As Another Syrian Child Drowns at Sea, Greece and Turkey Trade Blame on Social Media

Nearly five years after Europe’s conscience was stung by the image of a young Syrian refugee’s death, another Syrian boy's drowning goes almost unnoticed.

01 March 2020, Greece, Lesbos: A boat is moored on the beach after migrants and refugees who have landed on the Greek island of Lesbos. Photo: Angelos Tzortzinis/dpa (Photo by Angelos Tzortzinis/picture alliance via Getty Images)
The remains of a dinghy used by refugees and asylum-seekers to reach the Greek island of Lesvos from Turkey this week. Photo: Angelos Tzortzinis/picture alliance via Getty Images

Nearly five years after Europe’s conscience was stung by the image of a young Syrian refugee’s lifeless body washed up on a beach, another Syrian boy drowned on Monday when a dinghy filled with refugees and asylum-seekers fleeing Turkey for the safety of Greece capsized in the Aegean Sea.

Unlike in 2015, when the horrifying images of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi face down in the Turkish sand prompted an immediate outpouring of sympathy for the plight of Syrian refugees, the drowning of the 6-year-old off the Greek island of Lesvos this week has attracted little attention.

One reason is that the political climate in Europe and the United States has changed dramatically since then, as political leaders who offered shelter to Syrians fleeing chaos at home have been either replaced or cowed into closing their borders by a xenophobic, populist backlash.

Another factor is that no photographs of the victim have emerged. Instead, coverage of the tense stand-off between Greece and Turkey over which side is to blame for the appalling treatment of refugees and migrants at their land and sea borders has been illustrated by selectively edited video clips released by the two governments.

On Monday, as news of the boy’s death was reported, Greek officials released video of its own coast guard officers screaming “Go back!” at a dinghy filled with migrants and refugees in the eastern Aegean.

The Greek news site Kathimerini reported that coast guard officials said that the dinghy seen in the footage was the same one that later capsized off the coast of Lesvos, killing the young boy.

According to Greece, the video showed that a nearby Turkish patrol boat seen in the background had “escorted” the migrant craft to Greek waters, in concert with people smugglers.

Turkish officials responded by sending news organizations their own video, which showed a Greek coast guard ship and patrol boat repelling a different migrant dinghy, forcing it back with poles and firing warning shots into the sea.

Despite some confusion over the two video clips, it was clear that each showed a different boat, since the dinghy seen in the Turkish footage had black markings on it, whereas the one seen in the Greek footage did not.

Greece’s new right-wing prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, said in a statement after a phone call with President Donald Trump that the American leader had voiced support for his government’s decision to shut its border and stop accepting asylum claims from anyone who entered its territory illegally, despite a surge in Syrians fleeing their homes during a government offensive on the rebel-held territory of Idlib. Trump, the Greek prime minister’s office said, “recognized the right of Greece to enforce the law on its borders.”

Since December, nearly a million Syrians have been displaced by the Syrian government offensive on the final pocket of rebel-controlled territory in Idlib. Turkey, which already shelters millions of Syrians, has pressed Europe to help share the burden by opening its borders with Greece to refugees and asylum-seekers.

After taking visiting European leaders to his country’s land border with Turkey on Tuesday, Mitsotakis accused Turkey of attempting to blackmail Europe. “My duty is to protect the sovereignty of my own country,” the prime minister said in a statement tweeted by his office. “At the same time, Greece is also doing Europe a great service. The borders of Greece are the external borders of the European Union. We will protect them.”

As the International Rescue Committee noted in a statement on the crisis, there has been a surge in violence recently on the Greek islands of Lesvos, Samos, and Chios, “with asylum seekers and aid workers being targeted by local populations who have had enough of bearing the brunt of European migration policies.”

“For almost five years Greece has struggled to manage the arrival of refugees on the islands; reception centers are at six times their capacity, with almost 40,000 people living in centers with space for 6,000,” Imogen Sudbery of the IRC said. “It is shameful,” she added, that Syrians fleeing the violence, “arrive on Europe’s shores only to be threatened by the European forces to which they are looking for safety.”

“It is clear that vulnerable people are being used as pawns in a bigger political context,” Sudbery said. “It is not beyond the reach of a wealthy and stable region like Europe to welcome people seeking protection in a fair and dignified way. E.U. member states need to step in with a solution.”

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