Deadly Voyages and the UN Race against the Tide

Drowned body of Aylan Kurdi’s (the three-year old Syrian boy)
Drowned body of Aylan Kurdi (the three-year old Syrian boy) laying face down on a Turkish coast–a harrowing image that has brought the plight migrants to a tipping point /Turkish News Agency

As the world is experiencing the second biggest mass movement of people since the end of the second world war, Alhassan Yushau gives a personal narrative to the increasing rate at which desperate immigrants get “eaten up” by the sea—while trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea or Panama Canal to reach the safety of Europe or North America–highlighting the role being played by the United Nations to bring this crisis to the attention of the international community to ease the plights of migrants and curb these unnecessary deaths.

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“They got him…hungry and weak…dirtier than sin…frazzled like a rabbit trans-fixed in night traffic!”

That’s the dream I had of Zak, my Nigerian cousin—at the hands of the overzealous, unforgiving American immigration police at the US-Mexican border. Zak had graduated as a Mass Communications major from the prestigious Ahmadu Bello University in northern Nigeria. Like many young African graduates these days, he wanted to leave what he thought is a “hopeless continent” to the “land of milk and honey”—by any means possible.

Even before he got to college, Zak’s application for US visa had been rejected six times. But that only strengthened his resolve to keep trying—by any means necessary. So last summer, he worked his way through the “mandarins” of the Nigerian football administration, got embedded in the national team, the Super Eagles, and off he flew with the world cup contingent to Brazil—serving as “Communications Assistant” for the national team.

After the tournament, Zak decided to go “underground”, secure odd jobs, raise some money, and embark on a daring mission to get to the United States.

But I only got to know of the above well thought-out secret plan when I reached out to Zak just to say hello and ask when the team’s departure date was.
After a few minutes of brotherly pleasantries, I got straight to the point:

“What’s your plan for the future?” I asked.

“To the Big Apple,” he said quite exuberantly.

It clicked to me then that when you have the western media continuously beaming out images of the vanilla side of Manhattan New York, the pristine upmarket neighborhood of California, and the “bling-bling” enclaves of Jay-Z and Kanye West, these prove irresistible to many of these young men in Africa.

“Do you have a US visa?” I asked.

“No. I’ll be traveling by land and sea,” he disclosed.

“By what and what?” I asked.

“By land and sea,” he asserted.

With news of a capsized boat of migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea fresh in my mind, I panicked and impulsively began to relate the risks involved— to talk him out of it. But my cousin had made up his mind:

“Others have gone through the same route and succeeded, why can’t I?” he argued.

I asked Zak to spare me at least five minutes of his time to discuss it further and he did.

I took him through a banter of many adventurous attempts to cross the Mediterranean that ended up in harrowing disaster–referring to a popular documentary Exodus from Africa, by Sorious Samura.

After almost 15 minutes, I noticed an unusual silence on the other end of the line. Then I asked Zak if he could hear me clearly.

But my once “highly-determined fighter” of a cousin was drop-dead-silent for about 15 seconds—”crest-fallen” by the weight of my dreadful tales.

After an intense sigh of relief, he came around:”Bro, I thank God for your life and kind-heartedness. I’ve changed my mind.”

Two weeks later, Zak texted me: “Urgent, bro. Please check your Facebook page.”

When I did, I got devastated for the rest of the day: Pictures of three promising young men—all of them distant relatives (among them a university graduate with a wife and two kids)—reported dead while on a ferry through the Panama Canal en route to the US!

” To God we belong; to him we shall return,” I interjected, shaking through my nerve and sinew.

The next day, Zak called, but could hardly utter a coherent sentence—as he sobbed intensely.

“You saved my life, bro!” he confessed.

“No, I didn’t. God did—by discounting you in the statistics because he had a master plan for you—a better means to get to the United States through patience, perseverance and “playing-by-the rules,” I assured Zak.

Zak’s situation, along with the plight of my three dead relatives is only symptomatic of the hydra-headed problem that is plaguing humanity today. According to the UNHCR, 21,800 migrants reached Europe through the Mediterranean in 2014 while 3,500 died on the way. Last year, 60,000 people attempted the journey but 1,800 feared dead.
Migrants boat-afp

Migrants, most of them from Eritrea, jump into the water from a crowded wooden boat as they are helped by members of an NGO during a rescue operation at the Mediterranean sea, about 13 miles north of Sabratha /AFP

Enter Aylan Kurdi—the tipping point

Unlike the case of my three relatives who got drowned, not all immigrants decide to leave their homes for economic reasons. In fact, many are only fleeing conflicts. In 2013, some 46,960 Syrian refugees applied for asylum in Europe. Last year, over half a million would flee the conflict-ravaged country, according to the UNHCR.

In September last year, the world woke up to a horrifying image of Aylan Kurdi, the 3-year old Syrian boy discovered face down by a Turkish police officer—having drowned (along with 12 of his relatives) and later washed ashore while trying to reach a Greek island from the Turkish resort town of Bodrum. Aylan’s heart-breaking image became a tipping point—a tipping point that has now attached a serious sense of urgency to the plight of migrants as they take desperate risks to reach the safety of Europe and North America.

World leaders rouse against the tide:

First stop, Valletta

In a single mass exodus of migrants and refugees from various countries who set off to the European Union to seek asylum last year, about 1,200 would perish on the way when a number of boats carrying these huddled individuals sank in the Mediterranean Sea. What has been termed “The European Migrant Crisis” prompted a meeting by the European Council to discuss the situation of migrants in the Mediterranean Sea. It was followed by a special summit on immigration crisis on November 11-12 in Valletta, Malta, to discuss the crisis. It brought together leaders of the countries of origin, transit or destination points of the migrants, with the Secretary-General of the United Nations, representatives from the International Organization for Migration, African Union Commission, and the ECOWAS Commission in attendance.

The two-day summit, which came off “less confrontational” than envisaged, agreed on migration as a shared responsibility of the countries of origin, transit, and destination. The meeting also pledged to address the root causes of irregular migration and forced displacement, and undertook to enhance cooperation on legal migration and mobility—taking protection of rights of migrants and asylum seekers into consideration. Leaders also agreed to prevent and fight irregular migration, migrant smuggling, trafficking in human beings—by pledging to improve cooperation on return, readmission and reintegration.

The summit also pledged to act to improve the situation in the Horn of Africa, the Sahel, Lake Chad, and other socio-political turbulent parts of Africa to reduce the flow of refugees, with leaders undertaking to promote regular migration channels and to implement policies for integrating migrants into society.

The most significant outcome of the summit, however, is the signing of an agreement by both European and African leaders to set up Emergency Trust Fund to help development in African countries, and also encourage those countries to take back migrants who arrived in Europe. The fund pledged €1.8 billion in aid to Africa and €20 billion annual development assistance.

Second stop, London

Despite the xenophobic attitude of a section of the population of main land Europe–which informed the Brexit in England, London hosted a two-day international donor conference on the Syrian refugee crises last February (3-4) where world leaders and the humanitarian community pledged over $10 billion in immediate humanitarian aid and long-term support and protection of civilians.

“Today’s pledges will enable humanitarian workers to continue reaching millions of people with life-saving aid,” UN Secretary-General Ban ki-moon said at the event, which was jointly sponsored by the United Nations.

Third stop, Istanbul

When world leaders gathered in Istanbul last March (23-24) for the first-ever World Humanitarian Summit to set a forward-looking agenda for humanitarian action to collectively address future humanitarian challenges, the plight of migrants was brought to the forefront of deliberations. Delegates brainstormed on the most pragmatic, human-centered and all-hands-on deck approach to find a lasting solution to the problem.
“I call upon global leaders to place humanity – the concern for the dignity, safety and well-being of our citizens – at the forefront of all policies, strategies and decision-making. The World Humanitarian Summit must be for the people living on the frontline of humanity. They count on us. We cannot let them down,” said UN Chief Ban ki Moon via a video conference.

Next Stop, The United Nations, New York

In September this year when world leaders gather in New York for the annual UN General Assembly meeting, a high-level summit will be convened by the President of the UN General Assembly on September 19 to deliberate and reach consensus on a “humane and coordinated approach” to addressing the large movements of refugees and migrants. On the margins of the General Assembly meetings, the United States will as well demonstrate its leadership in the global efforts—when US President Barrack Obama hosts the ‘Leaders Summit on Refugees” on September 20 to seek more and sustained support as well as secure new commitments towards UN humanitarian appeals to ease the plights the Syrian and other refugees fleeing conflicts.

UN working; Kurdi’s Dad wailing

While the United Nations and other stakeholders have been working to ease the plight of migrants (including several behind the secene diplomatic wrangglings to stop the war in Syria), Abdullah Kurdi, the father of the late Aylan Kurdi, is hardly a happy man. Almost a year since his family drowned, he thinks world leaders have done too little too late:
“Politicians said after the death of my family: never again!” he told a German news paper.

“Everyone allegedly wanted to do something after photos had so moved them. But what is happening now? The dying goes on and nobody is doing anything.” he further lamented.
Abdullah Kurdi -AP

” Aylan’s father, Abdullah Kurdi says world leaders have done little to ease the plights of migrants and urges increased action to address the civil war in Syria” / AP

Last stop; political will, action, synergy, and information dissemination

The migration debate has for years been a controversial, emotive exercise. It has divided, but also united advocates on either side of the spectrum. Yet international conventions and policies have become more crucial to the discussion on migration and the plight of refugees than ever before. These conventions and policies offer ways to address migration as an issue facing humanity instead of just the few countries that are affected by its horrors.

But no significant impact can be made until we move beyond words and turn those policies into day-to-day actions—and while doing so, generate synergies through which we can determine our success or failure as a coalition of the willing. Nonetheless, Abdullah Kurdi would have had less to complain about if the UNHCR had put in place a means of transmitting information to the various refugee camps about the efforts being made to ease their plight. This would have had a positive psychological impact on Aylan’s father and many migrants in distress—while being a fitting posthumous tribute to the late Aylan Kurdi, my three dead relatives along with thousands of migrants who lost their lives crossing the sea to Europe or North America, and many of us relatives and associates would thank the international community, if these recommendations should be discussed and adopted during the high-level summit on the plight of migrants later in September this year.

Source: Alhassan Yushau / United Nations Correspondent / Africa News Analysis