The photo of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi lying face down in the sand, with the waves that killed him lapping his head as if in remorse, will no doubt stand out as one of the images that characterises the daily migrant tragedy.
Shocking as it is, however, isn’t it a pity that it had to be this lifeless Syrian boy, washed up on a remote Turkish beach, to make millions realise we are facing the biggest migrant crisis since World War II? Aylan died fleeing war-torn Syria together with his five-year-old brother and their mother after yet another smuggler’s boat capsized off Bodrum.
Thousands of other migrants, escaping wars, oppression and persecution, have trodden the same heart-breaking path. Many remain nameless, and most of them are instantly forgotten. In many cases they do not even become a statistic.
It took Aylan to make the difference. Why? The image was no doubt powerful, especially as the fully-clothed boy seemed to be enjoying a moment of serene relaxation on the beach.
But it is difficult to get away from the feeling that exploitation and voyeurism came into play. The British tabloids – which for so long have displayed hostile xenophobia towards refugees – plastered his image across their front pages as they sensed a marketable human story. In doing so they were reflecting a public sentiment which views a single dead refugee child as a tragedy but a million desperate asylum seekers as a threat.
Aylan’s plight – shocking as it is – will probably not change European policies towards migrants and refugees pouring in from the Middle East and Africa.
The tragic image will not end the wars in Syria and Iraq, the unrest in Libya, the persecution in Eritrea and the oppression in other troubled states. The truth is that there is no quick fix. The magic wand to solve a crisis that has forced millions to flee their homes does not exist.
What Aylan’s image has done, however, is open the eyes of some people who at best have ignored the problem, and at worst have actively built fortresses or shifted the issue to their neighbours.
When Malta turned to EU help in 2009 and 2011 as it faced a large influx of boat migrants, most leaders turned a blind eye while the European Commission threw money at the problem. Most member states did the same when Italy and Greece raised the alarm more recently.
Now, as the problem engulfs eastern and central Europe, we are seeing the likes of Hungary’s Viktor Orban repeating the same mistakes. The right-wing leader has chosen to build walls to keep migrants out and engage in the kind of linguistic diatribe intended solely to incite populist resentment against asylum seekers.
The likes of Orban and Czech President Milos Zeman (who suggested using the army to quell migrant movements) have served to highlight our failure to observe the fundamentals of humanity.
But Europe alone cannot be expected to solve a crisis prompted by wars and extreme poverty. Thankfully, Malta’s Prime Minister ‘smelt the coffee’ on migration after his initially nationalistic stance and is now uniting with Italy in urging the international community (including non-European countries) to unite to try find a workable solution.
The Valletta summit between the EU and African leaders in November could be a start, even though there are fears it could be little more than a talking shop.
The priority now is for leaders to draw up a strategy to introduce the means, for human beings that are entitled to it, to gain asylum in transit countries – before they embark on the most perilous of journeys.
Somali-British poet Warsan Shire wrote that “no one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land”.
Hopefully, the chilling image of Aylan has driven that message home once and for all.