Sometimes a single image can sum up a debate. This week in Europe, a photograph of a three-year-old boy lying on a beach has had that power. The boy is dead. By the time the photograph was taken, so were his mother and young brother. They were among 12 Syrians who drowned trying to reach Greece.
In the photograph, the boy lies face down. His arms rest by his side. He is wearing small shoes carefully strapped with Velcro. His face carries a peacefulness that could be mistaken for sleep were it not for the tide rounding him and the policeman standing at his right.
On the cover of The Independent, the headline read simply: “Somebody’s child.” The message in its first paragraph was as simple as the problem is maddeningly complex: “The tide of desperate humanity seeking safety in Europe is rising. Yesterday’s victims include this Syrian boy, drowned in his family’s attempt to reach Greece from Turkey. The EU is deadlocked; our Prime Minister is in denial. A vast human catastrophe is unfolding. Do we really believe that this is not our problem?”
There is a word The Independent did not use because it did not need to. It was obvious to all but the governments who refuse it. This boy was not just a boy, he was a refugee. His name was Aylan Kurdi and he, with his family, was fleeing violence in the bombed city of Kobani. Canada had earlier rejected their application for refuge.
On the cover of The Guardian, Aylan was shown moments later, his limp body cradled by the policeman. Above it, the headline: “The shocking, cruel reality of Europe’s refugee crisis.” The Daily Mirror called the picture “the heartbreaking human face of a tragedy the world can no longer ignore”. The Sun said, simply: “Mr Cameron, summer is over … now deal with the biggest crisis facing Europe since WWII.”
The flow of refugees through Europe is extraordinary. Thousands have been rescued at sea; thousands more fill train stations. Families march through woods and sneak under wire. Men burn off their fingerprints, hoping to avoid laws that would see them returned to the European country in which they were first detected.
Already, Germany, France and Italy have urged reforms to migrant distribution in the European Union. Correctly, they diagnose this as a “historic test”.
In Australia, we do not see the children of this crisis, because the ones that make it here are locked in camps that have already been deemed unsafe for them. The numbers we talk about are infinitely small compared with those arriving in Hungary and Greece, but our cruelty is just as keen. We seem not to care when we are told of the grim conditions in camps, of the child abuse or self-harming. We are unmoved by the fact we have sent women to be raped on islands beyond our borders. We worry not at the men who have died either through violence or maltreatment in the centres we pay to operate.
Europe has no clear path through its refugee crisis. But it is treating the crisis with much greater urgency than we are treating the one we created in offshore detention. Rather than worry at the welfare of refugees, this government is concocting further ways to harm them: to deny them citizenship, to keep them alien in the community, to make them live outcast in nations paid to absorb our own responsibilities.
Aylan Kurdi is not just the face of a crisis, he is the face of indignity. It is an indignity visited on refugees every day.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 5, 2015 as "Grim tide". Subscribe here.