By Shambhavi Saxena:
“I wished there was no problem in their country, that they hadn’t left it and hadn’t tried to leave Turkey and that I hadn’t taken this photograph,” said Nilufer Demir, the photographer who brought the world the news of the drowned Syrian boy.
His name was Aylan Kurdi, and he was three years old, and the photo of him on the shore of the Greek island Kos has shaken many of us from our stupor about the situation in Syria. It’s one of those images that will join Steve McCurry’s Afghan Girl and Raghu Rai’s ‘Burial of an Unknown Child’. It’s one we simply cannot ignore, even in this day and age of scroll-and-forget.
The Crisis in Syria
Aylan and his family were crossing the Aegean sea to get to Greece when their boat capsized, leaving his father, Abdullah Kurdi, the sole survivor of an all too common tragedy. Abdullah Kurdi is among 4 million Syrian refugees displaced by the violent aftermath of the Arab Spring. The ‘Arab Spring’, a collective noun for democratic uprisings that was on everybody’s lips back in 2011, devolved into bloody clashes between Syria’s civilian army and the government. The direct outcome of this has been the worst refugee crisis the world has seen since the Rwandan genocide in 1994.
Apart from those who fled the country, there are some 7 million internally displaced persons inside Syria. As with the refugee crises in Iraq, Burma, Tibet, North Africa and many more, civilians become easy targets of a host of human rights violations from both state and non-state actors. Those who escape are at the mercy of other nations and natural elements, like the Rohingya Muslims left adrift in boats.
Syria’s Dispossessed Children
Those who stand to lose the most from all this are the Syrian children, for whom home and family have been all but shattered, leave alone their education and future careers. International aid agency Mercy Corps has said Syrian children “will be the ones left to rebuild their lives and their country,” but without even the basic necessities of life, how can they?
Child refugees who have made the perilous journey from the worst affected areas – Damascus and Aleppo – into and through the neighbouring nations of Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey and beyond, have recorded and represented their experience through a series of photographs and drawings. Artists too have paid tribute to the little boy, while also criticizing leaders and nations and ever-impersonal mechanisms that allowed this to happen.
The Divided Nations
When only 19 of 195 world nations are signatories to the 1951 Refugee Convention, and the Protocol on the Status of Refugees that followed in 1967, even the most that individual states can do remains inadequate. Germany took the lead on responding to the crisis, and even then it’s just not enough. You might remember German Chancellor Angela Merkel having to explain to a Palestinian girl why her family was being deported. “I understand that, however I have to… sometimes politics is hard,” Merkel said, pointing to the fact that one country cannot manage the refugee situation on its own.
The UK, and its tendency to “Keep Britain British”, has come under fire for its reluctance to offer help. To illustrate how poor the UK’s response to the Syrian crisis has been, the Independent published a piece titled: “Number of Syrian refugees Britain has taken in would fit on a Tube train.” Now, almost reluctantly the UK has agreed to take in 4000 more Syrians.
But why look to the West as saviours? Loud questions about the responsibilities of Syria’s Arab neighbours have also been raised in international media. Wealthy gulf nations, like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE and Qatar, that are equipped to help with the crisis, have not taken in any Syrian refugees.
Until such time as each nation is prepared to assist in such massive humanitarian crises, refugees are in serious trouble. In a tearful interview with the Guardian, Aylan Kurdi’s aunt Tima (who immigrated to Vancouver two decades ago and was sponsoring the Kurdis in Turkey) urged refugees not to attempt crossing the sea at the risk of their lives. Equally heartrending are the accounts of internally displaced refugees. As Somali poet Warsan Shire says in the poem ‘Home‘: “no one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark.”
Little Aylan’s life ended even before it fully began because of the malice of his fellow humans, and the inability of others to be anything more than mortified or disinterested bystanders.