An authority figure standing over the pale and lifeless body of a 3 year old Syrian boy face-down and dead on the shores of Europe having fled war in the Middle East – rarely does an image so well encapsulate nearly everything that needs to be said about an issue.
Most arresting of all, however, is perhaps that which is the image does not convey; that Aylan al-Kurdi was just one of 1.2 million children to have fled their embattled homeland in Syria and one of more than 10,000 children to have died while attempting to do so.
That’s 10,000 children in a conflict that the UK has taken little notice of until now and for so long declared it has ‘no appetite’ to join. Meanwhile popular figures like Labour leader front-runner Jeremy Corbyn continue to refuse to confront in any serious way the root cause of young Aylan’s death and the reason why he and thousands others have found themselves in the waters of the Mediterranean Sea in the first place – ISIS.
The compassion that Turkish photographer, Nilufer Demir, has inspired with her touching tribute to Aylan is laudable. The newspaper editors that chose to publish the image of a dead child on their front covers deserve much credit for harnessing the power of shock to put pressure on the Prime Minister and improve refugee policy.
But did the other 9,999 dead Syrian children pass the UK public by? Why has this compassion come only now the Syrian war has encroached just too close to home in Europe? And is there not something a bit empty and non-committal about sudden expressions of sympathy for victims of an enemy we have for so long refused to fight?
Meanwhile, the editor of the Daily Mail decided to print the photo of Aylan despite just 6 days before publishing the headline ‘migrants: how many more can we take?‘ followed by a warning of the thousands of migrants “flooding” into Europe. The Sun too, with the ineradicable presence of notorious pseudo-columnist Katie Hopkins and her demands for gunships rather than rescue boats to stop the so-called “cockroaches” from crawling over, leads one to suppose the decision by both papers to publish young Aylan in large print on the front page was in no way designed to encourage policymakers to take action to accommodate migrants and was, frankly, little more than a money grab of the most cynical kind.
“The little Syrian boy was well clothed and well fed. He died because his parents were greedy for the good life in Europe” said a UKIP candidate in sparkling form. No comment needed – I loathe to go for the easy targets.
“Anger about excessive powers supposedly wielded by Strasbourg judges, Scottish MPs or the European Union is not really about institutional arrangements. It is instead the outlet for a much more visceral rage, the furious sense that the world is not as it should be – and that someone faraway must be to blame.
This is the pool of fury Ukip drinks from, and which the Tories want to channel their way. It imagines a utopia where everything would be well if only we could make our own rules without outsiders’ interference. Some of that sentiment was alive in the yes campaign in Scotland; much of it animates anti-EU feeling, both here and on the continent.
But it feels misplaced, an incoherent lashing-out that frequently hits the wrong target. People have good reason to feel impotent, too powerless to shape their own lives. But that’s not the fault of judges in Strasbourg or bureaucrats in Brussels. It owes more to the vast, borderless forces of globalisation that have upended economic life everywhere. Yet those forces are so much harder to see and harder to blame. So we train our fire on an easier, more visible enemy, like a European court that actually protects us far more than it hurts us.”