One child shook the conscience of Europe but how many children must die for the Arabs’ conscience to wake up? The image of Aylan Kurdi, three years old, sounded an alarm, which is still echoing all over the world, when his little body was thrown up by the sea on a Turkish beach. His death opened people’s eyes to the hideous crimes committed against the Syrian people for more than four years. The image actually communicated to everyone what news bulletins failed to do about the killing of more than one quarter of a million Syrians and the displacement of 12 million others, of whom four million are registered with the UNHCR.
The echo of the shock exceeded what had happened when the Israelis killed Palestinian child Mohammed Al-Dura as his dad tried to shield him in 2000. Despite the horror of that crime, Israel’s media machine rushed to contain the issue and minimise its effects, using the weak memory of Arabs and their weak systems to do the trick. This is also what happened when settlers burnt alive baby Ali Dawabsheh at the beginning of August; his mother died this week of her injuries sustained in the same arson attack, following his father who died earlier. This child was murdered in the dark so there was no one there to take his photograph.
This has also been the bad fortune of Yemeni children who are killed and buried under the rubble every day, with mutilated bodies similar to those which our eyes have got used to seeing in Iraq and other conflict zones which are distributing death all over the Arab world with no exceptions.
Had the body of the child been on a Gaza beach, the response would have been very different. It wouldn’t have horrified and mobilised Europeans, and yet in August last year Israel killed not one but four young boys playing football on a beach in Gaza City. This moved nobody in the West or the Arab world.
The European panic surprised us, as we have become so familiar with death and adapted to murder to the point where funerals have become an almost daily ritual in our capitals. It was exciting to see how our media paid more attention to the European reaction than it paid to the original crime, and followed up with the victims and their suffering but forgot about the killer who is still dropping explosive barrels on other victims. The result was that we became more worried about the European concerns than our own regional concerns, be it a catastrophic collapse of an Arab regime, bloodshed in Yemen, a disintegrating state in Libya or a homeland that is getting swallowed in Palestine.
I was surprised to read a headline published in one of the Egyptian newspapers, which said, “The image of drowned Syrian child embarrasses Europe”, and I felt ashamed when I read that the leader of the Israeli opposition, Isaac Herzog, called upon his government to open its borders to Syrian refugees. I also felt shame when Pope Francis called on monasteries in Europe to host refugees.
I remained ashamed when I read the list of Western celebrities who announced their solidarity with the refugees, including French singer Charles Aznavour, who called for the transfer of oppressed people in the Middle East to abandoned French villages; Lionel Messi, Argentina and FC Barcelona footballer, who condemned the situation and announced the support of his charity for refugees; Harry Potter author JK Rowling echoed the call for solidarity with refugees; John Green, American writer and novelist, donated $20,000 for the relief of refugees, and then collected half a million pounds in 24 hours. And then we had Bayern Munich Football Club, which donated one million euros to set up places to house refugees; the International Olympic Committee which donated $2 million; and Real Madrid Football Club, which donated $1 million, as well as others.
In Helsinki, the Prime Minister of Finland put his private home in the north of the country at the disposal of asylum seekers, and called on his fellow citizens to follow suit and open their homes to those seeking shelter. In London, Prime Minister David Cameron was criticised strongly when he stated that he would not allow hordes of refugees to enter Britain; Amnesty International described his words as “disgraceful” while the Guardian said that his position was not only a mistake but also a shame on the country.
In this atmosphere, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s position stood out when she led the call to embrace the refugees and agreed with Austria for the two countries to open their borders to receive them. Along with French President François Hollande she issued a call to deal with the refugee issue with integrity and responsibility, so that people are spread around EU countries according to mandatory quotas.
This news and similar events were highlighted by Arab newspapers, which dealt with the issue as a European problem caused by strange hordes coming from another planet.
The statistics of all of this are shocking. According to the UN refugee agency, more than 300,000 people have crossed the Mediterranean this year; between 2,500 and 3,500 were drowned before they could reach their intended destination.
With regards to registered Syrian refugees, UNHCR said that the largest number headed to Lebanon (more than one million), followed by Turkey (800,000) then Jordan (300,000), Iraq (250,000) and Egypt (132,000).
The statement showed that the UNHCR and its partners called for $5.5 billion for refugee relief. By the end of June, just a quarter of the required amount was made available, which means a reduction in nutritional support for refugees and the difficulty of providing them with humanitarian aid or sending their children to schools. As for the conditions in which the refugees are existing, some countries are better than others, but most are miserable.
It is true that not all refugees are Syrians, but because of the huge disaster there, Syria has become the main source. There are also Sudanese, Palestinians, Iraqis and people from North Africa. Although the majority are victims of conflicts in the Arab region, there are others heading for Europe for economic reasons due to very difficult conditions in their home countries.
The normal procedure for asylum seekers is that the country where they land in the EU has the responsibility to process their applications. However, Italy and Greece have been facing the brunt of the numbers of heading for Europe and so it has been suggested that countries across the EU take their fair share of refugees to ease the burden on the Mediterranean states. North European countries — with the exception of Germany and Sweden — have generally called for the existing rules to be followed. The Czechs and Slovaks have refused to receive any refugees. Hungary’s government has ordered the construction of a high fence along the border with Serbia (175 kilometres long) to prevent the entry of refugees. Poland announced that it will only accept Christian refugees coming from the Middle East.
Although the German government has been more courageous when, along with Austria, it called for the suspension of the Dublin Regulation on asylum requests, this has not just been down to enlightened politicians. There is also support among the people to help the refugees, but right-wing groups have seized on the issue to tap into nationalist emotions and mobilise public opinion against what they call the “new invaders” and attempts to “Islamise” Europe.
In this context, press reports claimed that Merkel’s popularity declined due to her sympathy with the refugees, while extremists attacked refugee centres and tried to set them on fire. In Italy, the Northern League used the regional and municipal elections as an opportunity to call for immigrants to be arrested and sent back to where they came from.
In legislative elections in Denmark, the People’s Party won 21 per cent of the votes, which is double its share at the 2010 elections, possibly because it called for the tightening of the law to reduce immigration. The media has reported the rise of the right-wing across Germany, Britain and France, as more voices warn about terrorism by the refugees and the “Islamisation” of the continent and the threat to European unity.
The one element that is largely absent from the scene is the Arab world, and the biggest failure in this test is the Arab League, which has become a model that represents the collapse of the Arab regimes and their bankruptcy. Thus, if we consider the crises of the region to be at the heart of the refugee file, we shall see that the UN is trying to sort things out, with the Arab League out of the picture completely.
Envoys of the UN Secretary-General are trying to mediate in the search for solutions in Syria, Libya and Yemen. Prior to that, the Arab regimes had abandoned the Palestinian issue and left it for international efforts and negotiations between the aggressor and the victim. This gives the strong impression that the future of the Arab world is no longer one of the concerns of the Arab League or even Arab governments.
The thing that is no less surprising is that Arab civil society and the elite with their various orientations are among the absentees in this matter. When our newspapers published the names of celebrities who expressed their solidarity or contributed with their symbolic donations towards the relief of refugees, there was, apart from a few noble exceptions, few Arab names amongst them.
One exception was Egypt’s Al-Ahly Football Club, which agreed to have a match with Bayern Munich and donate the takings for refugee aid. There was also the invitation from Al-Ahli player Walid Soliman to support refugees following his own donation of fifty thousand Egyptian pounds to kick-start the campaign, as well as the announcement by businessman Naguib Sawiris that he would like to buy an island in the Mediterranean to accommodate the refugees. It is still not clear whether he is talking about an investment or a humanitarian project.
The Gulf States received their share of admonition about their absence from the fray; it was mentioned that they had opened their doors to Kuwaitis fleeing from Saddam Hussain’s invasion of their country in 1990. Well-known British journalist Robert Fisk, writing in the Independent on 4 September, asked why Arabs come to the land of the “infidels” seeking survival, rather than going to the Gulf States. The answers varied between those who backed his scorn and others who reminded us that the Gulf has not fallen short in supporting communities in the conflict zones where refugees come from; no one, it has been argued, can deny the role that the Gulf has played in supporting their Arab brothers.
Fisk’s question was merited, and the Gulf States need to cover the serious lack of financial resources necessary for the relief of the refugees. However, I believe that the problem is more widely Arab rather than simply Gulf-related. When we see that “major first-tier countries” are absent and are keeping away due to their domestic conflicts, and that the Arab League no longer has a presence capable of making an impact in the various Arab issues, we cannot single out the Gulf States for blame.
There is no escape from admitting that the refugee crisis has helped to reveal the truth about the Arab position, exposing for what they are — largely meaningless — all the claims of solidarity and joint action. The current campaign in Lebanon is that the “stench” of the conviction of politicians in Beirut and despair at their behaviour, is all-pervading. I would add that the “stench” of rottenness is seeping out not only from Lebanon but also the rest of the Arab world.
Translated from Al Jazeera, 7 September 2015.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.