Few photos shook the collective public conscience like that of the lifeless body of Syrian boy Alan Kurdi washed ashore in Turkey's western coast. Yet, four years after the toddler's death en route to Europe, the continent remains both a gateway to hope and a place unreachable by migrants, amid opposition to their arrivals from the majority of EU countries.
Two-year-old Kurdi's name was etched into the public memory when he drowned with his mother and elder brother as they traveled from Turkey to Greece. A frail, tiny figure lying motionless face down on the shore, Kurdi became the posthumous icon for campaigns to draw attention to the deadly journeys migrants take to reach Europe.
Today, a migrant rescue ship launched by a German charity bears his name and picks up migrants in the Mediterranean. Yet, just like its namesake, the ship cannot reach Europe as Italy's far-right interior minister Matteo Salvini banned it from Italian waters.
Kurdi's iconic photo changed the world's view of the migrant "crisis" as thousands of people fleeing civil war in Syria, conflicts and poverty in Asia and Africa sought a safe haven in Europe. The toddler was among 12, including eight children, who drowned in a sinking migrant boat traveling from Turkey's Bodrum to a nearby Greek island. His father was the only survivor from the family. As the award-winning photo by Turkish journalist Nilüfer Demir made the rounds on international media, Kurdi's father Abdullah became a voice for migrants appealing to the world to keep them "alive." "The whole world should see us. I lived through a disaster but I don't want others to suffer as we did," he said after the tragic death of his sons and wife.
The death prompted an overwhelming response from Western countries, with leaders of Spain, France and Italy calling for a solution to the migrant crisis. Germany and France announced new steps to review their policies toward migrants. The U.K. announced it would resettle 20,000 Syrians while the U.S. and the U.N. organized summits to respond to the migrants' plight.
Germany also relaxed its rules for admission of migrants. This was good news for a while but the numbers show that the drama still persists for many migrants. Overall, 32,741 illegal migrants died while trying to reach other countries since 2014 and 688 of them died in the Eastern Mediterranean, where Alan Kurdi died, and 1,654 among those perished in pursuit of a better life were children.
International Organization for Migration (IOM) official Julia Black told Anadolu Agency (AA) that 1,589 migrants died in the Eastern Mediterranean in the last five years. Black calls for the implementation of policies that will ensure "a safe and regular" route for migrants to end the deaths.
This year, 909 migrants died en route to European shores with 339 among them drowned. This number was 529 in the Americas, 185 in Africa, 29 in Asia and 85 in the Middle East.
EU members often bicker on how many migrants one country should take in and most eastern European countries keep doors closed to migrants with tight border controls. Charity vessels carrying migrants saved from dinghies are also a thorny issue for Europe. Countries littoral to the Mediterranean are reluctant to admit migrants from charity vessels. Last month, the U.N. refugee agency appealed to European governments to let rescue ships disembark migrants. Mediterranean countries have been the main destinations for migrants especially since an influx that began in 2015. Italy, Malta and Greece, however, complain of a lack of support from other EU countries on the matter.
Differences among EU member nations over how to manage mass migration have sparked a political crisis in Europe, while attempts to reform the bloc's asylum system have failed. The issue has been a vote-winner for far-right and populist parties.
Turkey, meanwhile, shoulders the burden European countries look to avoid by hosting more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees fleeing civil war, the largest such community in the world. In the face of disastrous journeys to Europe by illegal migrants, who often end up dead in the cold waters of the Aegean, Turkey has stepped up efforts to stop them. The efforts have paid off as 235,000 illegal migrants were intercepted in the first eight months of 2019.
The country bridges Europe and Asia and shares a border with EU members Bulgaria and Greece, placing it as the route to get into Europe for migrants from Asia and Africa. It has become a popular hub for illegal migrants seeking to cross into Europe. Greek islands near Turkey's Aegean shores are favorite destinations for migrants heading to Europe.
However, the journeys aboard unsafe, overcrowded boats often steered by inexperienced migrants turn out deadly. To reduce the number of illegal migrants on the dangerous Aegean Sea route, Turkey and the EU signed an agreement in 2016. The deal stipulates that Greece is to send migrants held on its Aegean islands back to Turkey. In return, Turkey is to send Syrian migrants it hosts to various EU countries. The deal also saw an escalated crackdown on human smugglers and increased sea patrols to prevent immigrants attempting to cross; for a while, it helped reduce the number. Yet, some desperate migrants still take the route even in winter, when a safe journey through the Aegean is nearly impossible aboard the overcrowded and unsafe dinghies.
Greece is Europe's main gateway for Syrian, Afghan and Iraqi migrants and accounts for more than half of the 56,000 migrants who have landed on the Mediterranean's northern shore this year. The numbers are small compared to the nearly 1 million people who fled to northern Europe through Greece in 2015. About 7,000 people landed on Greece's shores last month, the highest number since the deal between Turkey and the EU was signed.
Last Thursday alone, more than a dozen boats arrived with around 600 migrants, prompting the government's Council for Foreign Affairs and Defense to hold an emergency session. To curb the influx, Greece also plans to tighten its border controls and speed up deportations of rejected asylum-seekers.
MEMORY OF YOUNG BOY STILL FRESH IN BODRUM
Bodrum, a popular resort town that attracts holidaymakers from all around the world, has been a hub for migrants as well as it is a short distance from Greek islands in the Aegean Sea. Locals are accustomed to migrants anxiously awaiting on the town's coast to board boats while looking to evade security forces.
However, Kurdi's lifeless body was a grim reminder of how serious the migrant drama is.
Uğur Özdoğan, a 75-year-old man who spends his summers in Akyarlar, the Bodrum neighborhood where Kurdi's body was found, recalls the fateful day four years ago. Özdoğan remembers seeing an unusual crowd gathered on the coast and gendarme troops picking up "things" from the beach. He says he was "speechless" when he approached the crowd and saw Kurdi lying motionless on the ground, with waves touching the toddler's body.
"This was a day I cannot forget," Özdoğan told AA. "Baby Alan was probably one of many children who died here and most disappeared without a trace in the sea," he adds and called on migrants not to risk their lives. "They think the [Greek] islands are nearby but they don't know how dangerous and high the waves here are," he said.
Özdoğan says smugglers are the main culprits in migrant deaths, tricking them into taking a "safe" journey. Özdoğan himself was a victim of human smugglers who stole his boat to carry migrants. "I found it here, in the spot where Alan died. It was stuck on the beach as the water was shallow then. If they could move it, probably more migrants would have died," he said.