I cried today. Daily I keep abreast of various humanitarian crises, and conflict-affected areas, given my interests and career aspirations. The refugees crisis has shot to the forefront recently and it finally all got too much for me.
They say an image paints a thousand words, but some do more: they scorch an indelible print on your mind that serves as a reminder of how cruel is the world in which we live, and how charred black the hearts are of many who live within, and govern, it.
The above photograph, taken on a Turkish beach close to where 12 refugees drowned, is one such image – and also the cause of my tearfulness. For me it does two things at the same time: first, it is a vivid manifestation of the severity to which the refugee crisis has reached, and how dire an humanitarian catastrophe is faced by Europe, Africa and Asia. But it also represents our failure as a species. It leaves exposed the weakness and mistrust, in collaboration, between nations and political figures; and it lays bare our impotency, at the national and multilateral level, in response to the gravest ills facing millions. It reveals truths about how we really view the world and humanity, and how compassion, morality and common sense have reached their nadir in the history of human existence.
We see ourselves in that lifeless child’s body. We too are inert, unresponsive, definitively deadened by our callousness to the point we have lost one of the essential characteristics that separates us from the animals: our capacity to express solicitude and empathy toward our fellow man (and woman) and help those who are weak and vulnerable. I speak as a citizen of the UK. Outside of these Isles, for there is a glimmer of hope, elsewhere, that Humankind has not lost the shining light of its most redeeming feature.
It is images like this, and the stories that accompany them, that punctuate the reality of a growing humanitarian crisis which, for the Germans, actually impels the country, and the multitude of its citizens, to lead the way in assuaging the distressing situation and the horrendous privations affecting millions of refugees. Syrians (who constitute around 40% of those crossing the Mediterranean) are being welcomed with open arms by the German Chancellor and the German people alike. This kind of image, and what it represents, mobilises this central European nation to act. And act it has, as Germany has decided it will settle 800,000 (likely to be revised up) Syrian refugees within its borders. The country, and its people, endeavour to try and understand the desperate situation, and the horrors experienced by those fleeing, so thoroughly and sympathetically, that a single German football team invited 220 refugees (fewer than the total number of Syrians currently granted asylum in the entire UK) in order to help welcome their new ‘guests’ (as they refer to refugees in Germany, whereas the UK prefers ‘swarms’ and ‘marauding hordes’) and relieve the stresses and uncertainties of being a foreigner, alone, in a foreign land with nothing but the clothes on your back and, if you’re lucky, a loved one or family.
Germany is not the only nation to have a singularly impressive grasp of the humanitarian situation, nor the only one to open its borders to those fleeing years of war and violence. Iceland and Sweden are also proving extremely hospitable (though the former’s national government has only committed to take in a few dozen refugees). Again, these countries are led by the noble compassion, and exemplary integrity of its citizens, many of whom are opening up their own homes to refugees. Industrious and dynamic youth in Germany and Iceland have set up websites in order to facilitate a relationship whereby a family or individual can host a refugee, or refugee family, in their own homes.
But when the UK gazes on such a horrendous sight, that is utterly incongruous to what we like to believe about ourselves, our country and our ‘civilisation’, it is outraged not by the realities it depicts: that people are dying in a desperate effort to flee persecution, war, violence and destitution. But by the fact it was published by a newspaper at all for us to see. In the UK photos like this are not sparking compassion or a clamouring for our government to take action to help alleviate the suffering – and its not only a case of allowing a sustainable number of refugees a safe haven within our borders. They only engender debates over whether the picture should have been published at all.
The UK remains blind, and in the face of data and figures cited by research bodies and governmental departments, a large proportion of the public will continue to regurgitate the bitter resentments and prejudices that the right wing press spoon feeds to them, daily. Many will harangue you on social media claiming that 99% of the asylum seekers are ‘economic’ migrants. It’s almost as if they are not aware that conflict has been ongoing in Syria for 5 years; the Darfur region of Sudan for 12; that brutal regimes torture and kill in the Horn of Africa; there is civil war in Central Africa; and violence and war still ravage Iraq and Afghanistan.
A newspaper for once prints THE FUCKING NEWS!!!!! And people still wish to ignore it. Because it’s a chilling reminder, to many, that we are complicit; that the UK holds a percentage of accountability in this misery; and that we are a nation of cowards, hypocrites and willfully ignorant sleepwalkers (our politicians being the most egregious examples), who shirk from confronting the reality for fear of the uncomfortable truths it will reveal about ourselves, and the ignoble truths we will be forced to acknowledge regarding this ‘Great’ Britain.
Edit to Add*
In light of the aftermath of the public reaction to the photographs, I would like to add a rejoinder to the widespread media assertions that the emotional potency of the image of Aylan Kurdi has provoked a seismic shift in the population’s attitude toward the refugee crisis. I believe nothing can be further from the truth. It even appears that many have even become galvanised, by the government’s half-hearted change of tack to allow in more refugees, and are openly critical of the decision while stating that they do not wish to see refugees within our borders. Some, even members of the commentariat, sank to the unchartered depths of actually blaming the little boy’s father for Aylan’s death due to his decision to leave a ‘rich’ country like Turkey where their life was no longer in danger.
What we are seeing is not a radical change in national outlook toward the refugees and the crisis in Europe. But merely that those who have been on the good side since the start – wishing to see the UK adequately share the collective responsibility toward these desperate and suffering people – have, rightly, been inspired to become more vocal on the issue with many taking a very active engagement in the crisis: setting up facebook groups of like minded-people to co-ordinate group efforts to help the refugees; arranging collections and donations of food, clothes, tents, etc; arranging events and demonstrations to put pressure on the government to act more decisively.
One can test this reality by taking oneself out of the confines of their friendship group and social media network which is, largely, made up of those who share similar values, opinions and attitudes, and a comparable worldview to one’s own and then throwing yourself into the fetid bog that is the thoughts and feelings of ‘Joe Public’. One glance at the comments section of almost any online media outlet will provide a particularly rude awakening. Some of you may even be seeing this new found confidence of the anti-refugee cohorts on your own social media news feeds, or in family dinner conversations.
The fact is, these people (who really due reflect the majority I am sad to say) had no reason to be vocal prior to the government’s recent change of tack, purely because the government’s previous policy on refugees was widely supported. There was nothing to react to, so the anti-refugee contigent could happily stay silhouetted in the background. But now, led by the Murdoch/right wing media vanguard, they are ready to kick back hard at the government and make their voices and opinions depressingly clear and unequivocal.