By Elke Weesjes
European leaders are finally stepping up efforts to address the worsening refugee crisis, thanks at least in part to heart-wrenching photographs of Aylan Kurdi, a three-year old Syrian refugee who drowned near Turkey this week.
So far this year, more than 300,000 people have risked their lives to cross the Mediterranean Sea for the safety of places such as Greece and Italy—Kurdi was one of 2,600 that haven’t survived. The vast majority of those making the dangerous crossing are fleeing the death and destruction of conflict zones of Syria.
The refugee crisis, thought to be the worst since WWII, is far from a sudden emergency. It is, to some degree, the culmination of years of failure to confront Syria’s bloody collapse. After four years of conflict and with no peace talks in sight, millions of Syrians have lost hope and headed for the European Union countries. But they are not alone—asylum seekers from North Africa and the Middle East are also part of the massive influx of refugees.
Although tragic, the photographs of Kurdi prompted the sort public shock, sympathy, and outrage that finally sparked a response from European leaders, who have been wrangling for months over potential refugee quotas.
British Prime Minister David Cameron said he was very distressed when he saw the photographs on the front page of the newspaper.
“As a father, I felt deeply moved by the sight of that young boy on a beach in Turkey,” Cameron said while visiting northeast England Thursday. “Britain is a moral nation and we will fulfill our moral responsibilities.”
Such “moral responsibilities” are at the center of the struggle over how European Union countries handle asylum seekers. Current rules require refugees apply for asylum in the first EU state they reach, which has overwhelmed countries such as Greece and Italy. EU leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande want to see the burden more evenly distributed.
“So many refugees are arriving at our external borders that we can’t leave Italy or Greece alone to deal with the task,” Merkel is quoted as saying by Reuters. “Neither can it be that three countries, like Sweden, Austria and Germany, are left alone with the lion's share of the task.”
Hollande and Merkel have formulated a proposal for a refugee distribution quota that will be considered by the Council of European Interior Ministers on September 14. For Britain’s part, Cameron announced Friday that it would expand its Syrian Vulnerable Persons Relocation program, which has facilitated the resettlement of 216 refugees to date.
“Given the scale of the crisis and the suffering of people, today I can announce that we will do more, providing resettlement for thousands more Syrian refugees,” Cameron said at a news conference in Portugal.
Considering the sheer number of people pouring into Europe’s border towns, it is unlikely that Cameron’s promise will satisfy critics who want Britain to accept tens of thousands of refugees—and not just from Syria.
The United Kingdom has lagged in sheltering refugees in general, not just Syrians. In the first quarter of this year, Germany took in more than 73,000 asylum applications, followed by Hungary, which had more than 32,000, according to Eurostat. By comparison, the UK has accepted about 7,300 applications.
The United Nations High Commissioner Antonio Guterres has called on European Union countries to accept up to 200,000 refugees from several different war zones. The strategy is aimed at helping all people fleeing war and persecution and must replace Europe’s current piecemeal approach, Guterres said in a statement.
“No country can do it alone, and no country can refuse to do its part,” said Guterres. “The only way to solve this problem is for the union and all member states to implement a common strategy, based on responsibility, solidarity and trust.”