Two years ago today the photograph of a lifeless little boy washed up on a Turkish beach went viral. For a moment, the indignity done to the boy and his grieving family seemed to offer hope that a prevailing political hostility to refugees fleeing to Europe would be overcome.
Alan Kurdi became a symbol of the plight of so many others fleeing conflict and persecution in Syria and elsewhere. His tragic death laid bare the consequences of governments’ refusal to provide the safe routes they and their families need to reach a place where they can rebuild shattered lives.
David Cameron, then Prime Minister, declared how deeply moved he was by the dead boy’s image. He quickly announced a substantial expansion of what had been a tiny UK resettlement programme for Syrian refugees.
But hope faded fast. Theresa May, as Home Secretary, spoke at the Conservative Party conference barely a month later. She vowed to reduce the number of people reaching the UK to seek asylum, and to be even less tolerant of those who did. “Not in a thousand years” would the UK join Europe in a common approach, she added.
“Leadership” of this kind on this issue was not new from the then Home Secretary. Needless to say, it did nothing to help secure collective commitment across Europe to respect the right to asylum of people forced to seek safety by crossing the sea.
Instead, various countries rushed to build more walls, fences and other less tangible barriers, from which smugglers and corrupt officials continued to profit by exploiting those needing to get past. And in spring 2016, with the EU Turkey deal, European countries agreed to pay Turkey to take back people who crossed to Greece while preventing others from making the journey.
This agreement has been celebrated by politicians and political commentators across Europe, including in the UK.
Yet, since the deal tens of thousands of women, men and children have been trapped in limbo in Greece. Turkey has descended rapidly into authoritarianism with an increasing risk that many of its citizens will need to flee the country. And other countries have followed Europe in excluding and evicting refugees.
For all the political soundbites about how UK Government policy has been to keep refugees “safe in the region”, the reality is that Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan have each been forcing Syrians back to conflict and terror while preventing others from escaping.
But it doesn’t end there.
In her 2015 party conference speech, our current Prime Minister looked back to when – as she somewhat modestly put it – “despite its many flaws and its criminal leadership, Libya was known as Europe’s forward border”. The nostalgia for a time, in which British officials could work with a repressive Libyan regime to prevent people fleeing war and poverty from reaching Europe, was palpable.
The UK Government, like others in Europe, is once again dealing with Libya to try to block migration. But there is no Libyan regime now. Rather there are disparate parties, tribes and militias vying for power, legitimacy and money. In this chaos, migrants are especially vulnerable to exploitation – whether they came to Libya to work or already hoping to reach Europe.
Slavery, kidnapping for ransom, torture and rape are just some of the myriad abuses and atrocities refugees and other migrants suffer in Libya. Whether held in official detention centres or by gangs and militias, they are at risk.
As highlighted by Amnesty’s recent report “Europe: A perfect storm”, supporting corrupt bodies in Libya such as the coastguard exposes people to these horrors. As European governments’ assistance grows in trapping or returning people to Libya, they too will be complicit in human rights violations.
Those vying for power – whether to run the country or control a neighbourhood – now see the chance of securing European money by promising to curb migration to Europe. While the cash flows, they may be content to shut down smuggling routes. If it dries up, they can reopen those routes – whatever pays best.
And why would they ever completely close these routes? Simply ending migration would remove their hold over those governments willing to pay or provide political backing. Meanwhile, there are other opportunities to exploit people who need to get out of Libya.
Two years on from a moment when public and politicians cried “never again”, it is all too clear that our political leaders have not set out to end the death and suffering of people forced to flee, nor their mistreatment at the hands of armed gangs and corrupt officials.
Rather, our leaders seem determined merely to keep as far away as possible the death and suffering of the children, women and men who – just like Alan Kurdi – have only smugglers and other abusers to turn to in their desperate search for safety. Out of sight, out of mind.
Deals that may temporarily slow migration at the cost of prolonging violence and suffering or exacerbating the root causes of why people need to flee are cruel and shortsighted. Governments must prioritise saving lives by maintaining search and rescue at sea while extending resettlement, family reunion and other visas for refugees to reach safety. Over the longer term, they must address those root causes – conflict, repression and global inequality.
Amnesty is urging the public to sign a petition reminding European governments that saving lives at sea and offering protection and assistance is our moral and legal duty. You can find the petition here.
Steve Valdez-Symonds is Amnesty UK’s Refugee and Migrant Rights Programme Director calls on European leaders to stop using Libya to block migration and start prioritise saving lives.
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