With one image the struggle and desperation of many became apparent to the world. A helpless Syrian toddler washed up on the shore of a Turkish beach. The boythree year old Aylan Kurdi, his year old brother Galip and their mother Rehan, all died when their boat capsized as they tried to flee Syria with hopes of making it to relatives in Canada. The three are among the millions of refugees from Syria, many of whom have perished escaping the terror at home.
Four million Syrians are registered with the UN as refugees, but millions more are not. Desperate to flee the dangers and instability of their home country, these innocent civilians are prepared undertake perilous journies across the Mediterranean.
“I know the trip is dangerous,” said Mohammad Shaar, 22, speaking to the Irish Examiner as he waited for his chance to cross the sea. “These deaths didn’t start with the toddler. Many people have drowned…if European policies were not so brutal, our people wouldn’t have died in the sea. These people are obliged to make that trip. There is no other way for us.”
Refugees seeking safety in Europe is not a new phenomenon, with human traffickers running vessels across the Mediterranean for many years. However the vast numbers now reaching the southern shores of the continent, as well as the ever increasing number of drownings, has put pressure on governments to act, and act promptly.
Germany, which will spend an extra €6 billion to cope with an anticipated 800,000 refugees in the coming year, has called for a flexible system to relocate refugees across the EU. The new EU quota plan – announced last Wednesday – seeks a unified response to this crisis of humanity across the states. The Guardian reports that under the new EU plan, Germany would take more than 31,000 migrants, France 24,000 and Spain almost 15,000. British Prime Minister David Cameron has said Britain can take 20,000 over five years – however critics and opposition leaders in the UK have slammed this as too small a measure. Finland’s millionaire prime minister said on Saturday not only would Finland take in refugees he would make his home in the north of the country available them as well. The Vatican will shelter families of refugees who are “fleeing death” from war or hunger, Pope Francis announced Sunday.
As for Ireland’s help in the matter, Tánaiste Joan Burton has said she expects the number of refugees that Ireland will accept over a number of years to be up to 5,000. This is a steep increase from the original number of 1,120. Following speculation that the Coalition was split over the number of refugees Ireland should accept, Taoiseach Enda Kenny denied that such a split exists and stated that he “did not want to get bogged down in the statistics as the issue is about humanity and is a global problem and challenge, and Ireland will play its part.”
Speaking about the EU plan, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said it was “an important first step” but cautioned against other European countries not being flexible. Countries that are opposed to the plan, and to taking in more refugees in general, are those on the frontline of this crisis such as Greece and Hungary. Athens has warned that the situation is “on the verge of explosion,” with tension rising across the Aegean Sea, where around 10,000 more people are stranded on islands without much provisions. Hungary vowed on Tuesday to speed up construction of an anti-migrant fence on its southern border with Serbia, after refugees had broken through police barricades there. Harsher penalties in Budapest for anyone found to cross borders illegally are to be brought in on September 15. The UNHCR’s European director Vincent Cochotel warned that such laws could “lead to chaos”.
There are other opponents to the plan as well – Poland’s government objects to the EU plan of imposed refugee quotas, with Polish president Andrzej Duda joining David Cameron in criticising Europe. Denmark has even issued adverts in Lebanese media
outlets discouraging refugees to come to Denmark. The adverts include warnings that benefits will be cut by 50%, that family reunification is not allowed for the first year after they arrive and that asylum seekers must speak Danish to stay there ( although the adverts were in Arabic and English).
Despite the struggles, the pain and the hardship, those who have made it have hope for the future and for being welcomed with open arms. The latest group of child refugees was applauded upon entering Germany. They were given sweets, water and backpacks filled with clothes and taken to the fairground. Speaking to NBC News from a Vienna train station, 19-year-old Mohammed said “there is food, there are people helping each other – it shows me there’s a chance for a better world”. The words of the UN’s special representative for migration and development, Peter Sutherland, ”every country is held up to the spotlight” hold immense truth. Will Europe and the rest of the world respond to this crisis with humanity?
Words by Andrew Grossen, Arts Writer