So far this year an estimated 2,643 people have died attempting to cross the Mediterranean in a desperate search for a new life free from war, persecution and suffering. The figure for 2014 was 3,279. These were mothers, fathers, children, sons and daughters; real people just like you and me, each with their own story to tell as to why they were willing to risk everything to flee the lands of their forefathers in order to search for a relative paradise somewhere in Europe that they could call home. In doing so, they all paid the ultimate price.
Meanwhile, as the numbers heading to a watery grave has increased week after week, we have been sitting in our cosy homes not taking too much notice of the latest news of another capsizing unless the death count was significantly large enough to catch our attention. But instead of grief, how many of us have instead been apathetic toward or even judgmental of the hundreds of thousands, including these unlucky ones, who have set out for the shores of Italy and Greece? Why were they foolish enough to pay traffickers hundreds or even thousands of dollars to cram them onto overcrowded and unstable boats and then abandon them to the whims of the open sea? Why did they expect us to clothe, feed and house them without question, when they arrived unannounced? Could not those who have made it as far as Calais just get the message that they aren’t welcome to the UK and that we don’t appreciate the train delays and hassle they are causing?
But now, with the Independent’s publication of a little boy’s body washed up on a Turkish beach, it would appear that something seismic has happened. Our critical attitude has been shattered as our hearts finally connect with the tragedy of a single child’s death. He has become more than another statistic to us – he was Aylan Kurdi, a three-year-old refugee from Kobani in Syria, who died with his mother and five-year-old brother attempting to reach the Greek island of Kos.
All of a sudden we are talking about these people as refugees seeking asylum and protection rather than migrants looking to take advantage of our continent’s prosperity. At last we are waking up to the reality that well over 70 per cent of those who have made it to Europe have done so to escape war, dictatorial oppression and religious extremism. David Cameron’s reaffirmation yesterday of his refusal for the UK to take in more than a handful of refugees from the Middle East is looking heartless and dramatically out of step with public opinion. Germany is expecting to take in 800,000 migrants this year: they had ‘Refugees Welcome’ banners unfurled at football stadiums last weekend. In comparison, the UK, which has taken advantage of its physical separation from the rest of Europe, has adopted a severe case of nimbyism. Of the 4.1 million refugees who have fled Syria, we have resettled 216, which isn’t even enough to fill a decent sized plane.
This sudden pricking of our national conscience shows how hypocritical our attitudes toward this ‘swarm’ have been, but if it takes the heart-rending images of a single boy’s death to finally open our eyes to the truth, then so be it. Most of us will never get close to having the faintest idea what it’s like to see our country torn apart and to lose everything beyond the clothes on our bodies. Nor will we be forced to abandon our homes and cities in order to have a chance of saving our lives. But this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be able to show compassion toward those who have had to do all that, and more.
David Cameron has repeatedly stated in the past that we are a Christian country. Jesus is the most famous refugee of all time, having been taken as a child to Egypt in order to escape Herod’s plot to murder him. God also specifically called the Jewish nation to take care of the foreigners living among them.
This Judaeo-Christian appreciation of the vulnerable status of refugees has produced a deep humanitarian tradition in this country. Before the Second World War, Britain welcomed 60,000 Jews taking flight from Nazi Germany. As David Miliband reminds us, we were at the forefront of writing the conventions and protocols that established legal rights for refugees.
The time for us to remember our responsibilities and re-evaluate our position is overdue. This crisis has revealed so many failings and injustices. It highlights the evils of war and persecution that devastates the lives of millions. It has tested the EU’s open-borders policy to breaking point. Questions have to be asked as to whether intervention in the Syrian conflict would have prevented much of this, and what future intervention should happen. It has left Lebanon with its population of 4.5 million housing 1.2 million refugees, while Saudi Arabia (population 28.9 million) and other Arab countries have firmly closed their doors. Human traffickers show just how evil man can be toward his brothers and sisters, exploiting the helplessness of others in order to make money, and then not caring whether they live or die when stripped of the last remnants of their worldly wealth.
The UK has the choice to make this situation better or worse. We cannot solve it, but we must decide whether we are willing to play our part or just be content to cry a few tears over Aylan Kurdi’s tragic death before going back to how we were. If we believe ourselves to be anything other than self-centred as a nation, there can be only one response.