We can’t let this go on: Rukhsan Muhammed

On 29th November 2013, a photojournalist on a rescue boat in the Aegean Sea took the photograph below of Rukhsan Muhammed struggling to keep her child Mirwan alive. Later, the photographer sold the image to Anadolu Agency (a state-run press agency in Turkey) which licenced it to Getty Images:

Rukhsan Muhammed, one of the passengers of the boat carrying Syrian refugees to Greek Islands fights for her life after the boat sinks at Aegean Sea near the coastal city of Balikesir, in Turkey on November 29, 2013. Rukhsan Muhammed told a new aspect of her family’s dramatic escape, to Turkish authorities during her appearance in court this week. She explained that following the accident she used her suitcase as a means of life preserver to keep her 1,5 years-old child, Mirwan Muhammed, from drowning. But despite of all her efforts her son fell off the suitcase and got lost amongst the waves.

Yesterday I saw this photograoh on Facebook and I tweeted:

The discussion here about is it justifiable to show footage of people being killed is similar to a discussion I had with myself about posting the photo on twitter: Rukhsan Muhammed survived to reach Turkey, and may still be living there with her family, but her child died in the water when the boat sank: that photograph may be of the child’s last few moments of life. The headline of this article about families from Aleppo living as refugees in Turkey is A million invisible Syrian refugees: I thought, at least, with this photograph, Rukhsan Muhammed is not invisible.

The decision to call people like Rukhsan and Mirwan Muhammend “migrants” allows the Conservatives, still trying to justify David Cameron’s 2011 promise to exclude foreigners, to treat these refugees from the war in Syria as illegal immigrants who are trying to get into the UK without a job: Theresa May was in the news today declaring that the current flow of migrants into the UK was unsustainable.

The Italian government began an official sea and rescue operation, Mare Nostrum, on 18th October 2013, after 366 people died when a boat smuggling Eritrean refugees to Europe capsized 70 miles from Sicily, and 366 people – including all the children under 12 who were aboard – died in the sea before they could be rescued. A year later, after contributing to the rescue of an estimated 100,000 people, Mare Nostrum was closed down: the government of Italy could not afford to run a sea and rescue operation alone without assistance from other EU countries.

The EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom conceded in July 2014 that there was some need for a “scaled-down” version of Mare Nostrum, run by Frontex, which “promotes, coordinates and develops European border management”, supposedly in line with the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, in line with Integrated Border Management.

But she warned that Frontex alone would not be enough and that member states would have to contribute directly, and there was as yet no time frame for a possible EU substitution of Italy.

“Frontex is a small agency and cannot take over Mare Nostrum tomorrow. We will need more assets from the member states and that’s why we are asking Italy to sit together with us to try to identify exactly what would be needed,” she said.

“Frontex can do a lot, but we do not have the means to totally substitute (Mare Nostrum) unless all other member countries also contribute with vessels or helicopters or staff or money.”

Amnesty International begins its report on this situation calling this a “survival test”:

A survival test is being imposed by the EU and European governments on refugees seeking sanctuary and on migrants desperate for a life with dignity. In the absence of safe and regular routes into Europe, accepting the risk of drowning in the central Mediterranean is the price many refugees and migrants must pay to access asylum or job opportunities.

Most of the refugees who try the Mediterrean sea crossing are escaping from Syria’s civil war or Eritrea’s brutal military.

Operation Triton began as a supplement to the Italian coastguard operations on 1st November 2014: it is not as extensive as Mare Nostrum.

What is the UK’s position on this?

A very, very few aslyum seekers have managed to qualify for official UK help since January 2014. In May 2015:

Since the conflict in Syria began in 2011, around 12 million people have been displaced by the fighting and almost 4 million people, including 1.6 million children, have fled the country. Lebanon is now home to almost 1.2 million Syrian refugees (they make up over 20% of the country’s population); another 1.8 million have gone to Turkey, and Iraq has accomodated about a quarter of a million. Under a UN-backed government resettlement scheme, Britain has given homes to just 187.

Mohammed from Syria, one of the 187, now living in Bradford, says:

“I have a friend in Wakefield who travelled from Libya to Italy by boat a year ago. He arrived, but his sister died on the journey; she was left in the sea. I think it cost him about $1,200 to $1,500 to make that crossing. The boats are cheap and small and not safe. The person who manages the refugees puts about 1,000 people in the boat, when they are built for 200. For this reason, many are dead in the sea.

“The governments in Europe should help more,” Mohammed says. “If they helped more, then they wouldn’t decide to travel by boat.” The decision to take a boat is not taken lightly, he adds. “When somebody wants to travel in the sea, he has a special reason. There has to be a reason. When all other things are closed, he decides to open this door.”

On Wednesday 15th October 2014, Raymond Jolliffe, 5th Baron Hylton, one of the 92 hereditary peers who still have a seat in the House of Lords, had a question:

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what naval or air-sea rescue contribution they will make to prevent refugees and migrants drowning in the Mediterranean.

To which Joyce Anelay, a Tory life peer who is the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, replied:

We do not support planned search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean. We believe that they create an unintended “pull factor”, encouraging more migrants to attempt the dangerous sea crossing and thereby leading to more tragic and unnecessary deaths. The Government believes the most effective way to prevent refugees and migrants attempting this dangerous crossing is to focus our attention on countries of origin and transit, as well as taking steps to fight the people smugglers who wilfully put lives at risk by packing migrants into unseaworthy boats.

Let me unpack that for you. The official position of the UK government is that if we help refugees from Syria and Eritrea survive the crossing in the Mediterranean, that will only encourage more people to dare the risk. Whereas if we let them drown, that will discourage others from trying.

So, the UK provided no assistance even to Operation Triton.

In April this year, in the face of massive public disapproval, the EU conceded that it would triple the funding of Operation Triton and the UK agreed to send a helicopter carrier HMS Bulwark, two naval patrol boats and three helicopters. But the goal of Operation Triton is to protect Europe’s borders: it is not, as Mare Nostrum was, primarily a search-and-rescue operation. Amnesty International calls this a “face-saving not a life-saving operation”:

A planned tripling of finances towards Triton will not address the reality of the search and rescue needs in the Mediterranean unless the operational area is extended to the high seas where most of the deaths occur.

The number of confirmed deaths in the Mediterranean since the beginning of 2015, is over 2,500: but it is unknown how many people’s bodies have been lost at sea.

I think I can only say:


I’m sorry. I’m not normally a sweary blogger.

But really: people are drowning, and our government calls them swarming migrants, and declares that we should let them drown, because if they survive, others will come after them.

No. When someone is drowning, if you can, you pull them out.

We can pull them out. We have a navy: we have rescue helicopters. We are, though the Tories like to cry poormouth, the sixth-largest economy in the world. We can pull them out.

But our government has decided that we should let them drown.

We can’t let this go on.


Filed under Human Rights, In The Media, War

2 responses to “We can’t let this go on: Rukhsan Muhammed

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