Drowning refugees: How European and Arab States failed Syrian people

Mariam Mecky , Alia Soliman , Sunday 6 Sep 2015

The viral image of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach has reinforced international outrage against the failure of European and Arab states to aid the plight of Syrian refugees

Syrian refugees
Migrants look out through the window of a train at the railway station in Bicske, Hungary, September 4, 2015. (Photo:Reuters)

Though the Syrian conflict is more than four years old, the images of a drowned Syrian toddler on a Turkish beach have triggered more responses from the international community than numerous massacres in Syria.

The three-year-old toddler, Aylan Kurdi, was among 12 people who drowned off the coast of Turkey, including his five-year-old brother, Galip, and his 35-year-old mother, Rehan, who were en route to the Greek island of Kos, where they were seeking refuge.

The atrocious civil war in Syria has driven half of the country's population to flee their homes, with a huge number arriving as refugees in Europe. Most face an uncertain future as many are either arrested or drown in the Mediterranean on their perilous journey.

The Syrian regime of Bashar Al-Assad has committed deadly crimes against the Syrian people, most horrifically when 500 Syrians lost their lives in the Ghouta district near Damascus in 2013, where a team of UN inspectors confirmed the use of chemical weapons.

Syrian journalist Bassel Oudat told Ahram Online that the media sympathized with the pictures of the toddler and considered it a part of the refugee crisis, while overlooking the fact that tens of thousands of Syrians were killed by Assad during the four-year conflict.

The Syrian conflict has killed more than 240,000 people, forced more than four million to flee the country, among them two million children, and left some 7.6 million displaced internally, the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Syria said in its latest report.

UN investigators denounced the international community's failure to protect refugees fleeing Syria. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees called on the European Union on Friday to admit up to 200,000 refugees as part of a "mass relocation programme" that would be binding on EU states.

The image of the drowned toddler, which went viral and provoked public outcry around the world, has drawn further attention to the insufficient efforts of European and Arab states in the face of the escalating crisis.

Europe's efforts

Europe has been facing a growing migrant crisis with the influx of thousands of refugees from various zones of conflict. The viral image of the toddler has piled more pressure on European states to respond effectively to the refugee crisis and offer protection.

Some European countries have been more willing than others to take in additional Syrian refugees. France and Germany agreed Thursday to propose a permanent and mandatory system to take in refugees and asylum seekers, especially Syrians, in the EU.

Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin, one of the main backers of the Assad regime, ironically called Europe's migrant crisis a predictable result of its policies in the Middle East, saying he had personally warned of the consequences.
The responses of European countries on refugees and asylum seeking vary.

Germany has stopped enforcing EU rules with regards to refugees, namely the Dublin Regulation, allowing Syrian refugees to stay and seek asylum instead of being deported to the first EU country they arrived in.

Under the Dublin Regulation, refugees are supposed to stay in their country of arrival until their asylum claims are processed, putting the burden on countries on the Mediterranean and often trapping refugees in inhumane conditions.

Some EU countries, such as the United Kingdom, are more reluctant to share the burden of the refugees, putting a greater share on less economically powerful countries such as Italy and Greece, or transit countries in Eastern Europe.

Yet in response to the public outcry after the toddler image spread through social media, British Prime Minister David Cameron said Friday that the UK would take "thousands more" Syrian refugees.

Some Eastern Europe states, such Hungary, Serbia, and Macedonia, have become major transit countries for tens of thousands of migrants trying to reach the EU in recent months.

On the disparity of EU states’ responses to the crisis, Nisan Ahmado, a Syrian blogger and translator, argues that a genuinely strong political system is the key to doing more for refugees — at the least organising their entrance and providing safe corridors.

“Some European countries do not have the needed resources to provide aid and help, like Spain, Greece and Italy, due to their unstable economies,” Ahmado said.

“Germany has the resources and political will to welcome more refugees, adding to that public empathy with the people who are escaping the horror of war. We saw pictures of Germans celebrating the arrival of refugees.”

The EU home affairs ministers will hold emergency talks 14 September in Brussels on the continent's escalating migrant crisis.

EU leader Donald Tusk urged member states Thursday to take in at least 100,000 refugees, to ease the pressure on frontline countries.

Mohammad Al-Abdallah, executive director of the Syria Justice and Accountability Centre, attributes the scale of the present crisis to EU countries' past delayed responses.

“The recent measures are very late to start today after four and a half years of the conflict in Syria,” Abdallah says.

He adds that all EU countries were aware of the extent of the catastrophe in Syria, but did very little to accept more refugees in a legal manner through the UNHCR, which might have saved lives.

Are Middle East, Arab states sharing the burden?

On Friday, following the return of Abdullah Kurdi, the father of the Syrian child, to Kobane to bury his family, Kurdi appealed to Arab states to look at what his family had endured and help those in need and fleeing war.

In a written interview with Ahram Online, Abdallah suggested that supporting refugees in the Middle East would have been the proper answer to the humanitarian crisis.

“When you have millions of refugees in countries where they can't work, live legally, send their children to school, access healthcare (in Lebanon and Jordan) etc, the only thing refugees will do is to get on a boat and take a dangerous trip to Europe.”

Turkey alone is hosting 1.6 million Syrian refugees, while Lebanon has around 1.1 million refugees. Jordan has 620,000 refugees, Iraq has 225,000 refugees and Egypt has 140,000 refugees, according to an Amnesty International report.

Charts comparing the number of Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries (Reuters)

Without a visa, Syrians are not currently allowed to enter Arab countries, except for Algeria, Mauritania, Sudan and Yemen.

The six rich Gulf countries — Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain — have offered no resettlement places to Syrian refugees, Amnesty’s report said.

Officially, Syrians can apply for a tourist visa or work permit in order to enter a Gulf state. But the process is costly, and there is a widespread perception that many Gulf states have unwritten restrictions in place that it make it hard for Syrians to be granted a visa in practice, the BBC reported.

Speaking to Ahram Online, Ahmado said there is no doubt that Arab and Gulf states were not as cooperative as they should be, adding that even refugees who were taken in by some Arab countries were treated like some sort of disease by the governments concerned, despite the support by the people in many Arab countries.

“The support was very limited, and poor countries like Lebanon and Jordan can't carry everything alone,” Abdallah remarks.

“This is related to political will. Some Arab countries do not lack the resources to take in refugees and provide aid,” Ahmado affirms, agreeing with Abdallah.

Abdallah contends that Gulf states are not the only countries who were barely cooperative with regards to the refugees crisis.

'Not to forget Canada and the US are bad countries regarding refugees. The US, for example, is taking less than 1,000 Syrian refugees for 2015, from a total of almost eight million refugees," Abdallah highlights.

The family of the drowned three-year-old toddler was trying to emigrate to Canada, but their privately-sponsored refugee application, submitted to the Canadian authorities, was rejected in June because of complications with applications from Turkey, Reuters reported.

Ahmado calls for a farfetched solution for the crisis, highlighting that the main method followed is to "contain" the issue and "contain" the people.

“The most preferred solution, of course, is to reach an equation to stop the war in Syria,” she says.

For the time being, in order to address the current humanitarian crisis in Europe, "What is urgently needed is an agreement between the countries concerned, both EU and non-EU, to set up transit camps, where the status of asylum seekers can be determined in the proper way, with full involvement of UNHCR," said Marc Pierini, visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe.

Despite the fact that the international community responded intensely to the picture and to the face of Syria’s humanitarian crisis, Oudat says it is more likely that the world will forget about the toddler just like they forgot about Hamza Al-Khateeb, who was killed by regime forces in Daraa during the start of the 2011 uprising.

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