The boat capsized in the Mediterranean, and Aylan, his brother, and mother drowned. The inconsolable father who survived the incident said: “Even if you give me all the countries in the world, I don’t want them. What was precious is gone.”
The Syrian refugee crisis has been described as the worst humanitarian crisis since the Second World War. The UN High Commission for Refugees says there are four million registered Syrian refugees. Many are living under appalling conditions in crammed camps with no running water or electricity. While those fleeing the country find themselves stranded at railway stations, are waiting to board the train to nowhere.
More than 2,600 people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe in 2015, making the area the most deadly migrant crossing point in the world. The group has warned that the number of deaths is continuously soaring. More than 350,000 people have arrived in Europe so far this year, seeking sanctuary from war or persecution or poverty, or just seeking a better life.
Aylan’s photo surfaced at a time when the international community has not recovered from the shock of discovering 71 dead bodies of migrant refugees, a total of 59 men, 8 women, and 4 children, in the back of the truck in Austria.
Between 2014 and 2015, Europe saw a 40 percent jump in the number of asylum-seekers attempting to reach Europe. More than 300,000 people have attempted crossing the Mediterranean Sea in 2015, and 2,500 are proclaimed dead or missing. Europe hasn’t seen a refugee crisis of this magnitude since the end of World War II, when roughly half a million displaced Jews liberated from concentration camps had no place to call home.
Four million Syrians have registered or are awaiting registration with the UNHCR. Every year of the conflict has seen an exponential growth in refugees. In 2012, there were 100,000 refugees. By April 2013, there were 800,000. That doubled to 1.6 million in less than four months.
There are now four million Syrians scattered throughout the region, making them the world’s largest refugee population. At this rate, the U.N. predicts there could be 4.27 million Syrian refugees by the end of 2015 – the worst exodus since the Rwandan genocide 20 years ago.”
Now lets turn to consider what the International Conventions have to say.
Article 14(1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which was adopted in 1948, guarantees the right to seek and enjoy asylum in other countries.
The basic principle of refugee law, non-refoulement, refers to the obligation of States not to refoule, or return, a refugee to “the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”
Under the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, Article 33(1), Non-refoulement is universally acknowledged as a human right. The Convention allows refugees the enjoyment of some rights as nationals, such as access to courts, employment, and property rights.
Article 16 of the 1951 Convention, states:
- “A refugee shall have free access to the courts of law on the territory of all Contracting States.
- “A refugee shall enjoy in the Contracting State in which he has his habitual residence the same treatment as a national in matters pertaining to access to the Courts, including legal assistance and exemption from cautio judicatum solvi.”
While, under Article 17 it is provided that “the Contracting State shall accord to refugees lawfully staying in their territory the most favourable treatment accorded to nationals of a foreign country in the same circumstances, as regards the right to engage in wage earning employment.” And, on the other hand, Article 13 of the same Convention states that the “Contracting States shall accord to a refugee treatment as favourable as possible and, in any event, not less favourable than that accorded to aliens generally in the same circumstances, as regards the acquisition of movable and immovable property and other rights pertaining thereto, and to leases and other contracts relating to movable and immovable property.”
Despite the plethora of international conventions and other international instruments available for the protection of the basic rights of refugees, many European countries see these immigrants as a potential security risk. Caught in the middle are the desperate men and women, many with children in tow, who are fleeing in overcrowded, sometimes deadly voyages by land and by sea. Their governments are unable to protect them and the only option available to them is to flee or languish under dire conditions. The volatile region of Middle East is witnessing civil unrest, coupled with invasion by forces of Islamic state, and this has resulted in a humanitarian crisis not seen since World War 2.
More than 50 million people have been forcibly displaced from their homes in 2015. The refugees often belong to regions torn by war, famine, or persecution. As the world becomes more embroiled in war, with regions such as Syria, Lebanon, and Sudan succumbing to war, the civilians find that there is no place for them to seek refuge.
The EU states must provide interim facility to the immigrants fleeing their homes. The states must ensure that all humanitarian assistance is provided to them so that preventable deaths do not occur in the future. Little Aylan’s dead body questions the collective conscious of the world leaders to take action and to play their part in ensuring peaceful resolution to civil war in Syria.
Perhaps the most touching moment broadcast through international media in recent times is the warm welcome people fleeing Syria through Hungary received from large German crowds on arrival. When citizens of one country extend their friendship to the people of another, at their hour of need, it is always a powerful moment. When freedom-loving people of a country extend support to a freedom loving people of another country fleeing from war and oppression, it is indeed a meaningful moment.
For several decades now, heavy propaganda spread through the media has conditioned minds to regard everyone fleeing their country in search of refuge as economic migrants. These words, economic migrants, have acquired a derogatory meaning. In fact, migration for economic reasons has taken place and is taking place all the time and on quite a large scale. Such migration is considered quite normal and even necessary. There are various arrangements, in various countries, to facilitate such migration. There is no hue and cry about those who come to steal the jobs of local people when such migration occurs. Hell breaks loose only when people try to reach outside of their settled areas into other areas in sheer distress.
The warm and humane response extended to Syrian refugees arriving in Germany reminds us of many other instances not long ago, when similar or even more powerful positive expressions of solidarity arose in response to human tragedy. One such occasion was when, in late 1970s, pictures of large masses of people walking from Cambodia towards the Thailand border were flashed in media throughout the world. Those people were fleeing from the wretched conditions and devastation caused by the Pol Pot regime (1975-1979). The world responded overwhelmingly and even prominent personalities at the time like Jean-Paul Sartre spoke powerfully in favour of a massive humane response to this great tragedy.
The Irish poet, Nobel Laureate, Seamus Heaney wrote his great poem “From the Republic of Conscience” that became the title poem for a collection of poems published by the Amnesty International Ireland to mark the 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Heaney wrote this about his poem in the introduction to the collection: “I took it that Conscience would be a Republic, a silent, solitary place where a person would find it hard to avoid self-awareness and self-examination …” The opening verses of the poem are relevant to mark the German people’s welcome of the Syrian refugees:
“When I landed in the republic of conscience
it was so noiseless when the engines stopped
I could hear a curlew high above the runway.
At immigration, the clerk was an old man
who produced a wallet from his homespun coat
and showed me a photograph of my grandfather.
The woman in customs asked me to declare
the words of our traditional cures and charms
to heal dumbness and avert the evil eye.
No porters. No interpreter. No taxi.
You carried your own burden and very soon
your symptoms of creeping privilege disappeared…”
It has taken a series of rending incidents – of drownings of people as their boats capsized, of people dying inside enclosed vehicles, where they could not breathe, and of a child’s body being washed ashore, the little black shorts and the red t-shirt and the tiny shoes – to provoke a re-examination of the laws and the rules in several of the European countries. The politicians promised such a re-examination only after sections of people in their countries began to express outrage at what they were seeing and hearing.
What has come to be challenged in this way are hardened attitudes created mainly by the propaganda of right wing political parties, which have kept on attributing all the ills of their societies to migrants. It was the same old trick played by the Nazis, in their time. However, in the recent decades this propaganda has resulted in making the migrant blame game appear as the truth. This created heavy burden on international agencies committed to international conventions relating to refugees and internally displaced persons, as the governments began to refuse to cooperate with them. One of the most hardened stances in this regard has been the position taken by the Australian government. Even in Hong Kong, the government’s policy on refugees has been questionable.
The results of such hardened stances is the attitude that whatever happens to other people due to whatever problems exist in their countries is no concern of ours. It went to the extent of some developed countries establishing cooperation with repressive regimes in less developed countries to monitor the refugee inflows and to stop those attempting to flee. These developed country governments were quite willing to support repressive regimes by keeping silent about human rights abuses committed by such regimes. However, the events that have unfolded in the recent months have clearly demonstrated that the problem of people fleeing from repression, war, and hunger can neither be resolved by creating blackened images about these persons through propaganda, nor by taking hardened stances ignoring the relevant international conventions.
Following the end of the Cold War, the attitudes of developed democracies regarding the less developed countries has undergone a fundamental change. The problems in these countries no longer provide the possibility for, i.e. threat of, the expansion of communism. The promotion of democracy in developing countries and fighting against repressive regimes that create civil wars and enormous amount of violence became a matter of less concern. Indifference to the sufferings of people in these countries was no longer thought of as posing problems which will have international repercussions.
However, such notions have been proved to be just illusions.
It is to be hoped that the more positive responses that have emerged will lead to greater soul searching and a re-emergence of a ‘conscience’ within the international community on matters related to the sufferings of others.
In a September 10 editorial, the South China Morning Post has referred to the absence of consensus amongst European nations on ways to deal with the present influx of persons seeking asylum. However, this is not merely a European issue. It is a global issue, and much more soul searching is needed to find a humane solution.