Why has Europe stopped caring about children drowning on our shores?

By Steve Symonds

Barely ten weeks ago, the dead body of a small Syrian boy washed up on a Turkish beach. Many were profoundly moved by this tragic moment in the timeline of an ongoing and escalating refugee crisis at and within our continent’s borders. Yet nearly three months later, with winter fast approaching, thousands are still making dangerous journeys to get to Europe, and children are still drowning.

So how have we got here? Within a few days of the publication of photos of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, over a million people took action, either on social media with the #RefugeesWelcome hashtag or by writing to their MP. On 7 September, the prime minister announced the UK would take in 20,000 Syrian refugees from camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey – this marked a significant expansion of the UK’s hitherto pathetically small offer, which had seen barely 200 people resettled in the UK since the start of the conflict. Nonetheless, on 12 September, 90,000 took to the streets of London, marching in solidarity with refugees. Many more took part in marches and vigils across the UK. 

Yet Aylan Kurdi was neither the first nor the last of the tragedies in the seas at Europe’s borders. Over recent days, scores of bodies of drowned children and adults have been stored in a refrigerated container at the morgue in Mytilene, the capital of the Greek island of Lesbos, since the local graveyards became filled with the refugee dead.

Only two days ago, the Greek coastguard pulled 18 bodies – at least seven of them children – out of the water.

In September, 168 people died in in the eastern Mediterranean as the death toll in those waters overtook that in the central Mediterranean. Last month in those same waters the number of dead was 225. The toll is still rising as desperate people take desperate measures to escape persecution and the horrors of conflicts that show no sign of abating.

Predictions that the numbers would drop off as the weather got worse and the seas became colder and rougher have, sadly, been proved wrong. Barely a day goes by without some new tragedy, and many of the fatalities are children of Aylan’s age or even younger.

Yet the many dead since the boy, whose passing caused such shock and even outrage, are barely noticed. Why is that? Does anyone think that David Cameron’s announcement that the UK would resettle up to 20,000 Syrian refugees by May 2020 has provided a sufficient or effective answer to the tragedy at our continent’s doorstep? Have people just no capacity of heart or head left to spare for the adults and children still attempting to reach safety in Europe?

Earlier this week I sat listening to a retelling of events in Europe nearly 60 years ago. Next year will be the 60th anniversary of the Hungarian uprising. On 23 October 1956, tens of thousands of people poured onto the streets to protest against Soviet oppression, and 11 days later the tanks rolled into Budapest to crush them. Over that weekend, some 10,000 people fled to Austria. In a matter of weeks, 180,000 refugees had reached the country – another 20,000 had arrived in what was then Yugoslavia – before Hungary’s borders were sealed from within.

The resettlement effort started almost immediately. In a few months, all these, women, men and children had been welcomed to a new home in one of 37 countries across the world. Three countries between them welcomed half of the refugees. The USA and Canada accepted 40,000 each, and 20,000 Hungarians were welcomed to the UK – not over 5 years, but over the course of a single winter.

It's sobering to reflect on what was achieved by so many people and governments acting together to respond to the plight of refugees in Europe in 1956. These events made a profound impression on the speaker to whom I was listening. She was 10 years old when her family welcomed Hungarian refugees into their home, and is now clearly angry at Europe’s collective failure in response to the latest large-scale arrival of refugees on our continent.

Many of those fleeing in 1956 were children. As then, whole families are now fleeing conflict and brutality – seeking peace, security and a chance to rebuild their lives in Europe. Unlike then, Europe’s collective response has so far been cruelly shambolic and unwelcoming. Political leaders across the continent have refused to contribute to taking refugees in, while – some recklessly, others intentionally – have incited xenophobia among their citizens through rhetoric that has demeaned both the refugees and other migrants and their plight.

Shamefully, senior politicians in this country have done likewise, and our government has stubbornly refused to share any responsibility for providing a place of safety to any of the refugees who are still arriving in Europe. And while one country refuses to share responsibility, others too adopt a similar ‘not in my back yard’ position.

The UK is – as ministers constantly remind us – providing more humanitarian aid than others in Europe, particularly to support Syrians who remain in that region. We are told this is the better way to respond to the present situation, by helping to provide shelter, food and healthcare to refugees in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan – each of whom are currently host to many more refugees than Europe is receiving.

Meanwhile, the little boys and girls – and many others too – continue to die in our seas. The truth is that all our governments have got this wrong. The answer does not simply lie in financial assistance to the poorer countries beyond Europe’s borders struggling to host refugee populations that over many years (in some cases, decades) have far exceeded European efforts.

Nor does it lie simply in opening our minds, hearts and most vitally safe routes for refugees in Europe and from other regions. European governments need to do all these things, and they need to do them together. And the UK needs to share responsibility within Europe and with countries beyond Europe.

In 1956, Europe led a global response to a refugee crisis. Hungarians were resettled across the world, with two African and 12 Latin American countries contributing to finding new homes for people who had been driven from their old ones by repression and brutality. I wasn’t alive then, but I can imagine the pride taken in the assertion of values of freedom, equality and solidarity in the face of Soviet aggression.

Nearly sixty years on, what has happened to those values? And what has happened to the values that underpinned joint efforts to receive and resettle refugees from other conflicts, most recently Bosnians and Kosovans?

Europe has a proud history of welcoming refugees. So why are children and their parents now being left to drown in our seas, and go cold, weak and hungry at our borders?

Steve Symonds is Amnesty UK's refugee and migrant rights programme director

The opinions in Politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.