The harrowing image of a little boy, drowned with other members of his family in an attempt to reach a safe haven, has this week become the symbol of the failure of the international community to meet the challenge posed by one of the greatest humanitarian catastrophes of our times.
Aylan Kurdi, aged two, was one of 2,500 refugees who have died trying to reach the shores of Europe this year; one of 300,000 this year who have so far attempted the treacherous crossing in rickety boats; one of four million Syrian refugees; and one of 11 million Syrians forced from their homes in this, the fifth year of the civil war.
The story of Aylan is the story of Syria; it is the story of the international community’s failure to live up to its mantra when, contemplating the horrors of mass atrocity violence, it declared “never again”, and in 2005 enunciated the Responsibility to Protect.
But if the refugee crisis stemming from Syria, and from other deeply destabilized countries, such as Libya, Afghanistan and Eritrea, is not new, the gathering political will to address the crisis – borne of its arrival, in human form, on Europe’s doorstep – perhaps is. And this provides an opportunity for policy-makers not only to seize the historic mantle, but also to set in motion longer-term efforts to resolve the root causes of the refugee crisis.
What ought to be done?
First, as many members of the public in European states are rightly demanding, the European Union must live up to its values of respect for human rights and human dignity, and make a commensurate contribution by resettling refugees. The call today from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, for the EU to take 200,000 more refugees is in line with the EU’s capacity and its humanitarian obligations (and still, of course, only a fraction of the four million refugees hosted mainly in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan).
Within the European Union, it is clear that the burden being felt acutely by some Member States, and hardly shared at all by others, has led to a feeling of inequity; areformed common asylum procedure would help to distribute refugees fairly across the continent, and prevent disparities in the treatment of refugees which make some Member States a more attractive destination than others.
As part of a more generous European offer to those fleeing the war in Syria and other conflicts should be a more efficient, predictable and humane process, which creates a pathway for asylum directly from the region. This would go some way to preventing unprecedented numbers of refugees from risking the dangerous voyage across the Mediterranean. It would also undermine the rapacious human smugglers who are exploiting the desperation of thousands, and putting lives at risk in the process.
A Warm Welcome?
The right of asylum, while important, should not, however, be the end of the story. European countries who welcome refugees must invest in their futures, helping the process of integration through language training, advice on national customs and employment opportunities. This would also help to allay the fears that many in Europe have about opening their borders to new migrants.
At the same time, political leaders have a duty to temper their rhetoric and remind their citizens of their countries’ obligations, not only under law, but also under general principles of global justice, which have often been demonstrated by the offer of sanctuary in the wake, for example, of the wars in Bosnia, Kosovo and Iraq. Politicians and opinion-formers should also draw a clear line between asylum and economic migration; too many fail to do so.
Having taken on a leadership role, Europe will enhance the moral authority with which it can urge other states with sufficient capacity – including the United States and the rich Gulf states – to follow suit.
Getting to the Root of the Problem
Although action to confront the refugee emergency is critical, this should not sap political will which must also be directed at genuine efforts to resolve the Syrian civil war, as well as build peace in other countries afflicted by chronic violence. Initiatives to pursue a diplomatic resolution to the war in Syria have all but vanished from our headlines.
More broadly, in this, the 70th anniversary of the United Nations, when the international community comes together for a World Summit in New York, it should address not only the refugee crisis which has gripped the public consciousness this summer, but also the wider political failings which have precipitated it. The recently released report of the Commission on Global Security, Justice & Governance, chaired by Madeline Albright and Ibrahim Gambari, contains salutary recommendations for improving UN peace operations, and for enhancing conflict prevention efforts , including by reform to the UN Peacebuilding Commission.
The refugee crisis in the Middle East and Europe has stirred our common humanity. But our response must be more than a passing reaction, which fades as the headlines move on. A concerted effort would put that humanity in the service not only of resolving present crises, but also towards concrete efforts to live up to the founding purpose of the United Nations and ‘to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war’.