Alan Kurdi’s death creates an opportunity and an obligation on us all

…and so we should.

Helping refugees is the least we can do when global problems spill onto our shores. More so, if we share some responsibility for those problems. Offering a safe haven would be a poor substitute to prevention work, but it is not – and must not be – a substitute at all. We must do both.

I understand the Prime Minister has been more inclined to deal with this refugee crisis at source. I agree that is where our primary focus should lie, but our strategy has been ineffective thus far.

David Cameron would no doubt blame his Labour opponents for standing in the way of military action in Syria two years ago. He will raise the prospect again soon, and will succeed with the help of a few Labour rebels, defying their new leader Jeremy Corbyn.

Frankly it should not be too great a burden to offer refuge to a few thousand people. There are something in the order of 1200 towns in the UK, and a further 66 cities. If each town or city hosted two families (of two parents & two children) we could offer refuge to over 10,000 people.

In fairness we already host half that number – 5000 Syrian refugees have arrived since the beginning of the present conflict. And the Government seems to be considering opening the doors to a further 4000.
7 Sept 2015 update: That seems to be 4000 in the year ahead – or 20,000 in the lifetime of this parliament.

I’d like to think that – like Germany – we can do considerably better. This is a crisis like no other in recent years.

Alan Kurdi

The image of the lifeless body of three-year-old Alan Kurdi* on a Bodrum beach is haunting. Every time I look at it I seem to see my own son Caleb (aged two-and-a-half). It looks too much like him, and in another world it could have been him.

Alan drowned on Wednesday, with his brother and their mother, all Syrian refugees from Kobani on their way from Turkey to the Greek island of Kos. They are survived by their father, who was also travelling with them.

* NB The common spelling of Alan as ‘Aylan’ seems to be born of a registration error in Turkey.

This image along with its cropped version, and others like it, went viral around the world in a matter of hours. In his death, Alan is famous. Perhaps his life, cut so brutally short, has made a difference to others who follow him on their perilous journeys.

Every day in my work for BBC News I see awful images of death and destruction. Over time, the momentary personal impact on me seems to lessen. Sadly that means a little part of my humanity is being chipped away over time.

Now and again I find myself more troubled than usual. A couple of years ago – precisely two years before Alan died – I posted about Syria, in the aftermath of chemical attacks on the outskirts of Damascus. Many children suffered in those attacks and I saw far too much video of them “in agony, dying or already dead.”

The situation in the territory controlled by the so-called “Islamic State” – is probably even worse now than in 2013.

For many of us, the images of young Alan’s body were a step too far. On the front of the papers, they might be seen as salacious, illustrating a desperation to sell more papers. On people’s Twitter & Facebook feeds, it “isn’t compassionate, it’s narcissistic” – apparently. It’s a classic case of virtue signalling – ie highlighting a cause, typically on social media, to draw attention to one’s own moral credentials over and above whatever the cause was in the first place. I have no time for that.

I shared that image on Wednesday evening, and while I can’t be sure of whatever subliminal motivations drive my social media behaviour, I don’t believe I need to build a case for myself as someone whose heart bleeds for a dead three-year-old boy. If you know me are you surprised that this bothers me? I hope not.

One friend, Dan Bowring, shared the picture when he concluded that “ultimately I object to dead children more than I object to images of dead children.” His message was widely shared.

I do not think this image goes too far. Like Dan, I want to witness an emotional response. Not because Alan’s death is a tipping point in the Syrian conflict or in the wider refugee crisis, but because it can be a tipping point in our own collective reaction. This crisis is not new. It has been going on for years, though it has become even more critical in recent weeks.

The only action I called for in my Facebook post was this – in bold below:

This could be my son.

Heartbreaking.

I am – relatively – pretty sympathetic to fellow Britons’ concerns about immigration. It’s a complex issue and we should never blame individual immigrants for the state of our public infrastructure, even if a population explosion can be held partly responsible.

Often the plight of economic migrants is severe. But the plight of genuine refugees is too often impossible. They face the sword or starvation in Syria, or a perilous journey to freedom. Together, we need to find a way to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Some papers went too far last week in their front page publication of images taken a fraction of a second before the Virginia TV shooting. There are times when a challenging – shocking even – image is necessary. This is one of those occasions.

On the face of it, my call to action seems a bit vague. There are more concrete ways we can help – both individually and collectively. But part of the problem is that our nation (not just the Government) has been reticent to help. Even today, I heard a vox pop in which the speaker called for us to “pull up the drawbridge” and send the refugees elsewhere. Iconic images like that of  Alan’s little body help us revise our attitudes and in turn sway the Government to reassess its policy.

To those of us of a public-spirited international disposition, it can feel incredibly frustrating that our Government sometimes seems weighed down by public opinion or its own inertia.

My understanding – through my own conversations with well-placed MPs – is that often ministers want to be more generous or interventionist, but feel the public mood has a tethering effect. That may be true more so since the Iraq war than before it. At such a time as this, it may be less that public pressure forces the Government to take action than that it frees the Government to do so. I do not know where the balance lies.

Hashtag activism

I should stress that while I’m all in favour of an emotional outcry raising the profile of an issue, cool heads must prevail in policy-making. I am concerned about the tyranny of petitions and hashtag activism. As argued in Conservative Home, “our immigration policy must be decided by reason – not by photos and hashtags”.

This doesn’t mean I won’t sign a petition, though I’m often hesitant. Here’s one I did sign, proposed by my friend Tamanna Rahman. It calls on the Government to allow us to host refugees in our own homes.

Neither does my attitude mean I won’t tweet about issues I care about, though I’m mindful the Twitter bubble far from represents the nation. I believe ministers should listen to the public mood, but they need to weigh petitions with caution. I believe they need to understand the Twitter mob, but not be beholden to it. Unlike the public, ministers have a responsibility to act in the public interest.

Now, as ever, the British public interest does not end at our shores. That awful image of Alan Kurdi has created both an opportunity and an obligation on us all.

May he and his brother Galip, and their mother, rest in peace.

May their father find comfort.

And may the rest of us never rest until their country is restored to peace.

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