Stepping Back – Part 1

migrant boatOn Wednesday afternoon (2 September), as I travelled across London to an interview with BBC Radio Scotland, I looked across the tube carriage and read the headline on the afternoon’s Evening Standard: ‘Migrant Crisis:’ it read. ’13 Hour Eurostar Ordeal’. Setting aside the newspaper’s choice of the word ‘migrant’, ahead of the less inflammatory – and less incorrect – ‘refugee’

(as mentioned in previous blogs, the word ‘migrant’ does not apply to the massive majority of people who have entered Europe via the Mediterranean, as they are fleeing conflict – the legal definition of ‘refugee’ – but in any case, when people are ‘migrants’ because they are fleeing food shortage, or for medicine for their family, it becomes difficult to justify differentiating. Both ‘refugees’ and ‘migrants’ have good reason to seek safe places to stay – both are likely to die if they remain at home), I was considerably unnerved by the sheer lack of perspective involved in taking the words ‘migrant crisis’ – a crisis in which thousands of people have died and millions forced to leave their homes – and turning it into a story about people being delayed on a train.*

*A brief note. I do not mention this because I wish to particularly single out the Evening Standard – it has been no worse than most UK media regarding this issue, (though that in itself is not a strong reason for it to celebrate) – or because I want to belittle the experience of those held up: I am often frustrated when trains I’m on are delayed for far shorter periods than this, and it’s certainly not what one pays Eurostar £90 or so for. I do sympathise. But this headline, and the sheer lack of care and attention to the issue it betrayed, was genuinely disconcerting.

At around the same time, on social media, images began to circulate of Kurdish toddler, Aylan al-Kurdi.

Aylan, a three year-old boy, drowned along with his five year-old brother Galip, and their mother Rehan (35), when the vessel they were on capsized 500 metres from the Turkish coast, near to the holiday resort of Dalaman. His father, Abdullah, was the only one of the family who survived.

The images, of a small boy face down on a beach, lying fully clothed as the water which he died in laps at the edges of his body have by now been seen across most of the world. They are also, in their stark portrayal of an avoidable and irreversible waste of human life, among the most extraordinarily emotive photographs I have ever seen.

Aylan was two years old when his family fled their home, Kobane in the face of an onslaught by IS.

IS seized the Kurdish town, also known as Ayn Al-Arab, last summer, forcing many of its residents, Aylan’s young family among them, to run for safety across the border in Turkey (Kurdish forces have since defeated IS at Kobane, and retaken the town, but it remains devastated by the fighting; the IS bombing at Suruc, Turkey, on 20th July this year slaughtered young volunteers who had volunteered to help rebuild it).

But as noted in previous pieces on this site, relations between Turkey and Kurdish people have a fraught and often violent history. Though Turkey has been exemplary in its response to the Syrian civil war – having opened its borders to more than two million Syrian refugees, including the largest movement of Kurdish people in recorded history (Turkey has the highest population of refugees of any state anywhere in the world) Kurds have reasonable and understandable concerns about living in a state which has previously engaged in open conflict with them.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that under Bashar al-Assad, Syria has denied Kurdish people Syrian citizenship, meaning they are unable to gain passports (with the Syrian civil war now in its fifth year, the Kurds are not alone in this: evidence suggests that the government has consistently refused to renew the travel documents of anyone suspected of opposing it since the war began in 2011). In turn, under Turkish law, this means that Kurdish refugees from Syria are unable to enter mainstream Turkish society.

Aylan and his family were faced with a choice: either register at and live in a refugee camp, or attempt to live as ‘irregulars’ – existing on the black market, being underpaid and exploited by people who know their workforce is literally powerless*.

*When I visit Gaziantep, a Turkish city 60km north of Aleppo, I regularly meet a Syrian boy who cannot be older than seven. He enjoys the opportunity to speak in Arabic and English, and is quite funny and engaging. But he repeatedly attempts to sell me tissues, and I do not need tissues. I give him money, but I am undecided, each time I return, whether I want to see him again. If I do not, it may be because he has been able to attend school, which I deeply hope he shall. But alternatively, he may be somewhere worse, doing something even less enjoyable than selling tissues. If I do see him, he is still wandering the streets of a Turkish city, selling tissues for small change. But at least I know he is still alive.

Neither life in a camp, or on the edges of the law, should be forced upon anyone. But Aylan’s family had a third option – family members in Canada, and through them a possible new life in a vast, arguably underpopulated, and unarguably wealthy state.

That Aylan’s family were refused entry to Canada is now well known. It is also unsurprising. In the last couple of days, Canada has been criticised for refusing Aylan the opportunity of a new life. The criticism is fair, but the sad fact is that Canada is normal, rather than unusual. With a few admirable exceptions (Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Jordan among them, and within Europe Sweden, Germany and recently Greece deserve praise) most states’ preference is to protect borders, rather than to protect people.

With their final viable option for a better – rather than just a prolonged – existence blocked, Aylan’s parents Abdullah and Rehan did what all desperate people do. They took desperate action, the only action they believed was available to them.

The Al-Kurdi family boarded a boat Abdullah and Rehan knew might not be able to make the sea crossing they hoped to make (as noted in several previous pieces, the vessels which cross the Mediterranean are known to Syrians, Libyans and many others as the ‘death boats’ – the stark truth is that even they are ‘safer’ than remaining where they are). Aylan, his brother Galip and their mother Rehan drowned in the Mediterranean, a sea shared and used as a holiday destination by Europeans, Africans and residents of the Middle East alike.

On Wednesday 2nd September, Aylan’s body was washed onto shore, and carried onto land by a Turkish police officer.

There are moments at which an image can sum up a wider situation – can become emblematic of a crisis even though no single image can ever truly describe or explain the complexities of crises already underway across the world.

I hope the images of Aylan Al-Kurdi do this. I am fed up with writing about innocent men, women and children dying avoidably and pointlessly, dying for no reason at all, in vain, as they seek simply to find somewhere safe to stay.

I desperately hope that the death of Aylan Al-Kurdi, a three year-old boy who drowned metres from land because his parents were desperate to find somewhere safe and decent to bring up their children, can be the point at which we begin, finally, to address the crisis of our age, the situation which may – and arguably should – be the thing upon which our entire society is judged in years to come.

I do not want to be forced to keep writing about children – and men and women for that matter – who have died simply because they could not find somewhere safe to stay. Far more importantly, I do not want to keep hearing about it, because I want it to stop.

When we talk about a crisis, the crisis which may define our era, it may be regarded as a challenge. But we are in an unusually fortunate position. We live in a wealthy part of the world, at a time when technology enables us to engage quickly with the crises and challenges facing people all over the world. The images of Aylan Al-Kurdi are one example of that technology in action, and it is time we seized the opportunity – to save lives and improve all of our situations – it has delivered us.


Rory O’Keeffe’s first book The Toss of a Coin: voices from a modern crisis is available now, from:

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