“As we watch refugees crowd into camps and pour over the borders, we know that we are not watching a temporary crisis.”
— ARUNDHATI ROY
It is the worst humanitarian crisis to have unfolded in the recent past and is sure to have implications well into the future. And the crisis is well over the tipping point. Over 11 million Syrians have been displaced from their homes, with seven million within the country and four million outside charting arduous land and sea routes to escape the persecution and instability that has bought their lives to a halt.
As per UN estimates, one out of four Syrians have left the country. Half of the asylum seekers are children, makes the ordeal even more heartrending, with many of those who escape drowning when the boats capsize on the high seas find their bodies wracked with cough, cold and diarrhoea.
After knocking at the doors of neighbouring counties — Egypt, Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon — since 2011, the refugees are now seeking entry into European countries. Their perilous journeys, however, do not end even on reaching the shores of Europe.
With stringent border controls in place, refugees have to negotiate with smugglers and part with their life savings. The exodus from West Asia was manna from heaven for human traffickers who have been extorting money and, according to media reports, leaving refugees stranded in countries other than the ones they were promised to be taken.
In 2013, demanding a solution to the humanitarian crisis, the World Council for Arameans bought the European Union’s attention to the tragic death of five-year-old Sinella Mansourati, who drowned in the Aegean Sea due to the apathy of human traffickers who had promised to take her family from the Turkish coast near Izmir via Greece to Belgium. The trafficker had packed 21 people in a boat meant for nine and, when the Greek Coast Guard located the boat, he punctured it and left Sinella and the others without life vests. A few days later Sinella’s limp body washed up on the shore.
Alongside Syrian refugees such as Sinella’s family are migrants from Afghanistan, Somalia and Eritrea, who are also seeking safer havens.
The unprecedented number of refugees has posed a formidable challenge to the European Union. Only Germany seemed, for a while, to have taken on the challenge that every other EU country chose to evade and made an effort to systematically resettle the refugees across the country.
On 15 September, Hungary detained 155 refugees and threatened to imprison those trying to enter the country from Serbia. A day before, Austria and Slovakia also reinstated border controls to cope with the increasing inflow of refugees.
Critics say Germany’s decision was just another way of asserting its dominance within the European Union as it made the announcement without consulting other member-countries of the EU or the European Commission. Some allege it was a shrewd plan to inject fresh migrant blood into the country’s greying workforce.
The welcome extended to the refugees, though, was short-lived. It lasted barely a week before Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere declared the imposition of “temporary controls” along Germany’s borders with Austria and Italy to restrict the inflow of migrants. Trains ferrying passengers from Austria to Germany were also suspended. In his address to the media, the minister alleged that the influx of refugees was stretching the country’s limit. Germany later took refuge in numbers, in a sense, attributing the rollback of its vaunted “open arms” policy to the massive scale of the exodus, the “biggest migrant crisis since World War II”.
Germany’s short-lived goodwill gesture did not go down well with other European countries, predominantly Catholic and largely sceptical of the implications of opening their borders to refugees who are mainly Muslims. The stalemate was broken in some measure when Pope Francis appealed to Catholics the world over to open their homes to refugees, hoping the crisis would help “awaken the continent’s conscience”.
Within West Asia, Israel refused entry to the refugees with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saying the country lacked “geographical depth” to accommodate them, while the Arab countries have uttered not a word so far on the matter. When Saudi Arabia finally felt compelled to make a grand gesture, it offered to build 200 mosques in Germany, a move that is sure to irk the predominantly Christian country.
It was the picture of three-year-old Alan Kurdi lying face downward, washed up on the shore of Turkey, that brought the world’s attention to a problem that has been going from bad to worse since 2011, when the people of Syria rose in revolt against President Bashar al-Assad, who had been ruling the country with an iron hand. The Syrian State retaliated by embarking on a killing spree, escalating the conflict and turning the country into a mass graveyard.
The complex geopolitics of West Asia, where every Western State has a finger in the pie, made sure that the conflict between the Syrian State and its people soon got entangled with the rise of the fundamentalist Islamic State (formerly isis or isil), taking the violence and the brutality several notches higher. Millions began to flee their homes, choosing exile over death.