The photo of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi on a Turkish beach is an image we should never forget. Instead of romping on the resort beach, Aylan―in his red shirt and dark pants—lies lifeless, his face buried in the sand.
Aylan; his brother, Galip; his mother, Rehan; and his father, Abdullah, had fled the violence in Syria, crossing the Aegean Sea to Greece, and with plans to eventually make their way to Germany or Canada. But high waves flipped the 15-foot rubber raft they were in, pitching them into the sea. The little boys and their mother, and at least nine others, drowned. Only Abdullah survived.
The Kurdi family was on that boat because they were desperate. Eleven of their relatives had been slaughtered at the hands of the Islamic State [ISIS] in the Kurdish-Syrian city of Kobane in June.
There are more refugees in the world trying to escape unimaginable violence than at any other time since the world began keeping records of such desperate journeys. The international community has failed to address the crises. Countries’ policies that exacerbate and intensify the suffering of refugees compound the grief.
Tens of thousands of Syrian refugees are fleeing or are stranded. They are crammed into rubber boats, trucks, and cargo holds, and arriving in Europe en masse. Thousands are trekking across Hungary to Austria, evoking images of people fleeing the Nazis in World War II. Parents cling to their children for dear life. But many drown in the water or suffocate in a truck in the middle of the night, reaching out for a hand to pull them to safety.
While Hungary, Germany, Austria, and other European nations have gathered recent attention, fingers must also point to the United States’ refugee policies. The United States has not risen to its ability to take in Syrian refugees (about 1,500 since the start of the Syria’s civil war in 2011).
Also consider the United States’ shameful treatment of refugees from Central America. While these refugees occupied headlines a year ago, our attention to their plight has largely shifted elsewhere. Despite less attention and fewer media stories, they still need help. Thousands of children and families continue to arrive at the United States-Mexico border, fleeing horrendous violence in Central America. Many remain locked up in United States detention centers.
In the United States, Central American refugees are met by a ruthless immigration system that jails them, denies their due process rights, mistreats the vulnerable, and fails to abide by international human rights standards. Reports describe children being held in “The Freezer”— rooms deliberately kept cold to make children and mothers suffer. People, including children, are denied basic medical treatment. Children are administered adult doses of vaccinations (and without proper consent), causing sickness. Children as young as five appear in court alone, forced to “represent” themselves in complex, English-speaking legal proceedings. They are met by judges showing little mercy and prosecutors labeling them as national security risks.
After the horrors of WWII, the international community recognized that refugees require protection. The world understood that there are people who have no other option but to flee their homelands, and that international and United States law must protect them. This is not how the United States and other countries are acting and responding today. Instead, they behave and respond in blunt, inhumane, and unforgiving ways; they treat refugees as criminals and terrorists, and even worse.
Domestic politics confuse and conflate the crises. National leaders’ xenophobic and racist rhetoric fuels the fire. As refugees reach countries that have enormous resources, a troubling trend is exposed when people are not treated with dignity, humanity, and compassion. Each year, countries move closer to policies condemned in the past. As refugee flows expand, the United States and European countries are systematically denying refugees of their rights, violating human rights law, and the promises they had made and the treaties they signed.
You and I must hold our respective governments accountable. We must confront the consequences of the world’s collective failure to help migrants escaping violence in search hope and safety. We must pressure our governments to turn toward, not away from, refugees.
If you live in the United States, urge President Obama and U.S. Congress (House of Representatives and U.S. Senate) to increase the annual refugee admissions goal from the 2015 number of 70,000 to 200,000 for 2016.
The Advocates for Human Rights represents Syrian and Central American asylum seekers in legal proceedings and ensures that their right to asylum is protected. If you are an attorney or can interpret, please consider volunteering with The Advocates and support these refugees.
The words of Adnan Hassan, cousin of Abdullah and Rehan Kurdi, condemning the world for turning its back on Syrian refugees, can speak for all refugees, no matter the country they flee:
“Do we deserve to have our children picked up from beach shores because their parents panicked and wanted to save their children, save them from terrorism, from kidnappings, from being slaughtered?” Hassan asked in an interview with reporter Jack Moore (International Business Times, September 4.) “How long will they let our children either be killed by terrorists or drown trying to escape?”
By: Deepinder Mayell, director of The Advocates for Human Rights’ Refugee and Immigrant Program.