By Adnan Basrai The ongoing crisis in Syria has slowly but surely sparked the largest humanitarian and migrant crisis in Europe since World War II. Many would argue that this collective tragedy is, sadly, but accurately personified in the image of a little boy washed up on the shores of the Turkish resort town of Bodrum. The photograph of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi has now been shared millions of times on social media around the world, and has inspired widespread outrage toward to countless migrant deaths that are too common an occurrence in this region over the past year.
Peter Bouckaert of the Humanitarian Rights Watch embodies this perfectly when he refers to image saying, “Some say the picture is too offensive to share online or print in our newspapers. What I find offensive is that drowned children are washing up on our shorelines, when more could have been done to prevent their deaths.” This outcry against humanitarian neglect towards the migrants travelling from Syria to Europe has prompted many EU leaders to take notice and implement policy to address this issue. One tweet by The Independent read, “If these extraordinarily powerful images of a dead Syrian child washed up on a beach don’t change Europe’s attitude to refugees, what will?”
Within days of baby Alan’s body being found, Germany quickly became the face of hope against this large-scale migrant crisis when it declared its borders wide open to refugees from Syria and the Middle East. France, UK, and other Western European countries followed suit, with similar open-door policies. Germany expects up to 800,000 refugees by the end of the year, France pledged to accommodate another 24,000, and British Prime Minister David Cameron pledged to take in 20,000.
Although many might say this is just ‘not enough’, there are still many Central and Eastern European countries that are in strong opposition towards wholeheartedly accepting the hundreds of thousands of refugees. They seem to be content in letting the refugees fend for themselves while embarking on a perilous and often fatal journey of which a final destination is still not even guaranteed.
Hungary quickly took the limelight on the issue when its Prime Minister Viktor Orban explicitly addressed the refugees saying, “The moral, human thing is to make clear: Please don’t come.”
Although the moral stance on this catastrophe is obviously to take in the refugees, most countries in Europe still remain polarized on how to address the oncoming migrant crisis in Europe. It is hard to imagine that there still exists divided opinion on whether or not to send the refugees back to face violence and massage in the region from which they fled.
Only a week after it opened up its country to Syrian immigrants coming from Greece and Hungary, Germany had to abruptly close its borders. Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, who had allowed trains to carry refugees who were stranded in Hungary through Austria and to Bavaria, promptly began to reevaluate her decision after more than 20,000 refugees arrived in Munich in the first weekend alone. Realizing that the country could not “manage” the immense influx of Syrian refugees, she re-imposed border controls with Austria, stating that her statement a week earlier was only an exception to the existing rules, whereby refugees should have to apply for EU asylum in the first member state they enter.
Hungary has declared the situation an emergency, further solidifying its opposition to helping refugees by sealing its border with Serbia with barbed-wire fences and threatening to arrest those who are trying to cross. This has resulted in numerous clashes with police at the border, which is prompting refugees to evade by instead marching into Romania and Croatia. The situation seems to be getting even worse.
Although the migrant crisis had been underway long before EU countries began declaring their removal and subsequent imposition of border controls on worldwide television, it was the image of young Alan on the shores of Bodrum that sparked both Europe and the world to take this issue seriously. The picture was simplistic and yet so emotionally charged that it became the gateway for Europeans to openly address a problem that had been too taboo to ever talk about in their societies.
Aya Mhanna, a clinical psychologist and group therapist who works with Syrians and activists in Turkey illustrates this well when she says “This photo showed in a very inactive way with a kid, alone, something people are dealing with every day…Here is this baby alone, not with other people, no mother, no father, no police shouting.” Its passivity allows it to, in a sense, be discussed in a less threatening way. It tugs at the hearts of mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters, while leaving complex politics out of the conversation. It pushes away to the side minor complexities of the issue and addresses the overarching problem by asking us, ‘How can we let this happen to our people? How can we let this happen to our children?’
What the image of the baby truly did was bring the entire world together to put pressure on Europe to address the migrant crisis from a humanitarian perspective. It was no longer a cost-benefit analysis but an endeavor to help out a fellow human being. In the past, there has been a lot of discussion by German opposition parties and media outlets about moral imperatives resulting from the Holocaust and Germans' own experience with massive post-war migration. This likely played a significant part in Germany’s altruistic position regarding the ongoing migrant crisis.
Additionally, Germany has not been having the best relationship with the rest of Europe due to its favorable position during the Greek debt crisis and subsequent imposition of austerity measures on the ailing country. Germany’s decision to wholeheartedly open its borders and accept the migrants was thus a bold attempt to demonstrate that it can lead by example.
Although Germany’s humanitarian strategy didn’t go exactly as planned, the decision might also be a tactical maneuver to pressure the rest of the EU to adopt a quota system for accepting asylum seekers. Although Germany, Sweden, and Austria are the most welcoming towards refugees, most eastern European countries are not yet as hospitable, still agreeing to take in only a few thousand refugees if any at all. Sadly, the European commissioners failed to reach an agreement on a binding quota system for all EU member states. This plan could still be passed when the ministers next meet at the end of the month. Germany’s Interior Minister, Thomas de Maziere, proposes cutting EU subsidies to member states that refuse to take their share of refugees, stating that more pressure is needed to get all countries to come to a final consensus.
All we can do until then is hope that the EU countries come to a unanimous decision on how and when to grant asylum to and take in the refugees flocking towards Europe. It would be utterly inhumane to allow another devastating image to resurface before the world takes action to safe the refugees of the Middle East.