LAST week, I asked what it would take to jolt the UK out of its apathy over the refugee crisis if a truck-load of decomposing bodies left it unperturbed. Well, now we know the answer: one haunting photograph of a drowned toddler washed up on a beach in Turkey. That image of Aylan Kurdi shook Europe to its core and unleashed a social revolution.
You could spend angst-ridden days wondering why, after all the fear and suffering and death we have witnessed, it took this small boy, his shoes still fastened, to break our brittle hearts; you could work yourself into a fury over the hypocrisy of right-wing tabloids which, through spiteful rhetoric, fuelled this crisis but are now using a “tiny victim of a human catastrophe” to wring shallow tears from easily-manipulated readers.
It is up to us to decide who we are and what our country stands for
But that would be to squander energy more usefully directed elsewhere. Right or wrong, the photograph of Aylan changed everything; it galvanised those who already supported refugees into action, swayed the uncertain and forced our morally-bankrupt Prime Minister to accept that the UK does, after all, have an obligation towards these war-weary people. His offer so far has been niggardly: a few thousand refugees from camps bordering Syria (although he did come up with another £100m in aid). Now those of us who want the government to do more are gaining ground, we should continue to refute the notion that the UK is “swamped” and its indigenous culture threatened, and make sure David Cameron is given not an inch of wriggle room.
There has been so much horror in the last few days it threatened, at times, to overwhelm us. The story of Aylan, his brother Galip and mother Rehan, who drowned when the overcrowded boat in which they were travelling overturned between Turkey and Kos, and of their father Abdullah who did not, was almost too harrowing to follow. But just as chilling were the reports of refugees in Budapest boarding a train they believed was bound for Austria, only to discover they were being transported to a camp, of Czech police stamping detainees’ arms with numbers and of long columns of tired and hungry people embarking on a 110-mile walk to Austria. We have seen all this before, and we know how it can end.
Humanitarian crises bring out the worst in the weak, whether they’re ordinary citizens spouting bile on radio talk shows or prime ministers insisting it is better to tackle instability in the refugees’ country of origin than welcome them here (as though the two were mutually exclusive). But such crises also inspire great displays of solidarity and we have seen plenty of those alongside the defensiveness. The 11,000 Icelandic people who offered to open up their homes in an attempt to get round the country’s 50-refugees-a-year cap, and the Austrians who organised a convoy to drive to Budapest and ferry stranded refugees over the border shamed their own governments (to the extent that Hungary sent its own buses to transport the refugees it has spent all week harassing).
In Germany, where Angela Merkel has stood firm against the xenophobes, Bayern Munich announced it was setting up a training camp and donating ¤1m (£735,000) to refugee projects. And then there were the thousands of Britons who raised funds, drove to Calais with food parcels and rallied behind hashtag campaigns. They were all demonstrating that we do not have to be defined by politicians who lack Merkel’s conviction or resolve; it is up to us to decide who we are and what our country stands for.
Here in Scotland, we are lucky. We have a strong network of grassroots activists. It helps too that our leaders are more receptive than most. While Cameron was calculating how far he would have to bend with the prevailing wind, they laid aside party differences to confront the problem. While Cameron dithered over the details, Nicola Sturgeon set up a task force to look at housing, health and other services. We may not have control over immigration, but it would be difficult for a Prime Minister already being portrayed as a moral shirker to turn down an offer to shelter 1,000 from within his own borders. A lot is happening at local authority level too, Glasgow, with its history of housing asylum seekers, sees itself as well placed to take the lead. The Red Road flats have been stripped ahead of demolition, but there are other high-rises that might not be beyond redemption, and councillors have been inundated with offers of help.
This goodwill has existed for a long time; that it took an explicit image of a dead child to marshal it into an effective force is regrettable. But now the momentum is gathering we must make the most of it. In the absence of leadership from Westminster, it is up to us to take the initiative, to show what we believe in, what we can achieve and what we’re no longer prepared to let politicians get away with.
In the long run, of course, it’s a pan-European problem and we need a pan-European approach. But last week’s events have shown it is possible for ordinary people across the continent to dictate the agenda. And positivity is catching. It leads to astonishing developments such as Finland’s prime minister Juha Sapila agreeing to take asylum seekers into his own house. So long as our leaders can insist they are constrained by domestic opinion, it is possible for them to justify what Sturgeon called their “walk-on-by” response. But when hundreds of thousands of voters expose this as a sham, they have little choice but to try to live up to their example. «