A picture that rattled the world

S Madhusudhana Rao

If a picture is worth a thousand words, the photograph of a three-year-old lying face down on the shore of a coastal town in Turkey has done much more. It has moved the conscience of the world and focused its attention on the plight of refugees fleeing conflict zones in the Middle East.

The lifeless boy, Aylan Kurdi, could have gone unnoticed, like dozens of others, in a nondescript way but for a woman photographer of a news agency who splashed it across the world. The toddler was identified by his father who survived a boat accident in which all his family members had died while sailing to Greek island of Kos from war-torn Syria. Aylan’s body was washed ashore the Turkish coastal town of Bodrum.

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S Madhusudhana Rao

Aid and sympathies have started pouring in soon amidst demands from social media activists that governments should do something to mitigate the problems of refugees and migrants who are flooding Europe. But sympathies and aid pledges alone won’t help Europe resolve a crisis of gigantic proportions, seen for the first time since the end of the Second World War.

TV visuals disturb us: Waves of people, young and old, men and women, children and infants and even the infirm trying to reach various countries in Europe by rail, road, and air or by simply trekking miles and miles along railway lines and roads.

How and from where did they come is a mindboggling question. Obviously, the mass exodus to Europe has not started overnight. For the last few weeks, reports have been appearing in the media that lakhs of refugees have been moving to safe destinations in a desperate bid to escape conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen and even from some African countries where Islamic militants and local rebel groups have been seizing territory after territory and terrorizing civilians.

The UN Refugee Agency has warned long ago that a humanitarian crisis of unimaginable proportions is staring in the face of the Middle East and if the global response to it is not swift, the crisis will engulf Europe. As anticipated, Europe is swamped by refugees and its collective response is poor and divided.

While some countries like Germany and Austria have opened doors to the refugees, others like Greece and Hungary have taken a tough stand against allowing migrants. Britain, under pressure, has agreed to take in a few thousand displaced persons. But all the 28 members of European Union are not in positive disposition to accept the refugees.

National interests, economic problems, societal concerns and political considerations are weighing heavily on some of the European states to admit thousands of alien country people with a different ethnic background and religious orientation. In the coming days, EU will be wrangling over the refugee crisis precipitated mainly by Syria.

However, the West has to blame itself for the present chaos caused by its inaction in Syria and ineffective and slow response to Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militancy. “The migrant crisis in Europe is essentially self-inflicted,” Lina Khatib, a research associate at the University of London and until recently the head of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, told the New York Times. “Had European countries sought serious solutions to political conflicts like the one in Syria, and dedicated enough time and resources to humanitarian assistance abroad, Europe would not be in this position today.”

Four years ago, at the height of Islamic revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, when rebel forces had tried to overthrow President Bashar Al Assad’s regime in Syria, Arab Gulf states’ and American reaction was to wait and watch first, followed by moral and material support to insurgents and later adopting an apathetic attitude towards the Syrian crisis. The situation has become more complicated with Russia stepping in to counter the US with arms and ammunition. Now, it has turned intractable as Islamic State militants started nibbling away swathes of Syrian territory. The current scenario can best be described as a three-way war between government forces, rebels and Islamic militants for territorial gains with each side supported by the US, Russia and Iran and their allies.

The sufferers are civilians who are innocent victims of civil war, external interference and indiscriminate bombing by Syrian government forces. In the initial stages, poor civilians crossed borders into neighbouring countries like Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan with their belongings. As the triangular war intensified, the trickle of displaced persons has turned into a torrent. As Jordan and Lebanon have reached a breaking point with refugee burden, the Syrian exodus to Europe has started via Turkey and Greece.

Only the fittest can survive thousands of miles of the arduous journey from their homeland to unknown destinations. Aided, and even encouraged, by international migrant smugglers, the refugees brave treacherous sea, border police patrols and inhuman travel conditions, often without food and water. In their quest for better future, refugees die in boat hulls and transport trucks due to asphyxiation or simply vanish into the waters when their vessels sink or capsize. The toddler’s body that washed ashore and became the symbol of refugee crisis was only one of several hundreds of people who drowned in their bid to escape a hell called Syria. It is feared that thousands of Syrians will start leaving as the Islamic militants seize more villages and towns as they advance towards Damascus, the Syrian capital.

That means Europe is in for more trouble from the refugee influx. The options before the European Union are limited: It has to press either for a solution to the Syrian crisis or find a way out to avert a catastrophe. In the near future, neither is possible because the US, its allies and the Arab Gulf states are in position to extricate Syria. In fact, they are least interested; they will let it destroyed.

The big promises made by donor countries to feed and shelter the refugees have mostly remained on paper. The aid coming in is only a fraction of what had been pledged. In any case, looking after nearly 11 million Syrian refugees (conservative estimates) for an indefinite period by international relief agencies is a mammoth task and no country will willingly share the huge financial burden, however resourceful it is.

Ironically, the main players in the ongoing regional conflicts are keeping mum over the refugee crisis. For example, Russia and Iran which back the Assad regime and the US, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE which support the rebel groups have done little for the displaced persons. In fact, the Gulf States have slammed the doors on the refugees, leaving Europe to tackle the migrant problem.

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