By Umar Lateef Misgar
In the first month of this year, 60 children drowned in the Mediterranean Sea according to the data released by International Organisation for Migration. Another recent report by UNHCR revealed that two children have drowned every day on average since September 2015, trying to cross the eastern Mediterranean. In all certainty, all or at least majority these innocent children were refugees fleeing bombs, persecution, starvation, a grim future in a refugee camp or a drought-struck area in Sub-Saharan Africa. Some of them would’ve been travelling alone, without parents or guardians, orphaned by the brutal war in Syria, Iraq, Libya or Afghanistan et al. In pursuit of a better future or, what most of the people in Europe would call a normal life. But this loss of innocent life could have been averted. Here is how.
First of all, there is a 6.5 mile long strip of land connecting Karaağaç suburb in Turkey with the Kastanies town of Greece. So, instead of embarking upon the deadly Aegean crossing in Eastern Mediterranean, can’t the refugees’ just enter Europe without putting their lives at the mercy of winds, tide and decrepit boats, in a couple of hours? Not really. The crossing has been clogged by a barbed-wire fence, whose construction was completed by Greece in 2012 at the cost of 3.3 million dollars. Equipped with high-end thermal surveillance system, this is a Berlin 2.0. According to a 2012 report, published by Kathimerini, a Greek news-daily, immediately after the fortification, the amount of people crossing this border-route fell by a staggering 95 percent. At the same time, sea-crossings into Greece through eastern Mediterranean increased tremendously. From around forty thousand in 2012 to more than eight hundred thousand in 2015. The upward- trend was paralleled by an increase in deaths due to drowning. This also proves that the fence is more diversionary than restrictive in nature.
Coming to the solution, isn’t it obvious that processing the paper-work of refugees in an organised reception system built on land-intersection inside Turkey or Greece is more efficient and less lethal than a discursive and chaotic sea-coast? Europe, by practically fortressing this important, life-saving avenue of hope has forced hundreds of thousands of people, mostly refugees, to undertake life-threatening sea journey on overcrowded dinghies, operated by a gory network of smugglers. Infants are swallowed by the unforgiving Aegean waters almost every week. Their lifeless bodies, scattered across Turkish and Greek coasts, is an affront to everything human.
Also, while the powers are busy in securing their murky geopolitical interests in other parts of Mediterranean, Gulf of Aden and South China Sea, there is no system to proactively search and rescue (S&R) the drowning refugees from Eastern and Central Mediterranean. After the Italian S&R Op called Mare Nostrum was suspended at the end of 2014, EU established poorly resourced mechanisms named Triton and Poseidon under the aegis of Frontex, EU’s border-control agency. These operations, however, are neither adequately resourced, nor mandated to actively patrol the sea-waters for rescuing people from wrecks. They rely on distress signals, sent-out by the people on the verge of drowning. But this is problematic at multiple levels.
Not only do the refugees travel stealthily, mostly at night, but sending out signals from inflatable Zodiac boats is extremely hard. Besides, Frontex is guided more by the policy of border-control rather than safe-passage. Many refugees have even testified that armed men donning “Greek flags on their uniforms” tried to puncture the refugee-boats and some coastguards even sailed past the dinghies while they were on the verge of capsising. This utter disregard for innocent human life is also highlighted by the fact that while Saudi warships are engaged in a crippling blockade of Yemen in the Gulf of Aden, Russians are tightening their grip over Syrian port of Tartus, elsewhere in the Mediterranean and Americans are foraying into South China Sea, nobody has taken an initiative to establish a proactive search and rescue mechanism over the maximum 6.5 mile stretch of the sea that divides coastal Turkish town of Ayvalik to Greek island of Lesbos, one of the preferred refugee-routes. Recently, a NATO patrol team was deployed in the eastern Med but, again, solely for the purpose of apprehending smugglers and controlling the number of refugees traveling into Europe, rather than S&R.
In an ideal world, 7 US Nimitz-class aircraft carriers would be enough to practically create a highway between Greek Island of Kos and coastal city of Bodrum in Turkey. But that’s just wishful thinking. Only a few international NGOs like Greenpeace and Médecins Sans Frontières along with numerous brave individual volunteers have done a humongous job of searching, rescuing and assisting the refugees in multiple ways. Between 2 May and 31 December 2015, MSF, in collaboration with Greenpeace, rescued no less than 20,129 people from the Mediterranean, about a quarter of whom were women and children. Meanwhile, in mainland Europe, governments have been passing borderline-Nazi migration legislations, while failing to resettle even 1 percent of the pledged 160,000 people during a controversial EU mini-summit in September last year.
Amidst all this sham diplomacy, nauseating right-wing populism and xenophobic hysteria, not only are tens of thousands of refugee children at a risk of falling prey to criminal networks, from human trafficking to forced labor, but their lifeless bodies wash ashore on Mediterranean coasts without a break.
Imagine the groans, the pain of a mother as her child slips from the grip of her hand and disappears into cold dark waters. Imagine the agony of a father as he sees his entire family swallowed by the tide and is unable to even move his hand in their aid. This is not some fiction story of an erstwhile sailor; this is the reality we face in and around Mare Nostrum, the backyard of “benchmark-continent”.
Amidst fierce fighting between regime forces, backed by indiscriminate Russian airstrikes, and opposition groups, around seventy thousand people were displaced in and around Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, during the past weeks. Tens of thousands are stuck near the Turkish border-crossing of Bab-Al Salameh. While another round of UN-backed peace negotiations has all but failed and expert predictions of a “spiral upward in the level of violence” coming true through relentless and indiscriminate Russian and regime airstrikes, Turkish bombardments into Kurdish-held parts of northern Syria and probable ground-troop incursions by regional powers like Saudi Arabia, we should inevitably expect more people to take this perilous journey into Europe.
The “cessation of hostilities” negotiated by Russia-US through past week is also weary of holding ground due to the ambiguous nature of the deal and exclusion of key belligerents like the highly proliferated, Al-Qaida affiliate- Al- Nusra front.
Indifferent international community has to either start fortressing the sea now, to save these people further suffering and humiliation or take serious steps like overhauling the border control, resettlement structure and creating a proactive rescue mechanism in the Mediterranean to prevent more children, men and women from meeting the same fate as Alan Kurdi and numerous other young souls.
—The writer is a student of International Relations at the Islamic University of Kashmir