On 9 August, the Aegean became once more a graveyard for seven refugee children after a boat carrying around 13 refugees sank off the coast of Aydin province. A total of 9 people lost their lives. This recent tragedy happened nearly three years after Alan Kurdi, a small boy from Syria, drowned along with his mother and five-year old brother when the boat that carried them capsized off the coast of Turkey. The harrowing images of his little lifeless body seemed to sensitize the global community about the refugee crisis.
Since then European leaders’ empathy to the tragedy unfolding in Europe’s shores has turned to shameful policies such as containing thousands of refugees in miserable conditions in one of the Aegean islands’ hotspots; and aiming to return them to a country where they cannot enjoy effective protection (Turkey) and/or are at risk of being refouled to Syria or Afghanistan where they can be exposed to serious human rights violations. Meanwhile, EU politicians have hailed the amoral deals concluded with Turkey and Libya as ‘success stories’ and cited the reduction of deaths at sea as the reason.
Still, UNHCR’s recent bleak announcement on refugee deaths at sea continuing in proportionally larger numbers – tells a different story. Between January and early August, 1,524 refugees and migrants died during their attempt to reach Europe. Out of those, 105 including at least 28 children perished in the Aegean, off Turkey’s Mediterranean coast and off the coast of Northern Cyprus.
Further, at least 11 refugees including 8 children and their mothers have perished in three separate incidents this year during their attempt to reach Greece through Evros river.
Zubair’s story as described to us by his brother Darab shows that behind these numbers are children with lives, aspirations and hopes to meet their loved ones. Zubair (better known as Sahil among his family and friends) was 9 years old when he perished along with 16 year-old brother, elder sister, father and four cousins when the boat that carried them capsized near the island of Agathonisi on 16 March 2018. He was desperately missing his mother who had managed to reach Greece with two of his siblings. 16 refugees including 9 children perished during the tragedy. Only three survived. Strong evidence points out to a failure by the Greek coastguard to conduct a prompt search and rescue operation.
His family describes Zubair as intelligent, full of kindness, love and affection. Zubair was adored by his family and loved going to school but had to stop his education when the family fled Afghanistan. He was particularly close to his father and when the family reached Turkey, he learnt the language very fast and acted as an interpreter for him. ‘He would turn tears into laughter and kisses’, they said to us. His death was brutal and lonely. The three sole survivors of the tragedy said that Zubair fought hard with the waves and the cold in order to survive and he died alone as the rest had already perished or were unconscious.
Europe’s leaders have deliberately chosen to forget that desperate refugee families who undertake these arduous and often lethal journeys seek nothing but protection and/or reunification with their loved ones in the absence of legal and safe routes to reach Europe. And they have chosen to adopt policies that simply inflict nothing but misery to those seeking such protection.