OPINION: The loss of a name and identity

"Without ID you are nothing and everything, / litmus for another country's acid test./ No rest now, blank slate, stateless enemy/ of those whose lips and fingers can be read."

In Haraga, South African poet Ingrid de Kok writes of migrants who attempt to stay in Italy without official documents by burning their fingertips with boiling wax so that they cannot be identified and deported.

The poem, written in 2009, is apt during these days of tragedy and suffering as we watch the mass displacement of peoples and their desperate move across Europe seeking to find a place called home.

This past week Aylan Kurdi became the face of this unfolding human suffering.

Who could not be moved by the picture of this little boy whose father risked his life and the lives of his family in search of a better life somewhere in Europe? The Kurdis were not sure how, but they needed to leave Bodrum, Turkey, and get to Kos, Greece, with its promise of a life free of war.

But that was not to be. Aylan's lifeless body washed up on the shore of one of Turkey's fashionable beaches as a grim reminder of how unjust and ephemeral life truly is.

For the past months, the refugee crisis has been building in Europe and EU leaders have seemed divided and at a loss as to how to deal with it. Not since World War 2 has the world seen such a movement of people in search of safety. The International Organisation for Migration has consistently been calling for those fleeing war zones, dictatorships and devastation to be treated with dignity and within the bounds of international law.

Yet, there is very little dignity when men, women and children risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean in search of a home die in rickety boats operated by ruthless smugglers. Images of men and women being numbered as they each Lampedusa Italy show the stark reality of life as a modern-day refugee or asylum-seeker; the loss of a name and identity, only the number, marking one out as someone 'processed' and 'captured' by a system which seems to be buckling under political, social and financial pressure.

Yet something needed to turn the tide of public sympathy too and Aylan Kurdi's tragic death seems to have done just that. As impatient migrants waited to board a train in Budapest, hundreds of Germans were waiting at train stations across the country to welcome refugees.

Even in England, David Cameron, with one foot outside Europe, was forced to soften his country's stance on creating space for those fleeing war and devastation. Many in London have offered to open their homes to those in search of a new life. Perhaps an impractical solution in the long term, but the world seems increasingly moved to compassion. That represents a welcome counter-narrative to the war mongering and suffering witnessed across the globe daily.

In the face of such human tragedy it is easy to forget the context. For the mass movement of Syrian people has been caused by a Syrian civil war that has become intractable. The Assad regime and Isis battle it out for a country that is largely in ruins. The long arm of international law has not reached Syria at all. The United Nations and the leaders of the world have been unable to stem the tide of violence and destruction.

In addition, who takes responsibility for the thousands of refugees and asylum seekers who are fleeing Afghanistan and Iraq as their countries continue to be war zones, long after the West has killed Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden?

America's geography has, not for the first time, isolated it from much of the crisis though some of it might well be historically laid at its feet surely? "Boots on the ground," some in Britain cry, yet who really has the stomach for a military solution to Syria? And so the flow of people will continue to swell.

As Germany prepares to settle 800,000 refugees, one's instinct says the task will not be easy. Integration never is.

And again one cannot help but think of South Africa and the xenophobic violence which broke in 2008 and then again recently. Our government's stance towards refugees and asylum-seekers has been ambivalent and ambiguous to say the least. It was the South African police who dragged Mozambican Mido Macia from the back of a police van and now claim innocence. And who can forget the scenes of Malawians in busloads, desperate to flee xenophobic South Africa?

Again, Ingrid de Kok's words ring true for our own country. For _Haraga _is a companion piece to Today I do not love my country, written in 2008 in the wake of that xenophobic violence which erupted in South Africa. On other days, de Kok writes, she "may argue our grievous inheritance" or even run her fingers "along the downy arm of the morning" or "sing with others the famous forgiving man,/ who has forgotten who were enemies, who friends."

"But today", she says, "today I cannot love my country./ It staggers in the dark, lurches in a ditch./ A curdled mob drives people into pens,/ brands them like cattle,/ only holds a stranger's hand/ to press it into fire,/ strings firecrackers through a child,/ burns stores and shacks, burns."

Aylan Kurdi tragically represents the shame of a world disconnected from the injustice of war and human suffering. Yet here in South Africa we might well learn from such tragedy and from the Germans sitting in a train station in Munich, waiting to welcome those whom the world has forgotten.

_Judith February is based at the Institute for Security Studies. Follow her on Twitter: _ @judith_february