In the name of Aylan

Why do we always have to wait for painful tragedies to wake up to the distressing plight of our fellow human beings in the global village?

Like millions of children across the world, 3-year-old Aylan should have enjoyed a boy’s life of joyful frolic with mates and bonding with siblings, of being pampered and cuddled by parents and basically a life of exhilarating new discoveries and insouciance. Instead, Aylan, a Syrian Kurd was fleeing his home in war torn Kobani with his parents and brother on a perilous journey to seek, as hundreds of thousands of refugees, a safe haven and better future in Europe. His journey ended tragically as the boat ferrying him and his family from Turkey to Greece capsized earlier this month.

After so many distressing tragedies afflicted refugees since 2011, it is the images of Aylan’s lifeless body on a Turkish beach which have finally struck a human cord in Fortress Europe and awoken the conscience of Europeans. It jolted the world’s attention to the dire plight of the refugees forced to flee their war afflicted countries and provoked belated international responses to the unprecedented refugee crisis.

Everywhere in Europe a huge wave of sympathy at the distress and anguish of migrants overcame past indifference as citizens spontaneously tendered a helping hand. In spite of the recession and the dire conditions resulting from stringent austerity measures, human compassion prevailed. There was still hope for humanity as a sense of kinship and solidarity spread among the people in the countries the migrants have to go through on their difficult journey to Austria and Germany, sometimes in bold defiance of the authorities in place.

In contrast to the timid responses from the United Kingdom and France, there was relieved hope as Germany earmarked €6 billion to fund the record influx of some 800,000 refugees forecast to arrive in Germany this year adding that ‘We had to give a strong signal of humanity to show that Europe’s values are valid also in difficult times.’ This will be double the highest previous intake of refugees by Germany in 1992 in the wake of conflicts resulting from the breakup of former Yugoslavia.

Remember Phan Thi Kim Phuc

We should recall that a similar poignant picture of 9-year-old Phan Thi Kim Phuc, a South Vietnamese girl running naked on the road with her back severely burned after a South Vietnamese Air Force napalm attack on her village in June 1972 had awaken the world’s attention to the haunting images of the atrocities of the decried Vietnam war and brought vivid evidence of the condemnable use of napalm on in particular civilians. Why do we always have to wait for painful tragedies to wake up to the distressing plight of our fellow human beings in the global village?

The world is facing the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War. There are more than 19 million people who have been forced to flee their countries owing to protracted wars, persecution and oppression. The number of refugees and migrants crossing the Mediterranean heading for Europe has so far already exceeded 300,000 compared to 219,000 during the whole of 2014.

It must be highlighted that the refugee crisis has been heightened by a pervasive and sometimes even rabidly anti-refugee stance in some countries of the EU as evidenced by the recent scenes of blockades on the movement of the refugees in the Balkans. These parochial attitudes driven by a deep-seated angst to preserve national identity shame the lofty values of solidarity and sharing of old Europe. Thus for years now, the world’s wealthiest countries have firmly refused to accept more than the smallest number of the world’s refugees. The Gulf countries and other oil rich Arab countries are reluctant to accommodate refugees to allay the distress of the millions of Syrian refugees eking out a life of hardship for years stuck in refugee camps. This is an untenable situation. The refugee crisis is therefore getting out of control.

Moved by the Aylan tragedy and the continued flux of migrants in Italy, Greece and the Balkans, the EU has at a summit of its Interior Ministers this week agreed on plans to relocate 120,000 of them amongst the EU countries according to a scheme based on mandatory quotas. Although the proposed quantum of refugees to be taken by the EU is far from matching the enormous scale of the refugee problem, it is nevertheless a welcome departure from their recent stringent policy of limited access of refugees in the EU. It will help end the anguish of a fair number of them. Migrants will thus be moved from Italy, Greece and Hungary to be relocated in other EU countries.

Romania, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary which benefited from EU support to steward their democratic freedom as from 1989 in the wake of the collapse of the Eastern bloc and their subsequent adhesion to the EU, voted against the measure. The reticence of the new member countries of the EU to accept migrants is evidenced by the legal challenge just launched by Slovakia against mandatory quotas. The EU is also focusing on tightening its borders and assisting the neighbours of Syria to better cope with the refugees in camps in their countries with the clear object of keeping them away from Europe.

Moral responsibility

The response of Europe lives up belatedly to their obvious moral obligation towards the refugees as they bear a share of responsibility in their flight from their homelands pursuant to the violent civil war situation prevailing in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, etc, countries where the EU, US and NATO have intervened militarily and through air strikes. These countries are principal sources of refugees housed in camps in neighbouring countries or heading towards Europe. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Syrian refugees fleeing the violent conflict in Syria to neighbouring countries have now exceeded 4 million. An additional 7.6 million people are displaced within Syria. More than 2,500 refugees and migrants have so far lost their lives or gone missing while attempting to cross the Mediterranean to Europe compared to 3,500 in 2014.

In the face of a human tragedy of such horrendous proportions, Europe’s response has been ignominiously timid. The Mare Nostrum search and rescue operations initiated by the Italian government in October 2013 which saved an estimated 150,000 people in one year had to be abandoned in October 2014 as financial support from EU member states was cut off as some argued that it encouraged more people to make the crossing of the Mediterranean to Europe. Instead of humanity, generosity and compassion, a covert and unavowed anti-migrant stance seems to supersede the lofty values of solidarity and hospitality which have been the hallmark of old Europe towards people in distress.

In violation of the fundamental principles of free mobility of people and open-border policy within EU space, Hungary erected razor-blade fences along its border with Serbia, shut down train service to Germany and enacted anti-migrant laws with stiff penalties to deter refugees from crossing Hungary into Western Europe over land.

The history of the world has been repeatedly marked by the mass movement and migration of people triggered by war, economic collapse and other calamities which afflicted their homelands and have driven them to seek refuge and a better future in other lands holding better prospects. The people of the East European countries especially those in the Balkans which were governed by totalitarian communist regimes have sought refuge abroad each time diverse events affected their countries.

The Prague Spring in 1968 when Russian and Warsaw Pact troops invaded Czechoslovakia to put a halt to reforms or the violent wars following the break-up of Yugoslavia in the early 1980s have all generated their load of refugees seeking, as the Syrians, Afghans or Eritreans today, refuge in Europe and in other countries. The collapse of the Eastern bloc as from 1989 and the dissolution of the Soviet Union by the end of 1991 led to a process of democratisation, resulting in some 12 countries (including East Germany which is now in united Germany) which were formerly part of the Soviet Union or run by Communist governments, being now members of the EU. As is very often the case with new members: Veut on être plus royaliste que le Roi?

There is overwhelming evidence that each wave of migrants in the chequered history of humanity have for the most enriched their host countries through their entrepreneurship, specific skills and cultural diversity. The signs are that they show resilience, enterprise, discipline, a propensity for hard work and help create prosperity. For example, the Indians who form 6% of the workforce in Silicon Valley have also provided the people who founded more than 15% of the Valley’s start-ups.

The vibrant new global world is not about raising razor-blade fences or brick walls and rabidly boxing our minds in parochial ghettos. It is about what Pope Francis in his final homily before leaving Cuba this week said ‘a revolution through tenderness and compassion’. It is about a world of sharing hardships and joys, driven by a common purpose and holistic approach to resolve the challenges facing mankind. A world of global citizens honing their composite values by drawing on global sources of human thought and wisdom through cultural osmosis.

A world where there is a common and resolute will to do much more to value the sacrifice and memory of Aylan.


  • Published in print edition on 25 September 2015

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