ThinkProgress: Why A 3-Year-Old Died In The Mediterranean And What The World Can Do To Stop It From Happening Again

BY JUSTIN SALHANI SEP 4, 2015 8:00AM

A photograph of a deceased Syrian boy who drowned in the Mediterranean and washed ashore on the Turkish coast shook the world Wednesday. A shot of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi’s little body resting face-down went viral on social media and Thursday it adorned the front page of most British newspapers.

Kurdi drowned with his brother and mother (his father was the only survivor) on the way to Europe. The story of their deaths are but one of thousands as refugees continue to flee desperate situations for a chance at life. The lowest estimate available says that 2,432 refugees have died at sea this year, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). The situation is becoming more desperate by the day and more refugees are expected to make the nautical journey despite a higher likelihood of death due to the rougher winter seas.

Why Do They Go?

The majority of people that try to enter Europe by sea are from war-torn countries. Most are refugees from Syria, though Afghans and Somalis are also fleeing fighting, and Eritreans leave to escape a repressive regime. They leave because the situation at home is becoming increasingly desperate.

“There’s a mixed migration situation,” Jana Mason, Senior Advisor for External Affairs with the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), told ThinkProgress. “Some people are traveling purely for economic reasons. A refugee under international law is forced to flee because of conflict, violence, or persecution.”

The majority of people trekking the Mediterranean are refugees. In Syria, for example, around four million people are currently refugees while more than 240,000 people have died since the war started in 2011.

Most people try to travel to Europe because they feel it will give them or their families a better chance at a normal life. The alternative is to live off of handouts provided by international aid groups in formal or makeshift refugee camps.

“Overall, people were getting what they needed but they saw no future for themselves and they wanted to make something of their lives,” Daryl Grisgraber, Refugees International’s Senior Advocate for the Middle East, told ThinkProgress. 

But a new problem is on the horizon. Other crises are demanding money and attention, meaning that resources for these refugees are dissipating. “There are a lot of cuts happening in international aid,” said Grisgraber. “Funding cuts and programing cuts are affecting [specifically] Syrian refugees and people can’t get what they need to survive so they are moving onto Europe. The situation is becoming that desperate.”

Refugees are well aware of the risks posed by crossing the Mediterranean. But for many the risk is worth the reward and certainly better than the alternative. While at least 2400 have perished at sea, more than 322,000 have arrived safely in European countries, according to the IOM, meaning the chances of dying at sea are less than 1 in 132.

But a higher death rate is expected this winter as international aid continues to dry up and more refugees try to escape by sea. “Winter is always a hard time for refugees particularly with the types of shelter [they live in],” said Grisgraber, referring to the basic tents most refugees occupy.

“With funding cuts it will be ever harder to supply food, heaters, fuel, and shelter so there will be more of a desire for people to move on. That said, the water is rougher in the Mediterranean Sea in winter and it’s not a great season for it. Migrations normally start again in late winter or early spring but with people more desperate this year it wouldn’t be surprising to see more people try in winter when the water is very bad which is likely to result in more deaths.”

There are a lot of cuts happening in international aid. Funding cuts and programing cuts are affecting [specifically] Syrian refugees and people can’t get what they need to survive so they are moving onto Europe. The situation is becoming that desperate.
— Daryl Grisgraber

Is Europe Meeting Its Responsibilities?

Refugees choose to go to Europe for a variety of reasons. Many have family or friends and want to go to a country where they will have a sense of community. Smugglers have also pounced on the humanitarian crisis and developed well-defined routes to Europe that refugees can travel – at their own risk — for a fee.

But Europe has been widely criticized by the international community for not receiving enough refugees. While Turkey and Lebanon have each received over a million refugees to date, most European countries have only settled a few thousand.

British Prime Minister David Cameron in particular received flack Wednesday for his comments that the refugee crisis wouldn’t be solved by taking in a few thousand more refugees. Just hours later however the photograph of young Kurdi went viral and the UK’s premier has since given into public pressure. He is now expected to announce that Britain will accept thousands more Syrians as a response to the crisis in the Mediterranean.

“This definitely plays into any country’s humanitarian responsibility,” said Grisgraber. “A few thousand is an important gesture in setting an example and being committed to sharing the responsibility of four million Syrian refugees that no one country can take on by themselves.”

Refugee workers say that Europe is also largely responsible for refugee deaths at sea because they fail to provide safe and legal land routes.

“[Europe] needs a sensible response that doesn’t result with people dying on the route,” Mason said. “When fleeing persecution you can’t always travel regular routes and Europe has very few legal means of people getting there. What doesn’t exist is legal ways for people to get from one country to another.”

Mason said that part of the problem is xenophobia, while security concerns are also a pressing matter for countries since the rise of ISIS and other extremist groups. But that doesn’t excuse Europe, or the world for that matter, from meeting their humanitarian responsibilities.

“These are people who are the victims of ISIS, terrorism, and violence and not the perpetrators,” she said. “There are ways for UNHCR of screening and weeding out anybody who may pose a threat under international law.”


What About the Arab Countries?

While Europe has taken the brunt of the blame for the refugee crisis, many have also asked why the wealthy countries in the Persian Gulf have not stepped up to resettle refugees.

For one, none of the Gulf States are signatories of the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention that defines what a refugee is and how they are to be treated according to international law. Smuggling into Gulf countries is also more difficult and more expensive making it less desirable for many refugees.

With most the refugees coming from Syria, settling in the various Gulf States – through legal migration routes — would make sense. “Gulf countries are a really logical place for them to go,” said Grisgraber. “They speak the language, are more familiar with the culture, and it’s in the region so when [the war in Syria ends] it is easier for them to go back.”

Gulf States have opted to provide monetary assistance rather than take in refugees. Criticism has been leveled at Arab countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Kuwait specifically because of their role in funding various militant groups causing the damage on the ground in Syria.

“The Gulf must realise [sic] that now is the time to change their policy regarding accepting refugees from the Syria crisis,” Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, an Emirati commentator on Arab Affairs, argued in the International Business Times Thursday. “It is the moral, ethical and responsible step to take.”


Do Solutions Exist?

The international community has plenty of work to do to stop these deaths at sea. But even if global powers play their part, it may not guarantee a stop to these dangerous voyages. “The bottom line is that there needs to be a resolution to the conflict,” said Grisgraber. “The fact is we are creating human rights violations and conflicts and impossible humanitarian situations. People want basics – food, roofs over their heads, education for their kids – if we are making it impossible for people to have it they will keep moving to other places. That’s a fact of human life.”

Many experts say that the international community needs to work to solve these global conflicts. In countries like Syria, the Gulf States can play a diplomatic role to help end the war. But some say that deaths at sea can stop despite the continuation of such tragic conflicts.

“What’s confronting Europe is nowhere near [the amount of refugees in Turkey and Lebanon],” said Mason. “Europe needs to get together and figure out how to handle these individuals and how to share the responsibility. I don’t think the numbers are overwhelming. It’s clearly manageable.”