We have all by now seen the shocking and emotionally choking image of a dead Syrian boy, lying lifeless and face down on a Turkish beach. The image was beamed around the world and, all of a sudden, attitudes to refugees entering Europe from horrifically war torn countries began to change. Whilst this can only be seen from a humanitarian standpoint as a good thing, the fact is this: Britain was far too late to change its views.
Whilst boatloads and boatloads of migrants had already drowned in Mediterranean waters, with the death toll stretching into the thousands, it was the image of only one that managed to dramatically change the perception of the nation. It took us several years, and tens of shipwrecks to finally call the refugee crisis a “crisis” and change our vocabulary from “migrant” to “refugee”.
So when The Sun’s recent headline read “Our Heroes”, you couldn’t have felt more galled. The British people are not heroes for finally falling into line with the far more compassionate governments of our European neighbours. As a country that has led the way in giving money to aid efforts, we let ourselves down, and more importantly, the refugees from Syria and elsewhere down. We let Aylan Kurdi down, and the British people need to realise that the dead boy on Turkish shores that finally made us change our minds was – in part at least – our fault.
Think back to 2013. The first major shipwrecks of refugees covered by Western press in quantity was the Lampedusa shipwrecks, in which over 850 refugees, largely Somalian, Eritrean and Ghanaian drowned in Italian waters. The Italians, perhaps taking the brunt of the effort, launched Operation Mare Nostrum, funded by the European Commission to the tune of one and a half million euros. The European Council of Refugees and Exiles claimed that the Italian efforts, led by the Italian Navy saved thousands of lives. The Italian Government also gave the dignity of State Funerals for all of the dead migrants. That kind of human compassion is astounding. The amount of money spent by the Italian government, which wasn’t exactly stable after being left by “Bunga Bunga” architect Silvio Berlusconi, exceeded a hundred million euros.
Granted, the Italians had some moral duty, at least to clean up the crisis, but you would have thought the British people, and the government would have seen the necessity for immediate funding. Whilst David Cameron is to be applauded for sticking to his 0.7% budget commitment to aid, many politicians expressed anger. Tory backbencher Philip Davies said that we were “the mugs of the world”. Matthew Sinclair, chief executive of the so-called “TaxPayers’ Alliance”, said that it was “absurd the UK continues to increase the size of its aid budget far faster than the rest of the G8 despite the huge financial pressures at home.”
I don’t know whether Mr Sinclair or Mr Davies have ever been to Eritrea. Let’s illuminate a little, shall we? Let’s start with freedom of speech and democracy. There is no foreign news media. At all. It has the worst press freedom of any place on Earth, worse than North Korea. Not a single foreign correspondent lives in Asmara, and there are very few foreign embassies there either.
Elections? Well, they’ve been planned and subsequently cancelled since independence on the ground that some of the territory had been infringed by Ethiopia. The president is currently serving out his 23rd year in office, and as for other political bodies? Well, they’re not allowed to organise. Call me a communist, but I think asylum seekers are slightly more pressing a matter to the world than Mrs Barraclough from Sussex who’s sad that her taxes are being increased a bit.
If we’d helped earlier – even if we’d started helping more than we have done to this point – perhaps children lying on beaches like Ayhan Kurdi might still be alive. Chancellor Angela Merkel is currently building new housing for migrants and speeding up asylum processes. The city of Munich has welcomed migrants. Even Francois Hollande, whose socialist rule is being challenged by the increasingly popular Marine Le Pen and the Front Nationale has announced that he’ll be taking 120,000 migrants.
Regardless of Britain’s different arrangement to the 1985 Schengen Agreement, allowing borders to be free in the original EEC zone, Cameron’s plans to allow just 20,000 refugees and migrants over the next Parliament is a pathetic excuse for help. Furthermore, Cameron’s pledge that 20,000 extra people being allowed in would show Britain to be a country of “extraordinary compassion” is an abhorrent statement to make.
Whilst countries like Germany and Italy have made plans for more migrants and refugees to flee war torn Syria, the dictatorship of Eritrea and other horrendous places like Somalia, Britain has for far too long taken the backseat. Even countries like Hungary have started providing buses even though they have a strong anti-immigration sentiment and a right wing government made up almost overwhelmingly of Fidezs MPs. It’s time for David Cameron to appreciate the increasing amount of blood on his hands. The longer we sit back, the longer we’ll have to endure depressing images of bodies like Ayhan Kurdi’s on a beach. And the longer we sit back, the amount of parents who lose their kids, their homes and their lives in the search for the fundamental human right of a peaceful existence will carry on rising.
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