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Child refugee crisis: now is the time to say “never again”

By Kate O’Sullivan, Save the Children Information and Communications Manager in Greece

Three girls play at an informal refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos.
Girls play at an informal refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos.

The devastating photo of little Alan Kurdi, washed up on the shores of Turkey, has shifted government policy across Europe and sparked acts of solidarity across the continent.

But for those of us working in Greece, one of the frontlines of this crisis, this tragedy is not unexpected.

Children are drowning in the Mediterranean; this was already widely known. That it took a photo to push change creates mixed feelings for those of us supporting children in danger every single day.

Relief, anger and dismay

Feelings of relief that something is changing; anger and dismay that this is what it takes to make this change.

We don’t have photos of the 10,000 children who’ve died in Syria, and the thousands more in Afghanistan or Iraq.

Nor do we have photos of the two million children who’ve fled Syria, or of those fleeing hardship and poverty.

Or of those who will be forced to board unsafe dinghies because there is no other option for them to reach Europe.

What we do know is that if Alan and his brother Galip had made it, they would have joined the thousands of children arriving and moving through Europe right now, seeking to live in a country without war, to go to school and to be safe and happy.

We must do more

Save the Children is working in the countries that these children are fleeing from and we’re working here in Greece to provide food, hygiene items like nappies and soap. Together with local voluntary groups we are also working to protect children from abuse and exploitation.

We’re also working across Europe to support children on the move but we need to ensure they get here safely and to make sure they have somewhere safe to go.

The commitments from some European countries to accept more refugees is a positive move but 380,000 people have arrived across the Mediterranean this year and we need a larger, Europe-wide response.

We also need safe, legal ways for people, especially children, to come here to Europe.

Dangerous journeys

People tell me daily that their journeys by boat were dangerous. Engines break down in the middle of the sea. Smugglers overload boats with too many people and force people to cross the sea even when it is unsafe.

It is only because the journey is shorter between Turkey and Greece than that between Libya and Italy that hundreds more people have not died making that crossing.

But with winter approaching and the boats so unsafe, this journey will become more and more dangerous, and the numbers of arrivals- for the moment – are not decreasing.

A defining moment

The 1951 Refugee Convention came about after the Second World War, when millions of Europeans had no choice but to seek refuge. The continent is now facing the biggest refugee and migrant crisis since then.

How we respond will define Europe in our time.

Those who are arriving have little or no choice about fleeing.

Witnesses to horror

I can tell you of a grandmother from Syria who fled under gunfire with ten of her grandchildren and how they saw limbs on the streets, whole families dying, homes destroyed.

Of a Syrian woman who never knew whether her family would come home again once they walked out the front door.

Of a mother who left Syria because her eight-year-old son had seen so many beheadings.

Of a four-year-old girl from Iraq who has never spoken a word because the atrocities she has seen have affected her so much.

Of a family fleeing warlords in Afghanistan, who saw burned bodies as they escaped and who hid in an Iranian forest.

Of children separated from their father with no way of knowing whether he is still alive.

The choice we must make

Alan’s father has chosen to return to Kobane and won’t come to Europe now. I cannot blame him.

He wanted safety for his children but collectively Europe failed him – we didn’t allow him a way to bring his family to safety.

Now is the moment that we define how we treat children who come to our shores fleeing war and poverty. Now is the time to say ‘Never again’.

Now is the time to make a choice. And our choice must be that no more children should die seeking happiness and safety.

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