In an article in today’s Herald the Archbishop of Glasgow, Philip Tartaglia, says the images of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, whose lifeless body was washed up on a Turkish beach, was a landmark moment in the crisis which brought society to its senses.
Every so often a picture changes history. An image captured through a camera lens speaks more eloquently to the hearts of people than a thousand sermons or political speeches.
I remember the impact of the famous photo in the 1960s when I was a student, of the young Vietnamese girl running for her life, burnt with napalm. For many people it summed up the futility and horror of the Vietnam War and probably hastened its end.
A similar landmark moment occurred, I think, last Wednesday evening when the images of Aylan Kurdi, the tiny child whose drowned body summed up the horror of the human crisis facing Europe, flashed across computer and TV screens.
Who, on seeing that tiny body, inert as the waves washed over his face, every detail of his humanity on show, down to the soles of his trainers, doubtless recently bought by loving parents, could help but weep?
I watched with amazement in the course of the week as various tabloids and politicians redefined what they meant by a “crisis of immigration”. At the start of last week, that “crisis” was the fact that 300,000 more people had entered the UK than left it last year. (The fact that most were EU citizens coming to work here was an inconvenient detail which was largely omitted from the hysteria.)
Just as the “crisis” headlines hit the press, the real crisis manifested itself in a refrigerated truck in an Austrian lay-by which had turned into a death chamber for 70 or more poor men, women and children. And what of the 200 or so who died trying to make the crossing from Libya to Italy? (taking the total of Mediterranean drownings to 2500 this year). That detail wasn’t regarded as a crisis, perhaps because it happened far from the smartphone screens of western society.
It took the poignant, tragic, senseless horror of little Aylan lying lifeless on that beach to bring our society to its senses.
In my view the refugee crisis is a test, not of political shrewdness, but of common humanity. What is happening in the Mediterranean, Calais and other access points is a heartless affront to human dignity.
The UK should be generous in providing a safe haven for refugees and asylum-seekers;
Germany and Sweden lead the way in opening their borders – and more importantly their hearts – to those in need. The people of tiny Iceland put us to shame in their generosity, with more than 11,000 families offering to open their own homes to fleeing refugees.
Yesterday, the Prime Minister made a welcome but vague promise to allow in more desperate people fleeing chaos, but appeared to offer no hope to those who have already reached Europe. Instead extra effort goes in to procuring newer, sharper, higher, barbed wire fences to keep out the desperate refugees at Calais.
Pope Francis in recent remarks on the subject, was typically blunt. He called the rejection of human beings fleeing violence “an act of war”.
He said the situation where desperate refugees were bounced from country to country seeking shelter was “an unresolved conflict… and this is war, this is violence, it’s called murder”.
The victims of that war, that murder, are sometimes invisible to us. Their invisibility allows us to feign ignorance of their human plight.
After seeing that iconic image of little Aylan, that defence of ignorance is gone. It is time to open our hearts and open our borders.