A small boy washes up on a Turkish shore. The circling news vultures, always hungry for a meal, look at the stationary figure below and swoop in. A picture is taken and shared. The image of the doll-like child, lying face down on the shoreline, sets the broadcasting and online community alight. The shoes, the clothes, the way the small boy lies in the surf, as though he has just tripped and tumbled into the surf for a second—everything about the image says hits, likes, retweets, comments, and recaptured television audiences.
The vultures feast as the Syrian refugee crisis finally makes shore and headlines in Europe.
Flagging newspaper dailies have front page stories, cable news has riveted viewers. The scrolling ticker tapes at the bottom of news broadcasts consume alliterations, assonance, and bad puns by the mouthful.
Continent In Crisis
Hungary For Freedom: Refugees Angry In Budapest
Since it made its way to online news outlets the image’s publication has been criticised and defended; the 140-character debates about media ethics and sensitivity burn and rage between journalists and media observers. Irrespective of the propriety of the image’s release, for a while, Syria’s refugees manage to squeeze themselves into the world’s social media streams between cappuccinos and fleek eyebrows. The refugees’ tenure in the overstimulated online consciousness is tenuous; their popularity flits between capricious hashtags offering support and whatever else enamours the world on that particular day. The desperate families compete for attention with BuzzFeed lists and twenty-second teaser trailers for one-minute film trailers. Remaining relevant online is a feat harder to accomplish than the long journeys the asylum seekers have taken to escape their country.
Syria’s populace has been on the run since 2011. As the warring factions of the region—the Syrian government, the opposition, and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)—continue to shell each other men, women, and children able to muster courage abandon their homes and become breeze-blown around the Middle East, fleeing to any place willing to take them in.
Syria’s immediate neighbours host the world’s newest refugee population. Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey are stretched as they absorb the fleeing Syrian diaspora. The refugee camps swell day by day as more Syrian families leave their country and journey to any place that provides food and shelter. International relief agencies feed who they can; when the food runs out the refugees return to their staple diet of hope and waiting. They wait for papers to be stamped, vaccines to be given, clothes to be donated. They wait for their young children to continue learning their alphabet.
Syrians with the resources and energy to travel beyond their country’s neighbours set their sights on Western Europe. They negotiate bribes with predatory sea captains for safe passage across the Mediterranean and jostle for space on rickety boats. Late at night they brave the journey across the sea, joining economic migrants from Africa also trying to reach Greece before making their way to Italy, Spain, Portugal, France, and, further on, England, Sweden, Norway, and Finland. The migrants and the refugees are tired, hungry, and wild-eyed. And they are desperate. They huddle together, thoughts floating to the future waiting for them: there is aid in Europe, there is water, there is food.
There will be paperwork, to be sure, and, possibly, there might be a period of detention while the relevant authorities decide what to do with them. But at least there will be no bombs.
The thought comforts them. There will be no bombs, no bullets, no beatings, no persecution.
Europe is waiting.
The battered boats brave the pelagic perils of the Aegean Sea. This stretch of water, once braved by Jason and his Argonauts, and by Odysseus, is the only obstacle between them and their promised land.
They pray, they hope, they prepare. A home beyond home awaits. The boats sail on into the night.
The next day a small boy washes up on a Turkish shore.
One a stifling day at the University of Cape Town’s Refugee Law Clinic, two years before the waters of the Aegean deliver social media its latest trending topic, a Somalian woman clutches a wriggling baby boy to her chest. Her hair is covered by a black hijab; the reddish brown skin of her face is smooth but for a long scar on her left cheek running from her temple to the bottom of her jawline. She has dark, attentive eyes, and a small frown creases her oval face as she tries to pacify the child. She readjusts the baby in her arms, rocking and cooing to it in Somali. For a moment, the baby is still.
She shifts her weight on her plastic chair and, in broken and halting English, continues explaining her reasons for seeking asylum in South Africa to the young assistant filling in her refugee status appeal form.
The rapes and the hunger drove her from her home. The rapes and the hunger are still there.
“I no go back. I get this.”
She points to the scar on her face.
She pauses, says something in Somali. Her eyes search for a word or a phrase.
“Home is…hurt. I stay here. Is better for baby.”
The assistant makes short notes on her form as the baby fidgets again, drawing the woman’s attention away. In tight English he records her words on the neatly spaced lines of the form the Department of Home Affairs issues to all asylum seekers whose applications it rejects. Within thirty days of being denied recognised refugee status all asylum seekers have to launch an appeal or review to have their cases investigated.
Outside the young assistant’s office, at the end of a narrow corridor is a reception filled with asylum seekers waiting to be helped with various legal issues. Some need help in filling in refugee status appeal forms, some are there to ask for advice about places to work or stay. Their legal concerns are varied but urgent; asylum seekers’ lives are ruled by deadline dates. File today, wait tomorrow. File more papers in a week’s time, and then wait some more.
For the asylum seekers the administrative limbo between filing paperwork and waiting for responses, positive or negative, is its own sort of reprieve. Waiting for an answer is better than the finality of missed application deadlines, rental terminations, or police harassment and arrests when temporary asylum seeker permits expire.
File today, live tomorrow. Then file again.
It is important all of the asylum seekers are promptly served. To prevent the reception area from filling up everyone at the legal clinic works quickly. The assistant’s blue ballpoint pen glides across the form as he shortens his sentences. In the rooms on either side of his office are other assistants also trying to condense each asylum seeker’s story of pain, abuse, violence, loss, and discrimination into twenty lines.
“You are South Africa?” she asks.
He looks up from his writing. “No. Rwandan.”
“You are also refugee?”
“No.” He continues making notes on her form, recording her appeal number, her address, and her telephone number. He reads over his notes to make sure everything the form requires is present.
A moment later she asks, “You live Rwanda?”
He looks up again. “No. I live in Namibia. I haven’t lived in Rwanda since we left.”
“Yes, we left in 1994.” He continues reading the form again, crossing out an errant repetition in her reasons for appealing the rejected decision.
“Bis, So you also know. Home is hurt.”
He looks up from his neat script at the woman again. They share a look. He turns his attention back to the form.
‘Yes. Home is where the hurt is,’ he thinks.
Satisfied with his work he tells the woman in slow English he has noted her reasons for leaving Somalia. He informs her, with deliberate care, the process that will follow: the form will be filed and resubmitted to the Department of Home Affairs for reconsideration. If the application is successful she will be issued with a refugee permit. If it is rejected yet again then the legal clinic might take her case to court if they have evidence to build a legal case for her.
She nods her understanding when he finishes talking.
He hands her the appeal form and asks her to sign it. He then leaves the room to make a copy of the document. When he returns to the office he tells her that they are done for now and holds the door open for her.
She stands up, holding her child in her arms. Then she bends forward, angling her back a little, and places the child on her back. Quickly she throws a maroon cloth over the baby, pulling at its length to form a cradle underneath its buttocks. She pulls the baby’s legs to her rib cage and then tightens the cloth to hold the infant in place. She deftly ties two knots using the dangling ends of the cloth, the first underneath her breasts and the second in the middle of her navel.
“Bis, I wait for answer?” she asks as she adjusts the baby’s weight on her back.
“Yes. Now you wait for an answer.”
As she passes through the door and into the waiting room of her life again she pauses and thanks him, offering her right hand, clasped at the forearm with her left. An African sign of respect between unequals. Even though she is much older than him she curtsies before she leaves.
As he closes the door behind her the baby on her back gives him an unblinking stare.
The assistant walks back to his desk and sits behind it in silence for a minute. Then he sighs and walks out to the reception area to fetch the next asylum seeker.
Back in Europe, the Dogan News Agency is still selling its images of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi to media outlets around the world. Viewer discretion banners are hastily typed as grave news anchors carefully practice their vocal cadences before they deliver the saddening images to the world.
Channels lead with the image of the three-year-old and then cut to images of Syrian refugees sleeping in long lines outside Budapest’s Keleti station. There are children crying, men and women with glass-eyed looks on their faces as the night descends. In some shots, children sleep on makeshift beds of bags and jackets, anything softer than the pavement underneath will do.
The Hungarians have stopped the Syrian refugees from boarding trains that will take them to other Eurozone countries. The tension between the refugees and the silent guards who block the station entrance builds. Angry Syrians scream at journalists’ cameras, asking for their humanity to be recognised.
The broadcasts are cut with images of African immigrants being transferred from unsound vessels onto rescue boats in the Mediterranean. The reporters talk about Europe’s growing migrant crisis, of countries struggling to cope with the influx of desperate people leaving their homes in Africa to search of work in Europe.
In the same sentences they talk about refugees and migrants. The reporters do not discern between the two. Everyone and anyone who is not European is headline fodder now.
A small boy has washed up on a Turkish shore and it is time for news to be made.
The delayed seven o’clock train from Wynburg rattles into the Cape Town station at eight o’clock. Megan climbs out of the first-class coach, strolls to the turnstiles, and shows the warden her monthly boarding pass. As she joins the press of bodies heading towards the city centre she mentally composes a tweet to add to the Aylan Kurdi hashtags that are still burning on her timeline. She struggles to come up with a composition that will be retweeted, and, after looking at her cellphone screen for the time, quickens her pace.
Miriam alights from the last third-class carriage and makes her northward journey to the Department of Home Affairs’ branch on the foreshore. She walks briskly, hoping there will not be too many people waiting outside the refugee processing centre today. The train’s mid-track malfunction between Newlands and Rondebosch cost her a valuable space in the queue.
Yesterday only a handful of people were served at the office. She had stood in the snaking queue underneath Nelson Mandela Boulevard with the other asylum seekers patiently waiting to be admitted inside. At three-thirty a gruff official had come out and quickly told the assembled group that they would be closing soon. They would have to come back tomorrow. A couple of people had complained and raised their voices in protest. Everyone else sighed and made their way back to the train station and taxi rank to go back to their homes. They would be back tomorrow.
As Miriam makes her way to the foreshore she hopes she will be luckier today.
Two days ago, while cleaning the Newlands apartment complex that employed her she had seen the dead boy on the news and felt a pang of sadness for the small life washed up on the shore. She could not follow the entire news broadcast because her English was not so good but she could make out enough to know that refugees in Europe were being welcomed. In Germany people were standing at train stations, waiting with colourful signs, singing. She even heard that the Finnish prime minister offered his house to Syrian refugees.
Her Zimbabwean coworker had told her that on the Internet South Africans were angry that the Syrian refugees were not getting help from Europe. The two women had exchanged bitter laughs.
Miriam looks at her watch and feels her stomach drop a little. Twenty past eight.
‘Maybe today will be okay,’ she thinks.
She hopes that a dead baby washed up on a Turkish shore will make the officials sympathetic today.
Author’s note: One of the most educational places in which I have worked in my life is UCT’s Refugee Rights Clinic. It is a place of stories. Some are sincere, deserving legal protection, and some, sadly, are not. The latter kind detracts from the good work spent trying to give the former kind a happy ending. Still, my time there brought me into contact with the kinds of people you will see on CNN, Al Jazeera, or the BBC today. Their skin colour might have changed but their worries and fears are the same. Food, shelter, security. A sense of permanence. Belonging, even if it is for a short while. These are the things they ask for.
If you would like to help the Syrian refugees obtain these things, click here. If you would like to obtain more information about UCT’s Refugee Law Clinic, click here. If, like many people, you do not know enough about refugees and want to know more, then click here.
Cover image designed by: Rémy Ngamije.