Up until last Wednesday, caring about refugees wasn’t particularly fashionable. You’d see the occasional story about refugees drowning as they tried to cross the Mediterranean. Very occasionally, you’d also see stories in the Guardian about how we have to make sure that we apply the correct terminology, as these people were refugees fleeing warfare and disaster, not immigrants ‘coming to steal our jobs’.
Now, suddenly, refugees are at the forefront of the media eye. Why? A series of photos of refugees who had drowned went viral in the course of a week, and the British public suddenly (apparently) took notice. From Wednesday to Friday, the photos of Aylan Kurdi, a 3 year old boy found washed up on a beach in Bodrum, Turkey, managed to gain the interest of the British public. Even newspapers normally dedicated to spreading the word of the evil of ‘migrants’ such as the Daily Mail are talking of the huge human tragedy that occurred; all sparked by the death of one child.
Since then, petitions have gone out to raise public awareness and call upon the government to act to end this crisis, or to protect the refugees. One such petition, started by the Independent, gathered over 220,000 signatures in under 48 hours. David Cameron and the Conservatives were thus forced to give a public response to it, and due to mounting criticism over inaction, pledged to increase the number of refugees admitted to Britain to 20,000 by the year 2020.
The problem is, many people are questioning how the refugee crisis suddenly got so bad. The obvious answer is that, quite simply, it didn’t. There has been absolutely nothing sudden about this crisis at all. We have known for years that millions have been displaced during the civil war in Syria. And we have known for years that they are fleeing to Europe, often by boat. We have also known for years that people are drowning in their thousands in attempts to cross from North Africa or Turkey to European territory.
For several years, we have been promising the EU and UN that as a nation we would step up to our promise of taking in Syrian refugees. Consistently, we have failed to honour our promises. In fact, we have done our utmost to ignore the plight of refugees; instead of helping to create purpose built camps to protect the refugees who have reached Calais, we have instead spent huge sums erecting fences and increasing the number of staff to prevent them leaving for Britain. Instead of assisting those who are attempting to cross the Mediterranean, we have removed our naval vessels from the task of rescuing those in danger.
This needs to change. Whilst Cameron was correct to say that this problem needs to be resolved at its source, we should still act to protect those in need. We should ensure that our media stops demonising refugees and, where applicable, we should ensure that the correct language is applied to them. These people are refugees, not economic migrants. We have a strong international voice, and we should be using it to ensure that these people are protected, not to condemn them.