Images of a drowned Syrian child shocked the world today. The pictures, taken on Wednesday morning, show the lifeless body of a three year-old boy (identified as Aylan Kurdi) washed up ashore on a beach in Turkey.
He and his brother were among the 12 Syrians who drowned in their attempt to escape fighting in Syria. For many across the globe, the full horror of the refugee crisis unfurled only after the surfacing of these pictures.
Refugee is not a person. It is a predicament that lingers on. It is a feeling of perpetual uprooting from one’s native land which lasts till the last breath; unceasing and unrelenting. A refugee is a poem written on an alien paper. It is a life stuck between people, us and them; hung between lands native and foreign; always wanting, ever unfulfilling. A refugee is a tear shed on an unknown soil.
Apart from all the emotional traumas, being a refugee is all about tribulations. It is about all the hardships, uncertainties, and miseries one comes across after embarking on a voyage from a familiar, yet hostile home to an unfamiliar, yet secure haven.
Being a refugee is about facing the cruelest moment when exile is no more merely an option, but an inevitability.
Today, there are nearly 60 million people in the world who have been displaced by war, conflict, or persecution. Around 38.2 million people among them are displaced in their own country, while 19.5 million have taken sanctuary in other countries.
To put it another way, one in every 122 people on the planet is displaced. The Syrian Civil War has led to the displacement of 9.5 million Syrians, around 43 per cent of the total Syrian population. The last time this figure crossed 50 million was during the Second World War.
The age of the refugee is upon us.
Harrowing accounts are coming out from the Mediterranean, where at least 2500 people have died since January this year. Most of them drowned at sea while attempting to reach Europe from Syria, Middle East, Africa, and beyond. One third of the people who arrived in Europe in the first half of this year came from Syria. Europe is living through a refugee crisis of historic proportions.
The unprecedented figure of displaced people is enough to put a question mark over the claim that the world is a safer place today.
Every child perished in the cruel waters of the Mediterranean points to the tyranny of national boundaries.
Every woman forced to flee from home in northern Syria testifies the horrors of rampant religious extremism.
Every destitute IDP in any camp across Pakistan is living testimony to the barbarity of imperial wars and unrestrained powers enjoyed by modern states.
The end is nowhere in sight. From the shores of the Atlantic to the coasts of Indian Ocean, from Seine to Ganges, nationalism is on the rise. From Suez to Indus, religious fundamentalism fuelled by modern-day politics is tearing societies apart. From Ferguson to Kashmir, the state is powerful than ever.
The refugee crisis is fundamentally the crisis of the contemporary world, which cannot be resolved without facing the questions posed to us by our times.
The most pressing issue at the moment is to accommodate the millions of abandoned souls uprooted from their native lands. There are around 4 million Syrians who have sought refuge in other countries. While it is true that the EU must take necessary measures to facilitate the refugees arriving Europe, it is also true that the sheer magnitude of the crisis is too big to be handled by the EU alone.
Besides, it is not the EU but Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt which, together, are sheltering 95 percent of the total Syrian refugees.
Surprisingly, or not so surprisingly, the oil-rich Gulf countries – Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, and United Arab Emirates – have offered zero resettlement places to Syrian refugees. This fact alone flies in the face of assertions that there exists a single Muslim nation in the world.
If there is any region in the world that should do more to resolve this humanitarian crisis, it is the Gulf region. These countries do have the necessary resources and infrastructure to deal with this kind of situation. Saudi Arabia alone receives and manages millions of pilgrims every year. Even the Islamic calendar starts with the year of the Hijra.
Nothing captures the callousness of our times better than the plight of the displaced among us. It is too personal a loss to be expressed in language. But somehow, suffering will always scream.
The British-Somali poet, Warsan Shire, who immigrated to the United Kingdom, penned these verses:
“You have to understand,
No one puts their children in a boat
Unless the water is safer than the land”
A sublime scream. But nothing like the one by the drowned Syrian child today.