But in death as that awful photograph is now seared in the collective mind’s eye across the world through social media, has his tragedy, repeated so many times over, at last awakened the conscience of Europe? No. Weeks have gone by since Kurdi’s tragedy made the headlines, and the response from Europe is only more disunited and dysfunctional.
An ugly suspicion, the otherwise unspoken deduction that must be voiced. Europe's doors were closed to Spanish Republican refugees before the outbreak of the Second World War because they were "reds". The doors were closed to fleeing German Jews seeking sanctuary from Hitler, precisely because they were Jews. And now the proud democracies of civilized Europe dither as 50,000 refugees this year alone fleeing war will drown or die in other more pathetic ways on their doorstep. Is this moral autism because the vast number of the wretched are primarily Muslims? That makes them more suspect and somehow less human, less worthy than we are, doesn't it, though they flee al Assad, ISIL, the Taliban, Al Shabab and the Janjaweed? The EU statutes on human rights are transforming into meaningless paper because they do not universally apply to everyone in practice.
Five hundred more refugees drown in the Mediterranean off the Libyan coast. Seventy dead refugees found in a van near the Hungarian border. Such headlines, despite their horror, are becoming routine. But let it resonate that the bulk of the 60 million refugees and displaced people worldwide are escaping armed conflict of some form or another. Many of those conflicts have a greater or lesser degree of Western complicity as a causal factor. Others are clearly a direct result of past Western intervention or failed policies, but it's not our problem? As just one example, have we truly forgotten that without the invasion of Iraq in 2003 there would be no ISIL today? Pity George Bush Jr. and Tony Blair are not themselves refugees and yet both are utterly unrepentant over arguably one of the greatest strategic failures in modern history.
If 50,000 Americans or EU citizens were drowning in the Mediterranean each year fleeing war and oppressive regimes, we would be taking resolute action. The day may come when there may be a radicalized extremist movement that will see its murderous mission as simply avenging these dead refugees. Our inaction could foster new extremism we can’t define at present. It will become a self-inflicted wound. Why this massive loss of life, all this suffering does not stir our collective conscience in the first world more, seems to be another clear sign of our inevitable decline and moral corruption as societies.
As Republican refugees streamed out of Spain in 1939, the Salazar dictatorship in Portugal turned many back to face certain death, as virtually all of Europe after 1933 closed its doors to German Jews. Déjà vu, the European Union's incoherent and inhumane response to the refugee exodus begins to repeat this shameful chapter from the past. Hungary deploying its army on the border brings back the ghosts of Salazar's soldiers and gendarmes. If you are a Westerner and consider that there is no Western culpability or at minimum joint responsibility for the wars in the Middle East, South Asia and East Africa, sending so many desperate people to your door, fleeing violence and oppression, the denial and ignorance beggars description.
I haven't seen it, but I have a suspicion that Hungary's hardline rightist Prime Minister Viktor Orban has a portrait of Admiral Horthy in his office and perhaps an Iron Guard uniform too in his closet. He says to the refugees "don't come", and to his own constituents that Europe's Christian identity is under threat from the flood of Muslims escaping war. Modern Hungary is, of course, the EU state that has seen the floor of its parliament debate whether Jewish citizens should be registered as a security threat and where the words "final solution" have been spoken as a means to contend with the Romany population. Orban is also promoting draconian legislation that would criminalize private citizens hosting refugees. Now the Hungarian Army is standing next to the ugly razor wire fence demarcating its border, that already says everything about its prime minister’s position in perfect silence.
It is disturbing that Slovakia is actively discouraging Muslim immigration. That the Czechs are printing numbers on refugee forearms leaves one speechless. They are not people, they are numbers, when did we see this before? Yet the xenophobic vision of a fearsome Eurabia is alive and well on the continent among the fevered minds of the intolerant. How much longer before Marine LePen and Geert Wilders and others like them in the resurgent far right polarize matters further? They have changed their uniforms from SA brown, Squadristi black and Falange blue, but don’t let this cosmetic change of clothes into elegant coats and ties fool you as to their true intentions and nature.
Nobody adhering to progressive values in Europe should be sitting comfortably, thinking this is not their concern, because the longer the EU dithers in failing to devise a concerted response to the refugee tragedy, the worse it will get. Fair to say this is the worst moral crisis to shame Europe on its own soil since the Yugoslavian War, alongside Russia’s aggression in Ukraine which has seen as nearly toothless and disjointed a response from the EU, where morality seems decidedly flexible of late. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is ostensibly trying to be decent and Germany will take 800,000 refugees, but she is a lone voice and the "European Union" seems increasingly a hollow oxymoron. And we can’t even be sure if Merkel is sincere, as the German border is now blocked just as it is in Hungary, Austria and Slovakia.
More of us should follow the generous example of the Icelandic people, where ten thousand citizens have voluntarily offered to take in refugees despite the government seeking to cap asylum figures at less than one hundred. Perhaps the solution is in people power? To be sure there are millions of ordinary European citizens willing to act, if their governments aren’t, and Denmark is a clear example where the bulk of the population rejects the closed-door policy of the state. But the mobilization of the European street demanding positive action is not on the horizon. A million Londoners marched in protest against the advent of the Iraq War in 2003, but the same spirit of protest and solidarity is not visible now for the refugees, not on a scale that might make a difference.
There exist sixty million refugees and internally displaced human beings worldwide, an epic scale of human exodus not seen since 1945. The vast majority of these people are not economic migrants, but people fleeing violence and conflict. And why is it so infuriating to so many that they should seek to live dignified lives in safety and to work like the rest of us? How is it that Europe seems to suffer from historical amnesia? Has Europe truly forgotten what war meant? What genocide and tyranny meant? What it meant to be occupied, what it meant to be refugees fleeing for their lives? One expects the new Ukrainian refugees have not forgotten, nor the people of the Balkans in the former Yugoslavia where the flames of war burned not so long ago. And it must be noted that the Serbs are behaving honourably towards the refugees, although they were the primary aggressors in 1992.
As democracies we congratulate ourselves on our civic virtues, a sense of fair play, our compassion, our humanism, all that reassures us of our moral superiority as free societies, and yet we close our eyes, close our hearts and we criminalize human suffering. We also wash our hands of our complicity and direct or indirect responsibility and our poor choices or failed policies which gave fuel to so many of the conflicts that burn today.
Few of us are immune to displaying utter callousness and it isn’t confined to the continent of Europe. The recently ousted former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot called for all refugee boats to be intercepted and for their hapless passengers to be forcibly interned. Britain's prime minister calls the refugees a “swarm " and “menace". Americans gather on the Rio Grande to taunt children fleeing narco-violence, that America has more than a little to do with, not least in its massive appetite for drugs which fuels the narco industry in the hemisphere. Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decries the African refugees fleeing genocide in Sudan or the brutal Eritrean dictatorship as "cancer and infiltrators". Such is the embrace of the Free World, scarcely better to how Southeast Asia has responded or rather failed to respond to its new generation of boat people, such as the forlorn Rohingya Muslims of Burma escaping violence that is clearly genocidal in intent. But we are not the developing world yet, 50,000 will drown in the Mediterranean this year alone. We shame ourselves deeply but insufficiently to do something meaningful, because it would seem some human beings are more expendable than we are. I wonder how many have died just in the time I wrote this?
Muslim refugees fleeing war are the new Jews and Spanish Republicans of today's Europe. Poison chalice that they are to so many, there is worse to come unless a humane and rational remedy worthy of a civilized Europe is found soon in a deliberate, unified way, because in the darkest, cynical manipulation possible the flood of refugees will prove in time a gift to rally Europe's new Fascists and Nazis. Dystopia is here and more Dystopia cometh, if there will be no remedy. The answer is not in truncheons and tear gas, despite Mr. Orban’s less than humane jackboot approach.
Western morality is drowning in the Mediterranean alongside the refugees. We must look far into the depths of the dark waters to understand just how far Europe’s soul has sunk. When shall we return to the light that is meant to illuminate nothing even so grand as democracy, but just simple humanity, for the sake of humanity, theirs and not least ours? “Action this day!” Not tomorrow. Now.
But that action is nowhere to be seen. And what are the solutions? As much as the eastern members of the EU reject the notion of imposing quotas of the refugee intake, it is only fair this should take place, as the responsibility and burden should be shared by the whole of the community and not just rest on a few shoulders. And instead of putting armed soldiers and riot police on the borders, why aren’t field hospitals and emergency medical and feeding stations being set up? And why isn’t there a coordinated effort to save more lives at sea? Why isn’t there a large multinational flotilla of civilian, naval and coast guard ships acting in concert under centralized command to rescue the refugees drowning in European waters?
Long term, the only viable solution is for European diplomacy and any other means necessary in an international coalition to bring an end to all the conflicts fuelling the refugee crisis. But this won’t happen soon, sadly the wars in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Sudan, Nigeria, Somalia and other places of sudden death and horror will endure for years to come. So is the alternative to keep doing nothing?
We would do well to consider the strategic implications of our fumbling because we are sowing the seeds for greater polarization and instability by refusing to meet the crisis head on. How is it that we confront Islamic extremism abroad through direct military action, arms sales and advisers on the ground with allied forces to protect our own societies, but refuse to accept its victims from the very same countries ravaged by active conflicts? Can we not acknowledge that the vast share of the victims of Muslim terror and dictatorships are and always have been Muslims? This is not a matter of opinion, it is a statistical fact. Do they count less than we do? Are they more disposable than we are? Is it because they are primarily black, brown and Muslim people and thus the safeguards and principles of European democracy are only for white people?
The vile Hungarian prime minister has let us know very clearly what actually anchors his views on the refugees and it is nothing less than racism, whatever noises he makes about law enforcement and legality. Amnesty International is correct in labelling today’s Hungary “the shame of Europe”, but there is plenty of opprobrium to go around.
Europe at this very moment should be setting an unassailable moral example for the world to follow in how it treats refugees, but it is doing nothing of the sort and history will record and remember this profound moral collapse staining European civilization to it’s very core. Seventy years after the Second World War, Europeans should know better. A child knows better. The conscience of civilized Europe is also a refugee.
Christopher Patrick Kline is an independent international journalist and visiting lecturer in multimedia conflict journalism at Kaunas Technical University.