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How Many Babies Have to Die Like Alan Kurdi Before the World Acts?

One year after a little boy washed up on a Turkish beach, the world is still reluctant to care about the refugee crisis in Europe.

Nilufer Demir

ROME — Alan Kurdi was supposed to be the last dead baby to wash up on a beach.

Sadly, he wasn’t.

When his tiny lifeless body in blue shorts and a red T-shirt was photographed on a Turkish shoreline Sept. 2, 2015—exactly one year ago—world leaders were horrified by the image. It seemed to symbolize the collective indifference to the war in Syria and the refugee crisis that carnage has provoked. Many made promises to stop children from dying at sea.

Quite clearly, no one kept those promises.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that on average, two children die every single day trying to cross the treacherous seas to safety in Europe.

Whether they are Syrians or Africans or Afghans, they all drown the same way. They are surely terrified when they lose the grip of their parent’s hand, if they were lucky enough to have a parent accompany them. And they are definitely alone as they go under the water one last time.

Sure, in the beginning after Kurdi’s picture was published, it looked like things might get better for the hundreds of thousands of desperate people fleeing unthinkable conditions. Borders temporarily opened. Asylum applications for families were rushed. There were even a few safe corridor flights directly from Syria into Europe.

But then, once the haunting image of Kurdi’s tiny body faded (largely replaced in the public mind by the aftermath of terrorist attacks in Europe), the fences went back up. The world looked away once again. The children kept dying.

If the UNHCR estimate is correct (and it is probably quite low) at least 730 children have died since Kurdi. More than 70 children died in the first month alone after his body was found. Many of the children’s bodies never wash up on shore. Many are never counted as statistics. They simply sink, resting in the mass graveyard that the Mediterranean has become. They are part of a lost generation of children who will never know safety and security—not even for one day.

It is easy enough to lament the fact that nothing has really changed since Kurdi died, when the real issue is finding a solution to make sure people get to safety alive.

Sanj Srikanthan, vice president for Europe at the International Rescue Committee, says a lack of information is still the biggest obstacle in keeping refugees safe and getting countries to accept them.

“If we could go back to the time before Alan took that journey, we can see what could have been done,” he told The Daily Beast. He says people weren’t being told the true risks and the high death toll for those making the journey from Turkey to Greece.

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He says that when Kurdi’s picture was published in the Middle East, it may have given people pause, but he doubts few curtailed their plans to escape. “Even after his death, families with children that age continue to make the crossing. But more of them do understand what’s at stake now.”

He agrees that a safe corridor program that is shared throughout Europe could work, but only if governments are willing to convince citizens that refugees could be vital members of communities and good for local economies. “We need immigration and refugees,” he says. “But even with a strong economic argument, you still fight misperceptions of who the refugees are.”

In a soon-to-be released study the IRC commissioned on refugees in Europe, Srikanthan was surprised to find that most people cited economic, not security, concerns as a primary reason why they didn’t want refugees.

“Whether we like it or not there are a million plus people in Europe and we need to make the best of it,” he says. “That means expanding the labor market. We don’t have the luxury of burying our heads in the sand on this.”

He also says there should be a separate mechanism in place for children, citing the fact that of the 65.3 million refugees worldwide, more than 100,000 are unaccompanied minors.

And many will end up taken advantage of, trafficked, exploited, or like Kurdi.

Kurdi’s father Abdullah survived the journey and buried Alan and his brother Galip, and their mother Rehana, who also died at sea. At his family’s funeral he said, “Let this be the last” as he described how his children slipped from his hands.

A year later, he knows Alan and the rest of his family died in vain. “Everyone claimed they wanted to do something because of the photo that touched them so much,” he told Germany’s Bild magazine. “People are still dying and nobody is doing anything about it. In the end, the picture did not change much.”