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Alan Kurdi: The Day Humanity Washed Ashore

September 9th, 2015     by Maria Arseniuk     Comments

On the morning of September 3, 2015 the body of three-year old Alan Kurdi, a Syrian refugee, washed up on the pristine shores of a resort in Bodrum, Turkey. Alan died in the choppy waters of the Aegean Sea along with his five year old brother, Galip, and mother, Reham. The family was attempting to reach the Greek island of Kos from Turkey, in order to seek political asylum after the war in Syria left 11 million people homeless. Somewhere along the 20 kilometer route to Greece the boat capsized. Abdullah Kurdi, Alan’s father, survived - twelve others didn’t.

Alan is the human face of the plight of displaced persons - he is one of the millions of others who share his fate. The Kurdi family, originally from Damascus, fled their home country of Syria due to ongoing political strife. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) 4 million Syrians have crossed Syria’s borders into neighbouring countries hoping to seek asylum in the West, while another 7.6 million are internally displaced. Despite this, the West has remained largely silent on the issue of asylum. For example, Iceland, a country with a population of only 500,000, has agreed to accept 50 refugees. Currently, there are only 99 refugees in Iceland. Not only has Iceland cut the amount of refugees it is willing to accept in half, it also failed to contribute any government funds to UNHCR in 2014.

This Western apathy, particularly within the EU, is largely rooted in a rhetoric that presents refugees as a threat to cultural and national identity and homogeneity. This fear is hinged upon the idea that an influx of refugees from the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia will somehow erode away at the ‘core’ morals and values of European countries. Transatlantic Trends, an organization that polls public opinion on current affairs in the US and Europe, conducted a survey recently in Europe on the attitudes and perceptions of immigration. What the survey found is unsettling: “majorities of citizens consider immigration to be more of a problem than opportunity, and view immigrants as a burden on social services.”

In the United Kingdom for example, 2/3 of respondents stated that immigration is “problematic”. Knowing that the majority of Brits view immigration negatively, it is even more unsettling that respondents overestimated the amount of foreign-born citizens in their country by 20% - they perceived the number to be 33%, when in reality it is only 11%. This overestimation is largely a reaction to growing Islamphobia both within the country and the continent in general; more than half of the UKers polled stated they believed that Muslims are “integrating poorly” into European lifestyles. On a greater scale this is indicative of the homogenization of refugees and immigrants by ignoring incredible religious and ethnic diversities.

Other popular sentiments include the fear that Europe will become “overrun” by refugees and immigrants who use the “back door approach” - that is, leapfrogging (entering a country and then using the European Union’s free movement arrangement) via other European countries - for example, Greece. In reality, this fear is factually unfounded. Human Rights Watch estimates that approximately 340,000 refugees will reach Europe this year - this amounts to a mere 0.068% of Europe’s total population and even less in Canada: 0.011%. The UNHCR indicates that 97% of Syrian refugees are accommodated by only five countries: Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey and Iraq. While only 220,000 refugees have applied for asylum in the West, an overwhelming 3.5 million people opt for refugee camps in neighbouring countries, in hopes of returning their homes post-conflict, disrupting the myth that refugees are uncontrollably flooding European and North American borders. The conservative rhetoric of queue jumps, anchor babies, benefit grabs and welfare schemes is nothing more than a myth. This needs to change.

While Europe’s treatment of refugees is abysmal, Canada’s record isn’t any cleaner. Under the Conservative office, the Canadian government introduced Bill C-49 ‘Preventing Human Smugglers from Abusing Canada’s Immigration System Act’, in 2010 which “places specific restrictions on any group of refugee claimants whose arrival is classified as ‘irregular’ by the Minister”. Because the restrictions are so vague as to what constitutes irregular movement, refugee claimants, like the Kurdi family, are indiscriminately turned away.

Stephen Harper went on record to say that “Our country has the most generous immigration and refugee system in the world per capita,” when in fact we have one of the lowest refugee populations per 1,000 of the population in the world. Lebanon is the worldwide leader with 257 refugees per 1,000, followed by Jordan with 114, Chad with 39 and Djibouti with 25. In fact, Canada has only 1/4 of the refugees per 1,000 of South Sudan, Malta and Mauritian and only 1/2 of Kenya, Sweden, Turkey and Yemen. Globally, Canada trails with a mere 5.2 refugees per 1,000 - less than 1% of all refugee accommodations worldwide.

A change in refugee policy can only happen if we collectively urge our leaders to create shifts in the ways in which we respond to those fleeing persecution. This change begins with education. To learn more about the refugee crisis take the refugee challenge and see how you would fare as an asylum seeker. Alan’s death, and the hundreds of thousands of those like him, is unnecessary. Refugees deserve to be treated with kindness, compassion and empathy. Let us demand change beginning now.

There are ways you can help, too. First, you can begin by contacting your MP. Public pressure, particularly during an election period, has the potential to create tangible change. You can find your MP using this tool by simply entering your Canadian postal code. Write, email or phone them.

Next, you can become a private sponsor. In 1979 “7,000 Canadian groups sponsored 29,269 refugees, thanks to a grassroots Toronto-based operation known as Operation Lifeline.” To integrate a single person costs approximately $12,000 - a family of four, $25,000. While this may seem expensive, group fundraisers can yield surprising results; for example, the parishioners of St. Basil’s Cathedral in Ottawa sponsored a family of 6; the family is now settling in to their new home.

Lastly, you can donate. There are two different approaches to donating, both equally useful. You can choose to either donate to a specific group dedicated to refugee rights and settlement, such as Toronto-based Lifeline Syria, or alternatively, to the UNHCR which is an international non profit working on the ground to provide immediate assistance to people in crisis. In addition to UNHCR, UNICEF, the Canadian Red Cross, Oxfam Canada, and CARE Canada are reputable organizations

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