By now, most of us have seen the image of a lifeless young boy, face down, washed up on the shore off the coast of Turkey. He has been identified as three-year-old Aylan Kurdi. The image of a Turkish officer standing over the young boy has gone viral. It is compelling and disturbing.
The boy’s father, Syrian Abdullah Kurdi, has been identified as well, and has provided grim details of the family’s battle to survive at sea. The boat on which the family sought to escape to a new life capsized. Kurdi has since told reporters of spending several hours in the water, desperately trying to keep his children and his wife (who cannot swim) above water, frantically swimming from one to another, pushing their heads to the surface.
As upsetting as the image of young, lifeless Aylan may be—and it is disturbing—the image of Abdullah Kurdi scrambling between his children and his wife, trying to keep each alive is in some ways more disturbing. That image serves as a bleak metaphor for the lives of the world’s 50 million refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced persons (IDPs), desperately trying to keep themselves, their families, their friends and their communities afloat. And, like Abdullah Kurdi, the sense of being alone and abandoned by the global community is all too often confirmed in fact for these 50 million souls.
Let’s not forget that the system failed the Kurdi family as well: the boy’s aunt, who lives near Vancouver, had been trying to settle the family with her in Canada. But the Kurdi family’s application was denied and they turned instead to the dangerous path that so many desperate people are now choosing.
Yes, there are legal norms on refugees and state obligations to ensure process for applicants. There are norms prohibiting refoulement—the return of refugees to situations of persecution or danger. There are national institutions and international agencies. But all of these have failed so many refugees, and often failed them miserably. Last week, 71 were found dead in a truck in Austria. Hundreds more have drowned in the Mediterranean this year. These recent incidents in Europe, paired with the current political debates in the United States about the ‘need’ for a border wall to exclude immigrants (and unaccompanied children fleeing extreme violence in Central America) demonstrate our collective failure. Our policies—those in North America, Europe and elsewhere—must be radically rethought. It is simply not enough to look at the photos, feel anguish and move on.
At no time since the end of the Second World War have there been as many refugees, asylum seekers and IDPs as today. Patchwork solutions will not suffice. Citizens must demand bold, coordinated and empathetic responses from their governments. A meeting of European Union ministers to address the crisis and a proposed requirement that all States resettle binding quotas of refugees might be a good start.
Professor James Cavallaro is the founding director of Stanford Law School’s International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic and the Human Rights Center. For more than two decades, he has engaged with the Inter- American human rights system, promoting the advance of human rights through representation of victims, as well as through critical reflection on the system and means of enhancing its efficacy- including opening and serving as director of a joint office for Human Rights Watch and the Center for Justice and International Law in Rio de Janeiro and founding the Global Justice Center, a leading Brazilian human rights NGO. In 2013 he was elected to serve on the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.