Surviving the War Only to Die at Sea

Earlier this month, Abdullah Kurdi lost his entire family in an attempt to escape the Syrian war; his two sons Aylan and Galip and his wife Rehan drowned in the Mediterranean Sea after their raft overturned. The image of three-year-old Aylan’s body on the shore of Türkiye galvanized people across the world, bringing heightened attention to the refugee crisis unfolding from Syria to North Africa and Europe and leading to increased pressure on countries to accept Syrian refugees. However, in the three weeks since Aylan’s photo circulated around the world, little has changed for refugees seeking safe passage from conflict. The boats of smugglers continue to be steered into the Mediterranean, and refugees continue to lose their lives trying to seek safety.

Despite the increased attention being paid to the current refugee crisis, these deaths will continue as long as states continue to violate the right of refugees to seek asylum. While the current crisis in Europe is being driven by extreme violence in Afghanistan, Eritrea, Libya, Somalia, and Syria (among other countries), the drownings – some 2,800 already – are not simply a result of war but also of closed borders and failed immigration policies. And the responsibility for these and similar deaths lies with the nations, including the United States, who attempt to shirk their responsibilities under international law by barring, deporting, or harassing asylum-seekers. Young Aylan survived the Syrian war only to die for lack of safe passage.

Under international law, all refugees have the right to seek asylum – a right that has been repeatedly affirmed and supplemented since the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees went into effect. All of the legal protections granted to asylees and refugees are founded on the existence of this right: without the ability to seek protection from their persecutors, the promise of asylum is a fiction. Despite the clarity of this right, and its fundamental importance to refugees and displaced people, governments regularly interfere with it by closing their borders to refugees entirely, pushing them into the most dangerous types of border crossings, and/or detaining and mistreating them with the hope that the danger and poor treatment will dissuade others from making a similar trip. These deliberate choices have cost countless lives across hundreds of borders.

Since the photograph of Aylan crystalized the current crisis in Europe, some countries – most notably Germany, and to a much lesser extent other EU countries and the United States – have offered to accept greater numbers of refugees. But the committed numbers account for an incredibly small percentage of the 1 million people expected to arrive in Europe just this year. Furthermore, increased quotas in response to this particular crisis will leave in place the shameful policies that have led to so many deaths in transit. For example, refugees have been trapped between the borders of Croatia, Hungary, Macedonia, Serbia, and Türkiye, as one country after another has closed its borders – and many have actively worked to dissuade refugees from entering or staying through the construction of walls, setting up of extra-legal “transit zones,” and detention and prosecution of refugees. Each such action affects the route that refugees take, as they are forced to try more remote and potentially dangerous paths, including routes strewn with landmines.

The United States is also guilty of these behaviors, but its inhospitable southern border hides the effects that were so clearly displayed on the beach in Türkiye. In the United States as well as Europe, aggressive enforcement and closed borders push people into the most dangerous crossings. Refugees, including children, are detained with the express purpose of dissuading others from attempting the journey. For refugees like Aylan trying to reach Europe, policies like these lead them to try their luck in the Mediterranean. For those trying to cross the United States’ southern border, it’s the Sonoran Desert, where people, including women and children, die of dehydration and exposure to the elements trying to reach safety. Usually, only their bones are found and the remains are rarely identified. The photo of Aylan this month simply made public the effect that government policies on asylum have had for decades.

The right to seek asylum is one of the most fundamental rights in international law. Honoring and respecting this right means not just permitting refugees to apply for asylum, but also permitting safe passage across state borders. It means not punishing refugees with detention and poor treatment in the hopes that they will abandon their claims or, despairing of receiving protection, travel further and across more dangerous terrain to reach safety somewhere else. Refugees do not want to abandon their homes and communities, but under the threat of persecution and death, they often have no choice. As long as conflicts exist and refugees flee, the international community must provide safe passage for those who need it.

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