Breda O’Brien: Empathy for refugees lasted no longer than a like or retweet
Sub-contracting responsibility for refugees to Ankara sees refugees as a threat to be kept out, not human beings in need of shelter
Aylan Kurdi’s body lies on the shores in Bodrum, southern Turkey, on September 2, 2015. Photo Nilufer Demir/AFP/Getty Images
In September 2015, we were told that publishing the image of the drowned body of three-year-old Alan Kurdi was a turning point, spurring empathy for the plight of refugees.
This week, we can see the result of that alleged growth in empathy. The EU is attempting to bribe Turkey to keep the refugee crisis away from Europe. Never mind that Turkey’s human rights and democracy record precludes it from joining the EU.
It is immoral, and quite possibly illegal, as it may be in breach of international treaties.
In the meantime, children continue to drown and to be washed up on beaches, some with soothers attached to their jackets.
The International Organisation for Migration estimates that an average of two children a day have drowned since last September. They number more than 340, many of them babies and toddlers. No one knows the full number, because you can only count the bodies that are recovered.
Booker Prize winner Richard Flanagan, in a searing piece in the Guardian last week, describes meeting a family on the Greek island, Lesbos, who had lost a four-year-old boy – Ramo, short for Ramadan, named after his grandfather.
Fifty people were crammed into a black rubber boat for three hours as they crossed the Aegean. Yasmin, the boy’s mother, was on her knees, holding Ramo above her, fearful that he would be crushed.
Flanagan describes being shown a fake life jacket, filled with useless foam that absorbs water rather than keeping the person afloat. They are sold for $50 each.
He calls them “death jackets, each an elaborate, murderous deceit”.
Then he realises that Ramo, once a “cheerful, happy boy” must have been wearing just such a death jacket.
A terrible silence fills the room, and Flanagan knows that as a journalist he should ask more questions, establish exactly what happened. But he cannot. He found he wanted “to say only one thing. A small, human thing. That I was sorry.”
The EU’s attempt to sub-contract responsibility for refugees to Ankara, lacks that “small, human thing”. It sees refugees as a threat to be kept out, not human beings in need of shelter.
I am not advocating open borders, either, but these are not the only two alternatives.
Under the new agreement, which still has to be finalised, all new, irregular migrants crossing from Turkey to Greece will be sent back. For every Syrian refugee returned to Turkey from Greece, one Syrian from a Turkish refugee camp is to be resettled in the EU. There is no such arrangement for non-Syrians.
International policy on refugees is built on two foundations – asylum and burden- sharing. States have a duty to provide protection and asylum to refugees with a well-founded claim who reach their territory.
Burden-sharing is already weakly enforced, but this proposed deal is closer to burden-shifting than burden-sharing.
It is in line with an unspoken policy that poorer countries should take the majority of refugees. Lebanon, with a population not much bigger than the Republic of Ireland, has taken in more than a million people fleeing from Syria an has responded with incredible generosity.
And yet the EU, which is far wealthier, claims it is in danger of being overwhelmed. Although the scale of this problem is enormous, it is not the first time Europe has faced massive migration. We need a modern-day Fridtjof Nansen.
During the 1920s and after, this Norwegian scientist and polar explorer was given one impossible task after another by the League of Nations.
In 1920, he was asked to organise the repatriation of half a million prisoners of war, of which some 300,000 were in Russia. These men were in pitiable condition. In 1921, he was made League of Nations Commissioner for Refugees, and his new task was the resettlement of two million Russian refugees displaced by the Revolution.
He had great success through a combination of compassion, tireless work and innovations such as the “Nansen passport”, which was an internationally recognised refugee travel document eventually recognised by more than 50 countries.
Prof Alexander Betts of the Refugee Studies Centre in Oxford suggests that we could learn from Nansen, and that refugees could be given safe passage to Europe through a humanitarian visa or refugee travel document scheme.
Betts also suggests that instead of seeing refugees as threats, that if the process of integration is well-managed, they can be net contributors to society.
Surely Alan Kurdi and more than 340 other children can spur us to greater generosity? Or was the empathy generated by his picture no more long-lasting than a Facebook like or re-tweet?