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Alan Kurdi’s Death Has Changed Little for the World’s Refugees

4 minute read
Charlotte McDonald-Gibson is the author of 'Cast Away: True Stories of Survival from Europe’s Refugee Crisis', to be published in the U.S. by The New Press on Sept. 6

Some faces are impossible to forget. Five-year-old Omran Daqneesh blinking and confused as he stares through the blood and dust after a shelling in Aleppo last month. The open-mouthed terror of Kim Phuc as she flees the burning napalm of South Vietnamese forces in 1972.

Such images have the potential to sway public opinion and impact history. But expectations can exceed reality. This time last year the world saw Alan Kurdi’s face, the delicate features just visible as the drowned toddler lay on his front with his head turned to one side. The photo taken Sept. 2 of the three-year-old Syrian dead on a Turkish beach after a Mediterranean shipwreck appeared on front pages around the world. ‘Refugees Welcome’ became a rallying cry, supposedly heralding a new era of compassion on a continent which had thus far reacted to the crisis with fear and high fences.

Now a year has passed since Alan’s lonely death, wrenched from the arms of his father by the rough seas, and much of that compassion had evaporated. Children are still dying trying to reach Europe, but we rarely learn their names.

Read more: The Faces of Syria’s Child Refugees

From a purely cosmetic viewpoint, policies pursued by the European Union’s 28 nations have successfully stemmed the arrivals. The closure of the Greece-Macedonia border has prevented a repeat of scenes from last summer as columns of people marched along the Balkans to try and reach nations they hoped would welcome them with compassion. A legally and morally dubious deal with Turkey to send back people who arrive without the correct paperwork also appears to have deterred people from making the crossing to the Greek islands.

If the aim is to convince electorates that the problem had gone away, then for now E.U. leaders can pat themselves on their backs. But if the aim is to stop other Alans dying and to offer them a chance of a safe future, then very little has changed.

So far this year, 3,165 people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe, most of them on the still-busy Libya to Italy route that is the subject of a feature by Aryn Baker in this week’s issue of TIME. That is 509 more deaths than in the same period last year, even though overall numbers of arrivals in Europe are down.

The closure of the Macedonian border has trapped around 56,000 men, women and children in dire conditions in Greece, where accommodation is barely habitable and there is limited food, water and medicine. And with the E.U. offering Turkey a financial incentive to stop the flow of refugees, the authorities there have prevented Syrians from fleeing their homeland. In June, around 100,000 Syrians were trapped between ISIS, other rebel forces, and the Turkish border, unable to cross, with very few supplies and fighting closing in.

The outcry over Alan’s death led the E.U. to agree to relocate 160,000 refugees from overcrowded facilities in Greece and Italy to elsewhere in Europe, but to date just over 3,000 have been found new homes, with many countries simply refusing to take part in the scheme. Thousands still live in squalid conditions in refugee camps in places like Ventimiglia, on the Italy-France border, or in the so-called Calais “jungle” near the entrance to the Channel tunnel.

Public opinion has also shifted, most recently by terrorist attacks across Europe, two of which were carried out by refugees in Germany. Rather than put these incidents in context, many politicians have seized on them for personal gain. A Danish politician called for a ban on Muslims entering the country. Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban said that the “security of our wives and daughters is at stake” if migrants were allowed to stay in open camps.

So slowly the men, women and children crowded cheek-by-jowl into run-down boats start to become an anonymous mass again, and empathy disappears.

The photos of Alan, Omran, and Kim, however, have such a visceral impact because people can see children they know in their faces. These images remind people of what should be obvious: they are human beings too. This important truth must remain prominent in the debate, because the refugee crisis is far from over. The global toll of the displaced has now reached a record high of 65 million, and the siege of Aleppo which killed Omran’s brother shows the Syrian conflict remains brutal and prolonged.

On Sept. 20, President Barack Obama will chair a special summit on refugees which activists hope will lead to more pledges of resettlement. World leaders attending the summit must remember that every man, woman and child risking death on the Mediterranean has a name, face and history, just like Alan Kurdi.

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