The Refugee Crisis, 6 Months After Alan Kurdi’s Death

Two people-smugglers were sentenced in Turkey to four years and two months each in prison for the boy’s death.

Turkish paramilitary police officers escort Muwafaka Alabash and Asem Alfrhad for their trial Friday in Bodrum, Turkey. (AP)

On September 2, 2015, we reported for the first time about the body of a Syrian boy found on a beach near the Turkish resort of Bodrum. The boy, Alan Kurdi, was one of 14 Syrians on a boat that sank in the Mediterranean en route to Europe. A photograph of his lifeless body became the defining image of the refugee crisis spawned by the Syrian civil war.

On Friday, a little more than six months later, a Turkish court convicted two people-smugglers each to four years and two months in prison for the death of Kurdi and four others.

That news comes on the same day as two related developments: First, Eurostat, the European Union’s statistical agency, reported Friday that 1.2 million people claimed asylum in Europe in 2015—double the previous year’s number. Syrians, Afghans, and Iraqis topped the list. Second, the EU announced a $3.3 billion payment, the first of several, to Turkey so it can deal with migrants and refugees on its territory.

The EU is reeling under the influx of migrants and refugees fleeing the civil war in Syria and unrest elsewhere. As individual member states have taken unilateral measures at the border to slow the flow of the newcomers, much of the pressure is being felt by Greece, often the first country to which migrants and refugees using the Mediterranean route arrive. About 2,000 people are arriving in Greece daily, and some 25,000 people are stuck in migrant camps in the country because their geographic path to their favored destinations—Germany and Sweden—has been blocked off or slowed by other countries. Austria, for example, says it will allow 80 people to enter each day. (The U.S., by contrast, has committed to accepting 10,000 refugees this fiscal year; it took in 114 in February—a number Human Rights First, a humanitarian group, called “lackluster.”)

It is in these circumstances that Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, visited Greece and Turkey on Thursday. He urged them to limit the westward flow of migrants, but also supported the Greek prime minister’s call for a unified response from the EU—something that looks increasingly unlikely given that many member states are pursing their own policies. Tusk also urged those people unlikely to be classified as refugees to not come to Europe. The EU views those people fleeing wars in Syria and unrest in Iraq as having legitimate asylum cases; it does not draw a similar conclusion with people from Afghanistan. (For a difference between the terms refugees and migrants, go here.)

Despite the calls, the number of people taking the Mediterranean route to come to Europe has steadily increased. This year alone, about 135,000 people have made the crossing—with Syrians making up the largest number. The civil war in their country has resulted in 4.8 million registered refugees, 2.7 million of whom live in Turkey. The numbers fleeing to Europe began rising last fall, and spiked at around the same time as Russia’s intervention  in the Syrian civil war in late September on the side of President Bashar al-Assad.

But there is a faint glimmer of hope in the five-year-long conflict. A cessation of hostilities mediated by Russia, which backs Assad, and the U.S., which supports some of the groups fighting him, is mostly holding after one week, and it has resulted in a sharp decline in the violence. European nations are now hoping that the temporary halt in fighting—which does not include ISIS or the al-Qaeda-backed al-Nusra front—leads to a permanent cease-fire, one that would slow, if not end, the flow of people fleeing Syria. The UN is expected to resume indirect talks with the government and rebel groups next Wednesday.