Shocking pictures of a Syrian toddler’s lifeless body washed up on a Turkish beach were splashed across the media worldwide this week.
The image of Aylan Kurdi’s tiny, lifeless body put a tragic human face on the European refugee crisis and decades of failed Western and Russian foreign policies in Africa and the Middle East.
As the image highlights, children and women are particularly vulnerable in such situations.
And to those who carry on about little Aylan Kurdi’s family ‘putting themselves in harm’s way,’ the Kurdi family left Kobane, Syria. Kobane is a largely Kurdish town that has been a vicious battleground in the struggle between Kurdish militias and ISIS jihadists for control of northern Syria in the country’s now four-year civil war. You try surviving in such a place with two young children aged 3 and 5, and see how you go …
The world immediately responded with hand-wringing and feigned horror, which was hard to take seriously given the current asylum seeker policies of many Western nations, including Australia, largely driven by populist anti-immigration movements, and governments happy to appeal to the lowest common denominator in order to gain, and hold on to, power.
Our ever predictable Prime Minister, Tony ‘Stop the Boats’ Abbott, never known to miss an opportunity to politically exploit a tragedy, used the event to defend his asylum seeker policies, just as The New York Times launched a stinging attack on him over the same policy:
Prime Minister Tony Abbott has overseen a ruthlessly effective effort to stop boats packed with migrants, many of them refugees, from reaching Australia’s shores. His policies have been inhumane, of dubious legality and strikingly at odds with the country’s tradition of welcoming people fleeing persecution and war.
Since 2013, Australia has deployed its navy to turn back boats with migrants, including asylum seekers, before they could get close to its shores. Military personnel force vessels carrying people from Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, Eritrea and other conflict-roiled nations toward Indonesia, where most of the journeys begin.
Those who have not been turned back are held at detention centers run by private contractors on nearby islands, including the tiny nation of Nauru. A report this week by an Australian Senate committee portrayed the Nauru center as a purgatory where children are sexually abused, guards give detainees marijuana in exchange for sex and some asylum seekers are so desperate that they stitch their lips shut in an act of protest. Instead of stopping the abuses, the Australian government has sought to hide them from the world.
This latest tragedy couldn’t possibly have come as a surprise to anyone given earlier this year Amnesty International declared the current global refugee crisis the worst since World War II ended. And the situation worsened significantly since the Amnesty report, with a flood of new refugees from Afghanistan, Syria and Somalia.
These migration patterns largely match the series of failed states created by decades of flawed Western and Russian foreign policies, and military interventions.
Many of these failed states are nothing more than a game board for geopolitical power plays, with little regard to the long-term consequences on the people affected. Although, to be fair, we must also recognise the role played in these unfolding tragedies by the varying combination of local factors: dictators, military strongmen, militias, poverty, religion, cultural factors, and the lack of education. Factors often cynically exploited, and made worse by world powers.
The so-called League of Arab States has also been a useless, miserable failure as an institution. Their utter impotence in the face of the suffering of the people of the Middle East and North Africa is an indictment on that body.
This latest drowning tragedy is shocking, but a mere drop in the ocean of human misery caused by conflicts and despots, either aided or ignored by the rest of the world according to prevailing geopolitical interests, and with complete disregard to the tens of millions of lives affected. They are mere collateral damage …
Over 2,500 people drowned in the Mediterranean so far this year, and over 3,500 last year.
Recently, 71 decomposing bodies of refugees were found inside an abandoned lorry on an Austrian motorway.
Compare that to the estimated 3,027 people executed by ISIS since June 2014, and the comparative international response to ISIS, when bombing appears to provides a relatively easy and largely remote response which is politically safe, and makes presidents and prime ministers look like action heroes.
Genuinely helping desperate refugees is much harder than using your airforce to drop a few bombs on faraway targets. It requires time-consuming preparations and commitment, and it doesn’t give you the immediate popularity boost of a good ol’ fashioned carpet-bombing.
Admittedly, to facilitate the return of Syrian refugees to their homes, Syria will have to be stabilised. To do so, ISIS will have to be eliminated, sooner rather than later. Eventually this may require boots on the ground, leading to inevitable troop fatalities, and further civilian collateral damage. Assad will probably have to go too – and all this will require comprehensive planning and international coordination to avoid further unanticipated tragedies arising.
Sadly, the rise of ISIS could have been avoided if:
- regime change in Iraq was handled with nuance, rather than through chaotic brute force, with no proper plan for transition taking into account the cultural, political and sectarian complexities of the country; and
- Syria wasn’t manipulated beyond saving by the usual players in the region – Iran and Russia in support of Assad’s regime, and Saudi Arabia and the United States in opposition, playing out their usual selfish, geopolitical games with utter disregard to the fate of the Syrian people.
The UNHCR estimates the number of refugees and migrants crossing the Mediterranean to reach Europe had already exceeded 300,000 this year, up from 219,000 in the whole of 2014. Admittedly, economic migrants are also on the move across the globe, but such migration should not distract from the fact that over the past couple of decades tens of millions have been uprooted and turned into refugees by needless military conflict.
The current situation is unsustainable and shaping up to be the biggest humanitarian crisis in our lifetime. The world must build a committed coalition for accepting and settling refugees as the first step. Ironically not many of the refugees try to reach an increasingly dictatorial Russia, nevertheless it should accept some of the responsibility for the conflicts that resulted in this latest refugee crisis.
Recent events in Budapest, Hungary illustrate the increasingly catastrophic refugee situation in Europe.
As the second step, Western and the Russian governments must fundamentally revise their foreign and military policies in Africa and the Middle East if they wish to slow, and eventually end, the flow of refugees and put an end to human suffering. The citizens of Western nations and Russia bear some of the responsibility for the actions taken by their governments, and it is their duty to ensure fundamental changes to those flawed policies.
We must also actively campaign against both legal and illegal arms trade to dictatorships, and into military conflict zones around the world. I understand the financial interests in such deals are immense, but by adding fuel to the fire we are only creating more human misery and become accessory to crimes against humanity, and war crimes.
If we fail to take tangible action, our sorrow and tears for suffering asylum seekers and drowned children are nothing more than meaningless crocodile tears.
If the suffering of your fellow human beings is insufficient reason, and only self-interest motivates you, consider this: most of the refugees on the move around the world would never have left their home if it was safe to stay, and prosperous to live in. You don’t want refugees on your borders? Help to make sure they are not forced to leave their homes due to conflict or abject poverty.