Now, it’s personal. Until last week the world’s migrant crisis was abstract, a procession of humanity as statistics. The 59.5 million people forcibly displaced by the end of last year, two-thirds of them uprooted from home within their own country.
Editorial Bangkok Post – 6 Sep 2015 at 01:42
Published: 6/09/2015 at 01:42 AM
Newspaper section: News
Now, it’s personal. Until last week the world’s migrant crisis was abstract, a procession of humanity as statistics. The 59.5 million people forcibly displaced by the end of last year, two-thirds of them uprooted from home within their own country. The 1.9 million Syrians living in Turkey, mainly in camps, having fled a country torn between the atrocities of Bashar al-Assad and the Islamic State. The 140,000 men, women and children who have entered Hungary from the border with Serbia this year alone, hoping for asylum in richer western European countries. The hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who have entrusted their lives to traffickers, their very exodus abetted by the regime they seek to escape. The Uighur who have turned to criminal networks to escape persecution in China. The Iraqis, Afghans and Sudanese who made perilous journeys to Australian waters only to have the navy pay their traffickers to turn away.
The crisis has been too broad and nebulous to grapple with. The reasons people are migrating and seeking asylum are many and complex, from political persecution in Myanmar to human rights abuses in Eritrea and outright war in Syria and Iraq. Others have long escaped immediate danger but seek better lives for themselves and their families in third countries. For those who are not in such circumstances, it has been too easy to go about life as normal, to reason that the crisis is happening elsewhere and to other people, to think it is somebody else’s problem. Now, it seems impossible to look away.
The photograph of Aylan Kurdi’s lifeless body on a Turkish beach seems to have pricked the world’s conscience. The three-year-old boy drowned when a boatload of Syrians capsized 50 metres from shore, as did his brother and mother. It is a horrifying image and captured the tragedy of the crisis in the Middle East and Europe like no other. Now, because someone so young and defenceless washed ashore alone, a worldwide problem of enormous complexity has become heartbreakingly relatable. The world watched an anguished father bury his family and wondered how it could have come to this.
But the even sadder truth is last week was really no different than the one before it, or the one before that. There is nothing sudden about the suffering at the heart of the crisis, but for too long it has been easy to ignore migrants and asylum seekers. The photograph showed a failing of humanity which has long been there.
Late last month, 71 corpses were found in an abandoned truck on an Austrian motorway, suffocated when they put their lives in the hands of human traffickers heading west from Hungary. That four children were among the dead seems especially cruel, but none deserved to die that way. So far this year, more than 2,500 people have died in the Mediterranean Sea attempting desperate journeys. The Australian government claims its unconscionable hard-line policy towards asylum seekers arriving by boat has stopped deaths at sea, but arguably all it has done is pushed the problems elsewhere. Closer to home, it was only in May that 32 graves were found in Songkhla and another 139 on the Malaysian side of the border. Each death is as tragic as Aylan Kurdi’s.
Just as people have struggled to come to grips with the scope of the problem, so have governments and international organisations. Self-interest reigns among nations, too, which is why Britain’s David Cameron spoke of “swarms” when public opinion was against immigration and struggles to respond now the tide has turned. Europe, with multiple countries within the one border, is hapless and hamstrung: where Hungary is unwelcoming, Sweden is offering indefinite residence to victims of Syria’s civil war. Asean’s response to this year’s Rohingya crisis does provide hope that similar emergencies in the region will be dealt with better in the future. The 10-nation bloc took some steps away from its longstanding policy of non-interference, with Malaysia and Indonesia showing leadership and compassion rather than push boatloads of Rohingya away from the shore. With Asean’s borders about to become more open and the economies more connected, greater cooperation on migration is a welcome development.
But it is too simplistic to think of Europe’s crisis as the consequence of Syria’s civil war, or Australia’s hardline policy as the result of pandering to a conservative electorate, or the plight of the Rohingya as being a problem for Myanmar. The world has to come to terms with the widespread inequality and suffering which drives people to desperate measures in an effort to secure a better future. We have to deal with the horrors that leave families like Aylan Kurdi’s in such a desperation they would rather risk their lives than stay. We have to look at the worldwide situation and confront the fact the migrant crisis is the defining challenge of our times. History will judge how humanity rises to meet it.