Recent days have shown an outpouring of humanity in Europe. Angela Merkel has announced that Germany will open its doors to more than half a million refugees and urged other states to follow suit; in Hungary, activists screened cartoons for children who have fled war and destruction; in Britain, thousands of people are working together to take much-needed supplies to the Calais refugee camp.
The public mood is one of overwhelming sympathy: #refugeeswelcome trends on social media, petitions call on governments to take action and ordinary people pledge to take refugees into their own homes. However briefly, even the most vociferous right-wing sections of the media seemed momentarily cowed by the heart-wrenching images of drowned children washed up on Europe’s shores. In fact, it seems as though the refugee crisis (the biggest since World War II) is at the forefront of everybody’s minds.
But while this humanitarian spirit is to be commended, we should not forget why these people became refugees in the first place. We should ask why is it that parents like those of little Aylan Kurdi feel that a leaky, overcrowded and unstable boat bobbing in the middle of the Mediterranean is a safer place for their children than the villages and neighbourhoods in which they grew up. After all, our leaders have spent more than a decade spreading instability throughout the Middle East and North Africa, have we considered the role our governments played in creating the refugees we are now rushing to help?
More than that, if we are ashamed that children are drowning in the Mediterranean, are we not also ashamed that our nations continue to sell arms and munitions to nations who use them to murder children elsewhere? Are we not ashamed by our government’s silence and inaction over Israel’s siege of Gaza, which a UN report says could be uninhabitable in less than two years? Are we not ashamed by our government’s silence over the Saudi-led devastation of Yemen? If our sense of shared humanity moves us to give food and shelter to the dispossessed, it must also move us to stop sending armaments to those who dispossess. It is no good sending donations to orphans in Calais while our munitions are making orphans in Sanaa.
So with the media focusing attention on refugees coming to Europe, we must not fall into the trap of divorcing this from the global struggle against oppression. For all the refugees that are made visible to us, there are countless others left invisible who cannot reach our shores (or our cameras). In many cases, their misery is the direct result of our foreign policy, our warmongering and our support for dictators around the world. Think of the Rohingya. Think of Yemen. Think of Gaza. We have a moral duty to help them too; they also need our compassion, our protests and our petitions. For every little Aylan Kurdi that washes up on our beaches, there are a hundred more whose names we will never know and whose precious faces we will never see.
So if we really want to help the refugees, we need more than tents and tinned food. We need change. We’ve needed it for too long already.