Four years ago, I was standing by the grave of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old child who drowned when the rubber boat carrying him and his Syrian Kurdish family from Turkey to Greece was flipped over by high waves. The picture of his small body in a red shirt and black shorts lying face down on a Turkish beach with his head in the surf was supposed to have focused public attention on the hideous plight of refugees in the Mediterranean.
Alan’s grave was an ugly stone rectangle in a cemetery beside the ruins of the Kurdish city of Kobani in northern Syria which Isis had ferociously assaulted and nearly captured in a prolonged siege in 2014-15. I found the scene all the more moving because there were no flowers and Alan’s little grave was surrounded by fresh earth gouged out by a bulldozer preparing the ground for more graves.
I thought of Alan again this week when a photo was published of a father and daughter, also refugees, lying face down in muddy brown water close to the bank of the Rio Grande which they had been trying to swim to reach the United States. Like Alan and his family, Oscar Alberto Martinez Ramirez drowned together with his 23-month-old daughter Valeria on what they hoped would be the last lap of their journey to a better life.
The photo of Valeria and Oscar, her small head tucked inside his T-shirt and her arm embracing his neck, evoked a wave of emotion around the world. The Democrats in Congress sought to pass a $4.5bn humanitarian aid bill to ease the suffering of migrants on the border with Mexico. Predictably, President Trump aggressively counter-attacked with tweets claiming that many lives would be saved if only the Democrats would change “broken” immigration laws.
Over the years I have become suspicious of photos which epitomise some tragedy by portraying the death or injury of a single individual and are supposed to be galvanising international action to stop the same thing happening again. The emphasis is on pity and grief but attention is diverted from the person or people responsible for some horror. Where such attention-grabbing pictures are not available, tragedies remain little reported and unnoticed.
How many people in the EU states, who are appalled by what is happening on the US-Mexico border, know that the death toll among refugees there is far lower than on the frontiers of the EU?
So far this year 427 refugees are known to have drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean to reach the EU according to the UN Refugee Agency. “Between 2014 and 2018, more than 17,900 people died or went missing in the Mediterranean – the remains of almost two-thirds of those victims have not been recovered,” says the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).
“More people die on the EU borders than any other borders in the world,” says Nick Megoran, a political geography lecturer at Newcastle University, who specialises in borders and border conflicts. He says that the EU holds itself up as model of civilised behaviour, but this appears to apply only to its actions within the boundaries of the EU, while it defends its external boundaries from migrants just as aggressively as Trump.
The number of refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean from Turkey or North Africa to the EU has fallen from a peak of just over one million in 2015, the year Aylan Kurdi died, to 15,459 so far this year according to the UNHCR. In 2018, six migrants drowned every day in the Mediterranean, making a total of 2,275 dead for the year.
Sometimes there are witnesses to mass drownings as fragile craft packed with refugees are swamped or capsized by the waves. A sparse but typical account of one such incident by the IOM on 2 June reads: “according to IOM doctors onsite: migrants reported over 95 were on the boat before it capsized, among them were women and children. Two bodies have been retrieved and 73 migrants have so far been rescued.”
Some boats simply disappear: in the first two weeks of June two boats, carrying between 40 and 50 people, are known to have left Libya but neither has been seen since and there is a growing likelihood that they sank and all on board were drowned. The only evidence for such tragedies is when human remains in various states of decay are washed up on the beaches.
The sharp increase in the rate at which people are dying is partly the result of Italy’s populist government’s determination to stop migrant boats and a consequent “reduction to search and rescue capacity”, says the UN. When refugees are rescued, they are returned to detention camps in Libya where conditions are appalling and they are in danger of being overrun by marauding militias in the latest phase of Libya’s endless civil war.
Lost in all this is the responsibility of individual European politicians and governments, notably David Cameron in Britain and Nicolas Sarkozy, who overthrew Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. The aim of the intervention was supposedly to save the people in Benghazi from revenge by Gaddafi’s advancing forces. In practice, it doomed Libyans to perpetual warfare in which their country is torn apart by predatory warlords acting as proxies for foreign powers.
In previous years, I used to see West Africans working on construction sites in Tripoli who were very much the same sort of people who today make desperate voyages to find work and safety in Europe. What happened was a wholly predictable disaster, since it was evident from early in 2011 that the anti-Gaddafi forces could only win thanks to the close support of Nato airpower and would be incapable of ruling the country.
Much the same was true of Syria from 2012 on where the western powers did not want either Bashar al-Assad or the jihadi-dominated opposition to win the war decisively. Self-interest alone should have told them that a state of perpetual warfare in Syria was bound to destabilise Iraq and provoke a mass flight of refugees towards Europe. If the powers and their regional allies had set out to create the chaotic conditions ideal for the growth of fanatical fundamentalist movements, they could not have done better.
West Europeans have a hypocritical sense of superiority over Americans when talking about Trump’s plans to build a border wall between the US and Mexico, but the defences of the European fortress against migrants are even more cruel and lethal.
When I was looking at the grave of Alan Kurdi in 2015, I thought that at least his death had led people to see the plight of the Syrian refugees for what it was. There was something in this, but emphasis on grief and tragedy has an unstated benefit for governments because it diverts people from examining too closely who is ultimately responsible for the death of these infants. Questions about who encouraged or tolerated the growth of murderous regimes in the Middle East or Central America are brushed aside. So long as governments never pay a price for their bungled military interventions – Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Somalia – then they will go on doing the same thing.