Original Article – Patrick Kingsley: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/sep/01/alan-kurdi-death-one-year-on-compassion-towards-refugees-fades?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other
Sitting in a refugee camp in northern Greece, Mohammad Mohammad, a Syrian taxi driver, holds up a picture of three-year-old Alan Kurdi. It is nearly a year since the same photograph of the dead toddler sparked a wave of outrage across Europe, and heightened calls for the west to do more for refugees. Twelve months later, Mohammad uses it to highlight how little has changed.
Alan may have died at sea, he says, “but really there is no difference between him and the thousands of children now dying [metaphorically] here in Greece”.
Tens of thousands have been stranded in squalid conditions in Greece since March, when Balkan leaders shut their borders. “It is,” says Mohammad, “a human disaster.”
A year ago, Alan’s tragic death seemed to have shifted the political discourse on refugees. European leaders appeared to have been shocked into forming more compassionate policies, while previously hostile media outlets took a more conciliatory tone.
Two days after Alan’s death, Germany agreed to admit thousands of refugees who had been stranded in Hungary. The move encouraged the leaders of central and eastern Europe to create a humanitarian corridor from northern Greece to southern Bavaria, while Canada promised to resettle 25,000 Syrians.
In the UK David Cameron agreed to accept 4,000 refugees a year until 2020. It was less than the number landing each day on the Greek islands at that point, but far more than Cameron had previously dared to offer. He was cheered on by the Sun, whose opinion pages had previously described migrants as cockroaches, but now mounted a front-page campaign in Kurdi’s name: “For Aylan [sic]”.
More significantly, it was in the aftermath of Alan’s death that most European leaders finally promised to share responsibility for at least some of the refugees landing on Greek and Italian shores. In late September 2015, they created a system that would nominally see 120,000 refugees relocated from Greece and Italy to other European countries – a relatively modest number that was nevertheless hailed as a watershed moment for European migration policy.
“The principle is so important and reflects such a change of thinking that in itself this is a very significant development,” an optimistic Peter Sutherland, the UN’s special representative for international migration, told the Guardian on the night of the decision.
But a year later, these small shifts in policy and discourse have proved to be temporary.
In September 2015, just four countries voted against the relocation deal, and only one of them – Hungary – lay on the path of the Balkans migration trail. When Hungary shut its border on 15 September, Croatia and Slovenia simply picked up the slack, allowing hundreds of thousands of migrants to cross their territory instead. That month, Donald Tusk, the European council president, stood next to Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian prime minister, and said that he fundamentally disagreed with Orbán’s vision of Christianity.
But on the anniversary of Alan’s death, Hungary believes it has all but won the argument on European migration policy. “Most of the countries have come to the same conclusions that we came to last year,” says Zoltan Kovacs, the Hungarian government spokesman. “They didn’t see it as we saw it last year, and there are still people in Brussels who don’t. But common sense has prevailed.”
With rightwing populists on the rise across the continent, and a perceived connection between migration and terrorism, Europe has gradually abandoned the humanitarian approach of last winter. Austria, which was once a key German ally on migration policy, now wants an Australian-style approach that could see Greece formally used as a giant holding bay for asylum seekers, just as Canberra controversially uses the island state of Nauru to detain people trying to reach Australia. Even Sweden, which previously gave Syrians indefinite asylum, has reined in its generosity.
The Balkan humanitarian corridor has shut: Tusk was the man who declared it closed. The relocation scheme has proved dysfunctional: the rest of Europe has accepted just 5,142 people from Greece, instead of the 66,400 promised. And if the EU had its way, most of the few people still arriving on the Greek islands – the weekly numbers are now in the hundreds, rather than the tens of thousands – would now be deported back to Turkey under the EU-Turkey migration deal.
But with both deportations and relocations having stalled, 57,000 people are trapped in squalid conditions in Greece with no word on their future, prompting Syrians such as Mohammad to despair.
“In September, Orbán was the bad guy,” summarises Gerald Knaus, head of the European Stability Initiative, the thinktank that first floated the idea of the EU-Turkey deal. “Yet by the end of the year he was the leader of a coalition of states. And with Austria now taking the lead on arguing for an Australian-style system, it’s now Germany that is isolated.”
Even the EU-Turkey deal is not, in practice, what Knaus envisaged when he proposed it in the fortnight that followed Alan’s death. As Knaus saw it, the deportation of refugees back to Turkey can be justified if their cases are assessed swiftly and efficiently in Greece; if Turkey improves its asylum system; and if Europe creates the legal means of mass-resettlement from Turkey. None of this, however, has happened.
“On paper, the deal is more or less what was recommended,” says Knaus. “But in reality these three key elements have not been made to work.”
For campaigners, last year’s events have nevertheless had one lasting and positive result. In the year since Alan’s death, a wave of grassroots aid groups have been set up to respond to the crisis – founded by the public, and funded by thousands. Many of these groups are working on the ground in Greece, Calais and the Balkans – and many of their volunteers were first inspired to get involved by the events of last August and September.
One of the most prominent is Help Refugees, a London-based group that did not exist last year. Nearly 12 months later, it funds refugee-focused projects in 68 sites across Europe. In many of these places, the group answers a humanitarian need that larger and better-established agencies have not been quick enough to meet – building, among other things, infrastructure and water facilities in Greek camps where major NGOs received EU aid to operate, but were too slow to arrive.
In the space of a single year, argues Nico Stevens, head of projects at Help Refugees and one of just three full-time employees at the group, “the whole model of humanitarian work has been challenged and adapted and improved by a group of individuals who are passionate and care”.