Alan Kurdi: One year later

By Panos Navrozidis
International Rescue Committee country director in Greece

I first saw the picture of Alan Kurdi a few hours after it was taken. My immediate thought was that this could have been anyone’s son or daughter. The little blue shorts, the red t-shirt — this was a boy who was dressed for a journey. I remember asking the question: “If these powerful images of a dead Syrian child on a beach don’t change the world’s attitude to refugees, what will?”

One year, and countless devastating images later, I ask that question again.

A lot has changed in Europe since Alan Kurdi’s image tore our hearts apart. Indiscriminate and devastating terrorist attacks perpetrated by people affiliated with the Islamic State have sowed fear and hardened people’s hearts. The European Union made a deeply questionable deal with Turkey. Borders across the Balkans closed. For now, refugees have been dissuaded from traveling to Europe in significant numbers, but little has been offered in the way of alternative legal routes for those seeking sanctuary.

Commitments made as part of the deal have yet to materialize. Countries across Europe are turning away from their obligations. And refugees, in increasing numbers, are choosing to turn to smugglers to find their way through the Balkans, with all of the safety and exploitation concerns that presents.

Things have only got worse for Syria’s children. Just two weeks ago, the image of five-year-old Omran Daqneesh once again jolted our collective conscience. Dazed, disoriented, covered in dust and with a bloody gash on the left side of his head, Omran was one of the so-called ‘lucky ones’ who survived a missile strike on his home in Aleppo.

The world’s compassion was swift. We hoped that this tragic image would reawaken the world to the most innocent victims of the Syrian war: children. Then the world’s attention moved on, barely pausing to acknowledge that Omran’s 10 year-old-brother, Ali, died two days later from his injuries.

Violence rages on in Syria, beyond the will of global powers to resolve, and with devastating consequences for ordinary Syrians. Omran and Alan signify the choices left for Syrians — risk their lives daily in a war without law, where civilians are targeted, towns besieged, and hospitals and humanitarian deliveries bombed or take their chances on a perilous journey to a closed door. Syria’s refugees are the innocent casualties of the international community’s failure to resolve the Syrian conflict or contend with its consequences.

“There have been far too many Alan Kurdis since the lifeless body of Alan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach. There have been far too many Omrans. We do not know their names. We do not know their stories. What we do know is that they are damned if they leave and damned if they stay.”

The number of refugees stranded in Greece is no more than the number of people it would take to fill an average soccer stadium in Europe. Yet European leaders seem unwilling to rally the resources needed to ensure that these refugees can move on with their lives.

And so, some of the world’s most vulnerable people are forced to wait and to live in conditions that are, in some cases, unacceptable — hot, dusty, shade-less, pest-infested sites, some with limited access to such basic essentials as water. This includes at least 1,500 children who are traveling alone and who are in desperate need of safe accommodation either within Greece or in other countries in Europe, countries which have, to-date, been slow to raise their hand. That this is the truth of a humanitarian response in Europe makes it particularly hard to accept.

When the world’s leaders meet in New York later this month to discuss the global refugee crisis, they must show real resolve and true commitment. European leaders must be held to account for the shortcomings of their response to-date. Theirs is not the standard we should set for the global response. While the United States delivery on its commitment to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees this year is welcome, continued efforts to exponentially increase refugee admissions are urgently needed both in the U.S. and beyond.

The International Rescue Committee has set up several safe healing and learning spaces in Greece for refugee children and youth. Photo: Tara Todras-Whitehill for the IRC

Alan Kurdi’s name still resonates with all of us. The sense of loss and compassion we felt at his death was real. But the politics is stuck. Aleppo is worse not better. There have been far too many Alan Kurdis since the lifeless body of Alan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach. There have been far too many Omrans. We do not know their names. We do not know their stories. What we do know is that they are damned if they leave and damned if they stay.

Compassion is always welcome when we see horrific images of war. What we need now, more than compassion is action.

Refugee Crisis: How the IRC helps

The International Rescue Committee is providing relief to millions of uprooted people inside Syria; in neighboring Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan; in Afghanistan; in Greece and Serbia; and in our 29 resettlement offices in the United States. Learn more about the IRC’s response to the refugee crisis and how you can help.

Nearly 60 million people have been forced to flee their homes by war, conflict and persecution — more lives uprooted than at any time since World War II. Produced by the International Rescue Committee, “Uprooted” keeps the spotlight on the individual human beings behind the tragic numbers in this global refugee crisis.

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