The image of Aylan Kurdi affected us all, but what has changed?

Gabriel Popham

Our governments cannot deal with the reality of a refugee crisis the likes of which have not been seen in Europe since World War II. Apparently, they can’t even deal with the fact that some people might not agree with current policies, as was the case last week when demonstrators at St. Pancras station were greeted by police in full riot gear, bearing batons and teargas against protesters chanting: ‘say it loud, say it clear, refugees are welcome here’.

The biggest paradox in the whole refugee crisis is that for all our efforts to deliver humanitarian aid in developing countries, we are unable to deal with a humanitarian crisis unfolding on our doorstep.

There are two explanations; either it doesn’t count as a humanitarian crisis until enough people die, or our humanitarian industry is simply not equipped to deal with problems in the developed “first” world.

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Be it as it may, our governments’ response to this refugee crisis has betrayed a much deeper crisis of values, according to Volker Turk, a top international protection expert for UNHCR. Addressing the organisation’s annual executive committee, he said:

Push-backs, building walls, increasing detention, and further restricting access, combined with few legal avenues to safety, will never be the answer.

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He also warned that today’s biggest challenge has become ‘populist politics and toxic public debates, and the climate of fear they engender’, adding:

This is often fuelled and abetted by irresponsible media reporting, lack of political and moral leadership, and xenophobia and racism.

But if the official response has been so far completely inadequate, the remarkable self-organisation of volunteer groups has shown us what solidarity looks like.

Grassroot efforts

Groups like Calaid or Help Refugees, for instance, have extended their reach beyond Calais to other parts of Europe. These groups rely almost exclusively on crowdfunding donations, and already they have managed to raise hundreds of thousands of pounds. They take care of collecting donations and of taking them to refugee centres for other volunteers to hand out amongst the refugees. These volunteers are for the most part ‘everyday people, untrained, unprepared, and overwhelmed’, in the words of Help Refugees founder Lliana Bird.

These everyday people are doing more than any of our governments, and that is wrong. They do not have the resources to deal with this crisis, they should not be the ones doing it. The resources are there however, all that is missing is the willingness on behalf of leaders to treat this as the humanitarian crisis that it is and respond accordingly. For the time being, it seems that we struggle to express our solidarity on a large scale without the help of photos like the one of Aylan Kurdi.

What has changed?

When the photo was published this summer, it prompted a public outcry across Europe and a rush of heartfelt media coverage for the refugee crisis. That was the first time British public opinion actually awoke to the realities of the refugee crisis. For days the dreadful picture dominated front pages everywhere, and even George Osborne spoke about the massive effect these pictures have on public opinion, as they translate the individual’s suffering into the group’s pain.

Unfortunately, even a heart-rending photo such as this one wasn’t enough to change the government’s policy, as the Conservative Party still believes that 5,000 people a year taken from camps across the Middle East is the best we can do. They cite hundreds of millions of pounds in the foreign aid budget as this country’s main contribution, but what is badly needed right now is emergency support to those thousands of people stuck across Europe in squalid camps without any shelter or warmth.

Last week Merel Greave, a volunteer on the Greek island of Lesvos, shared a lengthy account on Facebook of her time on the island. She describes the harrowing situation in the town of Moria, where heavy rains have caused havoc in the refugee camps:

We set the tent up in the rain, in the mud, nearby the queue of waiting families. The situation in the meanwhile has become so desperate for people that they swarm around us asking for help (help we cannot give). We are the only volunteers on the ground so they look to us for answers and help, not being able to do anything is permanently hurting my heart a little more each day.

The rain has been completely torrential and hasn’t stopped for 3 days. Every single person is drenched to the bone, all their clothes, their shoes stuck in the knee-high river of mud. Inside the gates we help the families who are about to register, every single person is shivering and pretty much every single person is in need of medical attention.

I’ve come to realise you cannot do anything but make the situation for one individual a little better for a very short period. God knows what more they’ll have to endure. I feel such anger also, how out of control is the situation when you have volunteers who have no experience or training working with the UNHCR to try and fight the shitstorm?

Who has the resources?

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees is the supreme body for these kinds of crisis, and yet judging by Merel Greave’s account they are almost totally absent on the island, where as many as 27,000 people arrived in a week. The UNHCR is clearly overstretched, the number of refugees has been steadily rising over the last few years and has reached a staggering 19.5 million people worldwide in 2014. Its powers only go so far, considering that it has to compete with similar humanitarian agencies in order to access limited funds.

As for the EU, so far it has completely failed to reach any sort of agreement over how we might tackle this humanitarian disaster in the making, and possibly preempt it. Instead of cooperating with each other and trying to make life easier for the 700,000 people that have arrived this year, they have chosen to raise physical borders and barbed-wire fences.

There is an ideological gap in Europe that is growing wider and wider, between those who are willing to open their doors and those who would rather see the refugees move on. As the weather gets colder across the continent the situation in refugee camps is becoming more and more desperate. The tireless work of volunteers has meant that some refugees have been able to wear dry clothes for a while, but so much more can and needs to be done, with the active and committed involvement of governments and other big organisations. If there isn’t a serious change in our approach, this winter will be disastrous.

 

Featured Image via Defend International/Flickr

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