The image of a drowned body of three-year old Syrian boy washed up on the coast of Turkey’s touristic town Bodrum has created a momentary outrage in Turkey and abroad in September 2015, at least for those who are concerned about human life. Such powerful images are indeed useful to create an awareness about ongoing problems among the wider public insofar as the public would like to hear about them. The danger of such a momentary reaction and outcry is that it can disable us to see the bigger picture about the refugee issue today in the Euro-Mediterranean region. The images of refugee bodies washed up in Spanish, Italian or Greek coasts have never been rare, although it is new to the public eye in Turkey. However, those images in the past did not create the momentum to engage with the humanitarian disaster effectively in northern side of the Mediterranean. Unfortunately, it is likely that the image of the Syrian boy will be added to the other photos in the file of shame of humanity in the 21st century.
Then what is the problem? The main problem is that refugee ‘crisis’ is only remembered when such a powerful image is publicized or a mass scale drowning, killing around 300 people in ‘one go’ happen. The fact is that people who are on the way to protection in Europe have been dying on the daily basis not only in the Mediterranean, but also in the Sahara desert, in the shanty towns in North Africa waiting for the next boat to Europe. What about the violence of human smuggles? Rape, killing, beating…A quick look at the reports of NGOs will enlighten anyone about the daily humanitarian disaster on the way to seeking protection in Europe. In order to engage with the refugee crisis in the Euro-Mediterranean, I would make the following points for the people who value human life regardless of their race, skin colour, religion, nationality, and gender:
- The developed states in Europe should accept their responsibility for violating the 1951 Refugee Convention in two ways. Firstly, through legally questionable regulations such as ‘host third country’, militarization of the Mediterranean by FRONTEX whose main practice has become ‘push back’ the boats or to collect the bodies from the sea, and passing the asylum responsibility to the neighboring states in Middle East and North Africa, the EU states have denounced their convention responsibilities. Surely they have created the precedence for the countries like Turkey to treat the refugees as ‘unwanted people’. Secondly, the rhetoric of racist right, which has been adopted by other right wing parties and so-called ‘left wing’ parties on ‘illegal migrants’, ‘economic migrants, not refugees’, ‘they are coming to get our jobs’ have generated the political atmosphere to denounce the asylum responsibilities easily. The Convention, in such a political structure, has become a memory of the past, basically, a legacy of the Cold War when Europe needed refugees to discredit the Iron Curtain. The new refugees are not ‘useful’ for Europe after all.
Rather than deepening the Refugee Convention, the developed states have become examples for the rest of the world regarding how to violate it. Therefore, we as members of global human community need new counter-steps:
- We need a new ethics: Even one death on the way to protection in Europe should be considered as humanitarian crisis. This should be the ethics for protection of human life.
- We have to accept an uneasy fact: The Refugee Convention is not legally, but politically rendered void by the developed states.
- In addition, the Convention, which has never been updated apart from the 1967 amendment, does not reflect the realities of contemporary protection seeking. It has become almost impossible to determine whether an individual is forced to leave her/his country for ‘individual political persecution’. Many individuals are forced to leave because of their membership of a particular group even if they are not individually persecuted. Moreover, political and economic crises go hand in hand. Poverty is sometimes a stronger motivation than a bullet. I have recommended the concept of ‘protection-seeker’ earlier in my works as a new legal status for the refugees who do not meet the Cold War-determined criteria of the Convention. I am still behind this new status.
- It does not matter how many detention centers are built particularly in North Africa, how long militarized borders are, how many naval ships patrol the sea. Migration is a fact of human life. Individuals in search of protection will seek protection whatever obstacles Europe put in front of them.
- Despite the risks, individuals take these boats. It is not because they are ‘crazy’. It is because they can’t find protection where they are.
Points 5 and 6 are particularly for the migration scholars. It is the responsibility of migration scholars to talk to the power about the realities of migration keeping in mind the political and ethical responsibility they have to the migrants, even if it risks the funding of their next project.
- Racism and xenophobia have to be tackled ‘seriously’. Greece’s way of dealing with the Golden Dawn should be an example for the rest of Europe. The hijacking of politics of racist right wing has to be stopped. As European leaders know from the history, appeasement of fascism would never end well.
- The last recommendation concerns countries like Turkey which are on the edge of Europe. The EU’s conventional policy towards these countries is to convert them into a buffer zone in which asylum applications can be processed, irregular protection-seekers can be detained, to which and irregular migrants within the EU can be sent back. European Neighborhood Policy is built upon this principle by luring neighboring countries with visa facilitations if they agree on becoming EU’s protective belt. All North African countries have rejected it. It seems like Turkey is interested in such an arrangement without considering mid-term and long-term implications for society, politics and economy of the country. Turkey does not have an integration program; civil society working in this area is very weak.
The body of the three year old boy will have a tomb. We do not know how many like him lie in the depth of the Mediterranean Sea. It is up to the good people of the world to whom I have appealed to stop sending new bodies there. This is not politically easy. Nothing that matters is.
Previously published at alibilgic.wordpress.com.