|Migrants on the march in Hungary.|
A heartrending photograph of a small boy’s dead body, washed up on a beach in Turkey, has prompted a change of tone from the Prime Minister on the refugee crisis. David Cameron announced yesterday that the UK will house ‘thousands’ more people from camps around the Syrian border, after suggesting previously that admitting “more and more refugees” offered no solution.
A picture of Aylan Kurdi, a Kurdish boy from Syria, dominated front pages on Thursday. The three year old had been in one of two dinghies, which left Turkey bound for the Greek island, Kos, a busy hub for refugees in transit to northern Europe.
Aylan was one of 14 people to die when the boats sank. The image captured both a personal tragedy for the boy’s family, as well as the misery and desperation involved in a migration described as the biggest movement of people to Europe since the second world war.
It’s understandable that this powerful photograph has caused an outpouring of public anger and emotion, and the government has responded. However, committing to take a relatively small number of refugees, under restricted circumstances, is certainly not an answer to the crisis. Europe is facing a complicated, multifaceted situation, which is unlikely to be resolved easily or quickly.
We know that there are two separate but closely linked streams of people currently amassing in their thousands at Europe’s southern borders. Firstly, there are refugees, fleeing war in Syria and unrest in the Middle East and North Africa. Secondly, there is a steady and growing number of economic migrants, intent upon building a better life in prosperous countries in northern Europe.
It’s easy for politicians to demand that refugees are helped, while economic migrants are kept out, but these two streams of people are by no means discrete and it is not easy to distinguish between them.
Take Aylan Kurdi and his family as examples. Reportedly they had been in Turkey for a year, after fleeing the Syrian city, Kobane, when it was attacked by ISIS militants. Aylan’s father, Abdullah Kurdi, had apparently already been in Turkey for three years and worked as a barber, before the rest of his family arrived.
The Kurdis fled a warzone and a group of crazed Islamic militants, who regard Kurds as implacable enemies, so by any definition they were refugees. However, when they left Turkey, where they were not in physical danger, it was presumably with the aim of finding a more permanent, comfortable home somewhere in the EU. So, they were economic migrants as well and the family took mortal risks to improve their lives.
The UK shares a significant degree of responsibility for ISIS’s spread across the Middle East and North Africa. In Iraq, Libya and Syria, we were consistently among the most vehement champions of ‘regime change’, helping to dislodge unpleasant, but stable and secular, administrations, and contributing to a political vacuum filled by Islamic extremism. The notion that western countries should impose values and systems of government worldwide, irrespective of historical, religious and cultural nuances, still drives foreign policy.
Even if the war in Syria were to end and even if relative stability were to return to the wider region, it’s unlikely that the flow of people would stop. Fraser Nelson has an excellent column in The Telegraph, teasing out the wider reasons so many people are leaving their homes. The ‘Great Migration’, as he terms it, is a problem larger than the immediate crisis which has propelled it into headline news.
It will only be tackled with any success by long-term policies, carefully balanced and tested.