The story could have had a different outcome. With an alternate set of policies and priorities, 3 year old Aylan Kurdi might have lived. He could have settled in Bedford or Peterborough, gone to school, torn holes in his navy blue jumper, gotten scrapes on his knees after falling off his bike, done well on his GCSE’s while his parents worked in a local hospital or supermarket. He could have become a doctor, lawyer or engineer. He could have paid taxes and served as a school governor. He could have touched lives and made them better. He was full of potential. But this isn’t the world he was living in: his fate was to end up on a Turkish beach, face down, looking more asleep than dead as the cool waves of the Mediterranean washed over him.
Britain is completely absent on the issue of Syrian refugees. It would perhaps be a bit more comforting to attribute our reticence to the grey, dull machinery of a decrepit and cash-starved state which is slow to action: under those circumstances, the spark of determined leadership can put matters right relatively quickly. However, Britain is not there because the Conservative Party and specifically David Cameron do not want us to be there. Indeed, the Prime Minister is much more concerned about the maintaining the good opinion of the far right of his own party and outflanking UKIP than in doing what is morally correct. Let’s be clear: the far right of the Conservative Party is so opposed to migration that they genuinely believe if these desperate refugees show up on our shores that the government’s duty, except under extraordinary circumstances, is to send them back to the hell from which they just escaped. When challenged, the Tory far right and their acolytes repeat meaningless mantras, which are subsequently parroted by the Prime Minister, that state that the best way to deal with the problem is at source. Given how Syria has shattered into a myriad of blood spattered fragments, this is a nonsensical argument. In their view, is the average Syrian and his or her relations, who merely want to get on with their lives, supposed to hide in a foxhole until the war is over? Apparently so: trouble us not, they say, we’ll send the bombers (which have no decisive effect). Meanwhile, they suggest, just endure the pain and the trauma, live in shelled out cities, dodging genuine barbarians who want to destroy culture as well as people, and with no prospect of a better life for the foreseeable future. There’s no such thing as society except in the vacuous slogans of the Prime Minister which are used to justify benefit cuts. It’s your problem.
However, the refugees are not like the poor or disabled that can be bullied by the likes of Iain Duncan Smith. As they have nothing to lose, they have even less to forfeit by ignoring the likes of Andrew Mitchell and Bill Cash, and by thoroughly disregarding the puppet strings they’ve attached to Cameron. Rather, they will take to their heels, to bicycles and barely functioning cars, and to boats braving the dangers of the cruel and open sea in order to escape. Mealy mouthed and impotent platitudes about dealing with the problem at source will not deter them: eventually, many will stand at Calais, look across the Channel, and think about how best to get to the tranquil shore of England. Cameron may think he is doing what is necessary to manage his own party and defeat UKIP: but his inaction does absolutely nothing to address the reality of the refugees nor even correctly acknowledge the problem with which Britain must contend.
But it could have been different: it’s worth noting that one European nation has shown courage and leadership: Germany. Given its history, this may seem peculiar, or perhaps it can be seen as an ultimate act of atonement. Angela Merkel is by no means some sort of soft-hearted leftie: she is a conservative, and as the Greeks discovered, a hard nosed one at that. Yet she has some sense of moral responsibility. She invoked the conscience of her nation and threw open the doors to 800,000 refugees, which constitutes 1% of Germany’s total population. This is an astonishing act of generosity: so far, objections to this policy have been relatively muted. Individual Germans have responded by opening their doors to Syrian refugees.
Perhaps oddly in this day and age, Merkel leads, the country understands and follows. Again: where is Britain? As we are nowhere, it is no wonder that Mrs. Merkel and the other European heads of state who are directly contending with this issue are annoyed with Cameron. It’s also not surprising that they have let the Prime Minister know that so long as his inertia continues, his wish to renegotiate Britain’s relationship with the European Union will fall on deaf ears.
It could have been different: we need to accept that the choice Britain made in May was desperately poor. For the sake of argument, had we ended up with a Labour and SNP coalition government, it’s nearly impossible to see them reacting in the same way. The tug of conscience would have dragged a Prime Minister Miliband, backed by a Foreign Secretary Alex Salmond, in the direction of sense and compassion. At the very least, Yvette Cooper’s suggestion of letting in 10,000 refugees wouldn’t have fallen on deaf ears. Charities and local government would have worked together to set up reception points, distribute food, ensure sufficient help. Aylan Kurdi may have had somewhere to go and perhaps traveled in greater safety. He could have ended up in Bedford or Peterborough and his Mum and Dad could have gotten jobs and paid taxes and contributed to society. What is more, Aylan and many more like him could have had a future: Britain would not have lost out from granting the opportunity. Indeed, Britain didn’t certainly end up the poorer from extending a helping hand to many persecuted minorities in the past; perhaps the worst aspect of our current Conservative government is that they have induced us to forget ourselves.
It could have been different, but it isn’t. Aylan will probably not be the last refugee whose sad remains will be washed up onto a sun drenched Mediterranean shore which starkly contrasts the grim harvest that each rising tide will bring. David Cameron will continue to look irritated at being asked about Syrian refugees. Ill-tempered and ignorant British tabloids will stoke fears of being “swamped”. Brainless populists will speak of a country that’s too crowded, apparently to the point where there is no longer room for a touch of humanity. Germany and Sweden will look like beacons of hope and liberty in comparison to our morally bereft island. The Tories will not care: they will hope that their hard-heartedness will appeal to the darker instincts of the British public and reinforce the message that there is no such thing as society, it’s every man for himself. We will be less of a nation that can hold its head high, less of a beacon of hope, less of an avatar of liberty: it’s every man for himself and all that Britain is worth to anyone is what they get out of it. It still could be different, provided the rest of society pulled together in opposition to the state and its malignant doctrines: but it’s difficult to see how.