On Thursday 03 September 2015, the world woke to the image of a dead Syrian child washed up on the tourist beach of Bodrum in Turkey. That child was Aylan Kurdi. The harrowing image of Aylan’s lifeless body has the potential to be as significant as that of Kim Phuc taken in 1972 during the Vietnam War. The image of Aylan encapsulates the human suffering and pure innocence of the victims of the media labelled ‘Migrant Crisis’. This graphic image finally galvanised the UK into understanding the severity of what is unfolding in the Middle East and the consequences on its people as they attempt treacherous conditions to try and reach safety in Europe.
Today, Friday 04 September, following significant pressure, David Cameron announced that he is to offer resettlement to “thousands” of Syrian refugees. While no exact figure was given, this development marks recognition from the government that this issue can no longer be ignored. What is sure however, is that Cameron will face criticism for his decision from those that believe we implement strict immigration controls, whether the individual in question is attempting to better themselves economically or are escaping human rights abuses.
One of the main issues we are facing is the lack of clarity behind what a refugee actually is. A refugee is someone that is facing persecution in their own country, due to ethnic, religious or political differences, and are unable to live there safely. In comparison, and the label the media is frequently awarding to those fleeing Syria and other war torn countries, is a migrant. A migrant is an individual that chooses to leave their own country in search for better social and economic opportunities.
Numerous mainstream media outlets continue to fail to accurately report on this key difference between migrants and refugees; choice. Whereas an economic migrant has made a conscious decision to leave their home nation to seek a better life, a refugee has fled due to reasons of safety. The media has a responsibility to represent the desperation of refugees from Syria and several other nations who are also enveloped in civil war. Currently the media appears to be more concerned with readership numbers.
Four million people have been displaced by the conflict in Syria. Before today, the UK had only officially accepted 216 since the beginning of the year. While this is one of the largest refugee crisis’ of the past few years, it should not be forgotten that this is not the only country that is seeing an exodus of its population due to persecution. Eritrea is believed to have one of the worst human rights records in the world with its residents facing involuntary subscription. In Afghanistan, citizens are living under the constant threat of Taliban and ruled by a government that is plagued with corruption rumours. The refugees from countries such as this are caught in the cross fire between opposing factions with thousands losing their lives as a result.
The West, including Britain, played a role in destabilising the Middle East. The Iraq war acted as a lynch pin in an extremely volatile region. Decisions that were made by Western powers inadvertently allowed for IS to garner support due to the lack of legitimate leadership in Iraq and our inability to intervene against Assad’s actions in Syria allowed for the group to continue to grow. We therefore have a level of responsibility to support the people that are now suffering from this lack of stability.
For those saying “this is not Britain’s problem”, you are right, it isn’t. This is an international problem that requires the international community to work together to resolve. Until this happens however, Syrian people are fleeing abhorrent human rights abuses. A long term solution needs to be found but short term support is vital. What needs to be remembered is that outside of being a refugee, these individuals are people. They have names and are somebody’s mother, father, daughter, grandmother or friend. Just like Aylan and Galip Kurdi. We need to stop seeing the people fleeing persecution numerically and start recognising that these are people whose lives have been destroyed through no fault of their own.
Today’s developments could be the first steps towards a formalised response to the current refugee crisis and mark the beginning of the reduction of the death toll of refugees crossing the Mediterranean. However, those who oppose the move, both in Britain and elsewhere, have the potential to destabilise this development through the inability to fully understand the difference between migrants and refugees. When we look back on this crisis in 20 years, are we going to have treated the refugees of Syria and other worn torn countries with compassion? Or are we going to have turned our backs on what are currently some of the world’s most vulnerable people?