Please Take Action for Our Shared Humanity
An opinion piece by Jasper Gerard
A tiny boy is washed up dead on a beach and it transforms global politics. With that click of a shutter-lense, no tub-thumping politician or tabloid newspaper can any longer dismiss desperate refugees as mere flotsam, floating on a tide far from home. We all shed a tear, and this time we don’t move on. Nameless entities long ignored have suddenly been granted back their humanity. The boy has a name, he is called Aylan. Now the West has been forced to recognise that these are people, with their own histories, personalities and hopes; and whatever the problems of giving refuge to large numbers of the dispossessed, such individuals demand consideration and compassion.
In this country it was the public reaction which shamed the government into a change of tack. Phone-ins were full of kind, decent British people saying “I’ll give someone a home.” Before that David Cameron, whether truly fearful of “swarms” of immigrants or perhaps an equally large numbers of Conservative voters defecting to UKIP, said “we have taken a number”. Well, 216 to be exact Prime Minister. Germany was offering to take 800,000.
Similarly the Daily Mail, which has been railing against refugees at least since the 1930s, had said shortly before the now famous photo hit news-stands across the world: “we are experiencing an unprecedented upheaval in the make-up of a country once united by ties of language, history, creed and patriotism.” Today’s edition is full of sympathetic stories about the boy; about how his mother was terrified of the sea, and how he is now to be buried in his home town “where ISIS murdered 11 of his family just three months ago.” These are not benefit scroungers looking to steal our jobs as is sometimes claimed, these are the truly desperate doing what many of us would attempt in the same horrible circumstances.
I am proud that the Liberal Democrats were among the very first to apply pressure. Our leader Tim Farron did not worry how Nigel Farage or the Daily Mail would react. Instead he saw something was wrong, and called for action. Our party has a long history of standing up for apparently unpopular causes which have an odd habit of later being proved not only right but also popular: Iraq obviously, but also calls for equal rights, prison reform, environmentalism and so on.
It is important to be fair to the government. As large swathes of north Africa and the Middle East descend into bloodshed and brutality – caused at least in part by our misguided military interventions - we face a crisis of monumental proportions that could last for decades.
The difference between political refugees and economic migrants can often be blurred. It is vital we do not risk the sometimes fragile racial harmony we have in this country by testing the great British welcome to destruction. We should be aware that it might not be pure humanity that has led Germany to take 800,000 refugees. A report in Time magazine warns that Germany’s economy could be eclipsed by Britain’s in 2050 because its population is stagnating, whereas Britain is a magnet for bright, hard working young people keen to make a life here.
So there are big political questions demanding proper reflection. Anyone living in Maidstone, where I fought the last election, will know how choked our roads are and how difficult it will be build the many thousands of houses the government demands of us simply to keep up with existing demand – fuelled not, as irresponsible extremists like to claim, by immigration but mainly by families moving out of London, couples divorcing and people living longer. Whatever the cause, clearly there are limits to how many people we can take. The British economy is dangerously skewed towards London and the South East, so there aren’t the jobs in the provinces and areas devastated by the dismantling of Britain’s industrial base.
Ultimately we need to work harder at long term solutions: not blunder into wars such as Iraq and Libya without assessing the consequences, and then departing with the region still so unstable; and instead help build states and grow sustainable economies so in future such huge numbers of people will not feel the need to flee their homes. The Little Englanders among us might also reflect that it is their dreaded “Europe” that is trying to contain the crisis, be it on the shores of Greece, Italy or France. Perhaps we might find that co-operating with our friends will work better than shrill abuse – for what would happen if the French opened the exit door at Calais? If we show a little more humanity with political refugees, maybe the EU will show a little more humility to the concerns in some quarters here about economic migrants.
So let us not pretend this is nothing to do with us. One thing that makes me really proud to be British is that we have always been a refuge for the dispossessed. Right back to the Huguenouts, this country has been a haven for those fleeing persecution, and has benefited hugely. For what, to name but a tiny few, do the following have in common: Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, Karl Marx, Karl Popper, the Dalai Lama, Joseph Conrad, Vladamir Nabokov, Thomas Mann, Aristotle Onassis, Lew Grade, Alec Issigonis, Jacob Epstein, Freddie Mercury, Richard Rogers, Rachel Weisz, Ben Elton and even Rita Ora? The answer, of course, is that they were all refugees.
And so a short life that drowns on a Turkish shore has become perhaps the most famous refugee of all. We owe it to Aylan Kurdi, to his family, and to thousands like them to ensure that our humanity doesn't also perish - and instead honour our legal and moral duty to help refugees. Please sign the petition at https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/105991, please keep up pressure on the government, and by virtue of our shared humanity, please do the right thing.
We need to keep the pressure on. This Saturday, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron MP will be marching alongside thousands of others at the Solidarity with Refugees march in London. Are you able to join Tim? Please RSVP and invite your friends:
When: Saturday 12 September @ 11:30
Where: Meet Tim and other Lib Dems on the corner of Bryanston Street and Great Cumberland Place, London