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They all had a name

by Jan Egeland | @NRC_Egeland | Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC)
Friday, 2 September 2016 08:00 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

A year later, the photo of Aylan Kurdi has faded in our minds: Where is sympathy and outrage today – when children continue to die in the Mediterranean, or in a war where there is no escape?

"Let this be the last," said a heartbroken Abdullah Kurdi, after losing his wife and two children in a shipwreck off the Turkish coast one year ago. The family's perilous journey in search of protection from the brutal war in Syria ended in tragedy.

On the morning of Sept. 2, 2015, the ones Abdullah Kurdi loved the most were taken away from him. Soon, the iconic image of his son, Aylan Kurdi, lying drowned at a beach in Bodrum, Turkey, went viral. A wave of sympathy with the world's refugees washed over Europe. It was every parents', every family's nightmare: "What if this was our child?"

After his death, the young boy touched our hearts. Politicians became emotional. The British Prime Minister David Cameron promised that the UK would fulfil its moral responsibilities. His Italian colleague Matteo Renzi asked Europe for action in support of the refugees to accompany the sorrow so widely expressed. And the French Prime Minister Manuel Valls tweeted a photo of Aylan – with the following text in French: "He had a name: Aylan Kurdi. Urgent action needed. Urgent mobilization needed."

In Germany, the European country receiving the second largest number of refugees last year following Turkey, Chancellor Angela Merkel came with strong appeals for European solidarity: "If Europe fails on this question of refugees, its close association with the universal rights of citizens will be destroyed," she argued.

Increasing number of deaths

A year later, the photo of Aylan Kurdi has faded in our minds. The same waves that surround our Mediterranean holiday destinations have continued to become a graveyard for an increasing number of children. Aylan did not become the last. The haemorrhage of human lives on the doorstep to our continent has got worse. More than 4,100 people have drowned on their way to Europe since the tragic death of Aylan Kurdi.

The values, our sympathy and the humanity that we so wholeheartedly expressed last year have lost ground to a strong xenophobic wind across Europe. Walls are being built and controversial deals have been made to make it ever harder for refugees to find a safe heaven on our continent. Is this what we call "fulfilling our moral responsibilities"? Is this "European civilisation"?


Stuck in Syria

Fewer refugees are able to come to Europe, in spite of a dramatic increase in people forced to flee globally. While we have been able to increase emergency relief for some places where civilians are under attack, we have failed to tackle the root causes: The brutal wars in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq have all escalated over the last year, and the catastrophic situation for refugees in neighbouring countries has not improved.

It is an ancient sign of civilization and values that the persecuted have the right to seek protection in safe heavens elsewhere. By closing our own borders to and in Europe, we are making it increasingly difficult to convince the neighbours of bad wars, like Kenya, Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, to keep their borders open. Recently, the World Food Program had to use cranes in a desperate attempt to lift food aid across the closed border between Syria and Jordan. Some 75,000 people in need are stranded on the other side, hoping for an opportunity to escape the war. Other civilians are not even trying to flee: they know they have nowhere to go.


A wave of sympathy

The wave of solidarity with refugees caused by the photos of Aylan Kurdi last September was inspiring to humanitarian workers like myself. Children sold their toys for Syria or gave them to young asylum seekers at reception centres across Europe. Youth defended the rights of asylum seekers in heated social media discussions. Many made donations, others gave of their time. It was beyond anything we at the Norwegian Refugee Council have ever witnessed before.

Where is that sympathy and outrage today – when young children continue to die in the Mediterranean, or in a brutal war where there now is no escape?


Time to remobilize

"My Aylan died for nothing. Little has changed," said Aylan Kurdi's father in an interview with the Italian newspaper La Repubblica this spring.

I hope he is wrong. There is so much we can still do to avoid more tragedies: more safe routes for refugees to seek protection in Europe, family reunification and resettlement places, strengthened rescue capacity, more support to countries hosting large number of refugees and intensified work for political solutions. We can still prove there is a European civilization that does not stand idly by watching children drown in our ocean or leave them trapped in war. Just like young Aylan Kurdi, they all have a name.

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