that has contributed to the numbers in the present crisis is the Arab Spring which saw a series of pro-democracy protests in many middle-eastern countries and led to horrific wars in Libya and Syria. In Syria alone, the causes are twofold, on one hand there are people escaping the civil war and the oppressive regime of Bashar-Al-Assad and on the other, there are people hoping to escape the atrocities of the Islamic State. The Kurdi family belonged to the group of people who fled from the ISIS. Civilians have borne the brunt of the ongoing insurgence and around 4 million Syrian refugees have ended up in overcrowded and underfunded refugee camps.
Although Libya did not contribute to an increased number of refugees, the fall of the Gaddafi regime has led to reopening a route from Africa to Europe. With little hope of returning home, the refugees now seek a fresh start to life in Europe or other countries in the west despite the journey being highly priced and risky. The risks they are willing to undertake speak volumes of the horrors they leave behind.
Why do developed nations actively deter refugees?
The sentiment across the board in most developed nations, as seen in Australia, USA and European countries, is generalized anti-immigration. Europe in particular has robust anti-immigration policies. These policies while often attributed to racism or xenophobia are manifestations of a fear of a change in demography and civic identity i.e. there might be changes to the nation’s identity or culture. The changes might be small, but are often hard to accept which often leads to societal backlash. The clearest manifestation of backlash is Islamophobia in Europe. In essence it is the expression of insecurity when the community begins to feel less familiar. Meanwhile, propaganda in the forms of the economic harms associated with refugee intake is often promulgated in prominent dailies even in the United Kingdom.
Europe’s Stance on the Matter
Europe has not seen an influx of refugees as high since the Second World War. For years, the issue of refugees had taken a backseat in the EU, with the EU even paying Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi to prevent passage of refugees into Europe. Further, there is political inertia in Europe when it comes to dealing with refugees causing them to be stuck in camps or die while crossing the Mediterranean Sea simply because legally, there are multiple barriers to their entry. The journey across the Mediterranean continues to be perilous because the EU in order to disincentivize migrants and refugees allows it to be so. The EU’s Frontex program patrols only 30 miles of the border and does not have a search and rescue mission. This approach was implemented after the Mare Nostrum operations for search and rescue saved close to 150,000 people in a single year, which in turn encouraged more such people to undertake the crossing. Had the EU not followed this policy of active deterrence, it is possible that the lives of Aylan Kurdi and the other eleven refugees might have been saved.
In theory, with the introduction of the Schengen Area allowing for unrestricted migration within EU countries, open internal borders would mean that each country took on their fair share of refugees. In practice, this is far from reality. Hungary and Austria are imposing restrictions to prevent the entry or passage of refugees through their countries and aim to discourage refugees from considering Europe to be a destination for asylum. Victor Orban, the Prime Minister of Hungary is remorselessly hostile to refugees who he believes could potentially ruin Europe’s “Christian Character.” The United Kingdom too has been particularly apathetic to the needs of refugees, with the Prime Minister Mr. Cameron declaring that they should no longer take in any Syrian refugees. Voices within the UK claim that Britain has shirked responsibility with the use of a misnomer i.e. by branding it a migrant crisis instead of a refugee crisis. Other critics have held that the inaction or apathy is disgraceful, after the proliferation of the pictures of Aylan Kurdi, recognising that it’s not a problem of families seeking a better life as much as a problem of families trying to stay alive.
However while there are nations who have taken a hard-line anti-refugee stance on the issue,there are those like Germany who have relaxed asylum rules.
The German Viewpoint
At the outset, Germany seems to be among the countries which are most welcoming to the refugees. In absolute terms, Germany has accepted the most number of refugees. As opposed to the UK where there is barely any dialogue in the political spheres, Germany has had largely different developments. German Chancellor Angela Merkel went so far as to say that Germany expected to take in close to 800,000 asylum seekers within the year, in the interests of European ideals and a commitment to universal civil rights. Germany has made a clear distinction between immigration and those who seek asylum; other countries like the UK have been reluctant to adopt similar measures. Germany has further proposed a system of quotas wherein refugees would be fairly distributed among all European Union member states. In furtherance of the governments support, German citizens have volunteered to assist refugees in their bid to resettle. German media too has been more accepting of the refugees than media in other parts of the Union. The disproportionate acceptance of refugees vis-à-vis other EU countries has had its own setbacks. Germany has seen higher incidence of violence directed at those seeking asylum. In light of the violence, Merkel has been criticized for keeping silent on the issue. However more recently, Germany warned that they could not keep up with the rate of influx of the refugees and criticized other nations that are unwilling to assist them in their endeavours.
The quota system proposed by Germany is set to be discussion on September 14th at an emergency summit in Brussels. The proposed system has met with opposition from UK, Hungary, Slovakia, Poland and Czech Republic, while nations like Spain remain wary of the plan. UK has vehemently opposed the idea of a compulsory EU resettlement plan.
Meanwhile, countries like UK, Ireland and Denmark have the ability to opt out of a common asylum policy under the Lisbon Treaty and are cleverly using EU rules to keep refugees out. Several nations are also invoking the Dublin Regulation which requires refugees to stay in the first European country they set foot in until their asylum claims are processed.
Aylan Kurdi served as a powerful reminder of the dangers children and families escaping Syria were exposed to. The plight of the child fuelled public discourse aimed at forcing the EU to reach a consensus on a plan to tackle the refugee crisis. However, until there is a collective effort from all members of the Union, there will be no true solution to the problem.