‘Citizen humanity’ to change refugee policy, says UNHCR

UNHCR spokeswoman Melissa Fleming tells TRT World recent images of drowned Syrian refugee child may influence governments to do more to help asylum seekers

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokeswoman Melissa Fleming has said the image of a three-year-old Syrian boy who drowned in the Aegean sea this week as his family was attempting to cross into Europe will encourage governments to take on more refugees.

Images of the boy, whose lifeless body was found washed up on the Turkish coast after the boat he was travelling on sank between Turkey and Greece, has been circulating on the internet and media for days, spurring an outcry around the world for the European Union to do more to help refugees escaping war and poverty.

At least eleven Syrian refugees were confirmed to have drowned off the Turkish coastal city of Bodrum on Wednesday morning after two boats transferring refugees to the Greek island of Istankoy sank, adding to the increasing death toll of refugees to have drowned, making the perilous journey in the Aegean.

Speaking to TRT World over the image of the dead child, UNHCR spokeswoman Fleming said, “today I noticed a change, an outcry, a recognition of who these people are.”

“Sometimes maybe an image like that will shock into action,” she said, adding that the discovery of the bodies of another 71 refugees in a truck in Austria this week was also a “wake up call.” The truck was discovered near a highway close to Parndorf town in Burgenland state, about 50 kilometres southeast of Austria's capital Vienna.

The horrific discovery coincided with the start of a conference in Vienna which was attended by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, European Union Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini and head of the Balkan states on how to tackle the growing refugee crisis in the continent.

This discovery of the dead refugees led to an outpouring of sympathy for refugees struggling to find refuge in Europe.

“I have been noticing an extremely strong citizen movement, asking their governments to welcome refugees, to treat refugees humanely, to recognise it as the situation it is,” Fleming said, recalling that 20,000 people protested in the streets of the Austrian capital Vienna chanting “Refugees Welcome.”

“I have a feeling that citizen humanity is starting to influence leaders,” she added.

The spokeswoman also praised German Chancellor Angela Merkel for leading the way welcoming asylum seekers.

Germany confirmed late August that it had stopped remanding Syrian refugees to their first port of entry into the European Union (EU) by suspending the Dublin II agreement which states refugees can only seek asylum from the EU country in which they first arrive.

In practice, this means that countries like Greece or Italy are overwhelmed with applications, as thousands arrive by sea to their shores.

Last month, Germany revised its number of estimated refugees from 450,000 to 800,000.

The refugee crisis in Europe has been met with mixed reactions throughout the continent.

Eurostar passengers' travel was disrupted on Tuesday night, after refugees entered the railway tracks and climbed on trains near the Channel Tunnel in France.

Two thousand passengers, had to wait almost 16 hours to arrive in London on Tuesday night, because of the disruption of commute from Paris to London, upon refugees climbing on train tracks near the Channel Tunnel in France.

Two trains, one to London and one to Paris, had to return to the station, while two more Eurostar trains were cancelled on Wednesday.

Another London-bound train had to stay in Calais and could not get back to Paris because of a technical difficulty.

In the Czech Republic, Czech security authorities removed refugees from trains that were headed to Germany by detaining and stamping numbers on their arms with permanent ink - an act reminiscent of days of Nazi Germany during World War II.  

The refugees told reporters that they were traveling from the Hungarian capital Budapest after they purchased valid train tickets and were allowed to board by the Hungarian police.

Hundreds of refugees camping in Budapest were let through by Hungarian police security after a two-day standoff on Thursday. Most of the refugees hope to travel to Germany and other EU countries to seek for asylum.

Slovakian officials in August announced that they would accept 200 new refugee arrivals but only Christians would be accepted.

Meanwhile in Iceland, more than 12,000 Icelanders offered to house Syrian families after the Icelandic government announced that it can accept only 50 Syrian refugees a year.

Civilians volunteered their homes after Icelandic author Bryndis Bjorgvinsdottir posted an open letter on Facebook titled "Syria is calling," encouraging concerned Icelanders to use the page to communicate with the country’s Welfare Minister.

More than 350,000 refugees have crossed the Mediterranean this year in an attempt to enter Europe.

The International Organization for Migration says that some 2,600 refugees have died while trying to cross the sea by using unseaworthy boats. An estimated 234,778 people have made it to Greece and 114,276 people made it to Italy, while 2,166 debarked in Spain and 94 arrived in Malta.

The enormous number of refugees who have already crossed the Mediterranean Sea, far exceeds last year's number, which was 219,000 for the entire year of 2014.

EU member states agreed last month to accept 32,000 refugees arriving in Italy and Greece over the next two years, while the target was originally 40,000.

A number of refugees also follow a route through Turkey or Greece to reach the Balkans. From there, they cross over to the EU countries.

Turkey’s Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD) announced in July that it is building a new camp with a capacity for 55,000 refugees in anticipation of an expected wave of Syrian refugees to arrive in the near future.

AFAD officials declared that they are expecting 100,000 refugees might cross the Turkey’s Syrian border through the Oncupinar gate due to the possibility of an attack by the ISIS militant group.

Turkey, which has pursued an "open-door" policy for Syrian refugees, has accepted almost 2 million Syrians and has spent about $6 billion on taking care of them, while the international community has contributed by giving only around $300 million, the Turkish government announced in June.

The UN has said that some 250,000 people have been killed in the Syrian civil war and an estimated 7.6 million are internally displaced. About 5 million others have fled the country into neighbouring Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Iraq, as well as Europe.


TRTWorld and agencies