The images published around the world of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi’s body washed up on the Turkish shore marked a changing of the tides in the refugee crisis engulfing Europe. Not since the outbreak of the Second World War has such a mass movement of people between countries occurred, but for many this – the humanitarian crisis of our time – has not been their problem.
Until you truly come face-to-face with such a horror, it can often be hard to sympathise with those fighting the battle day-to-day. Thousands of people fleeing North Africa and the Middle East from Islamic State occupation have died attempting to reach Europe. Just look at the 71 people found dead in the hold of a lorry crossing into Austria from Hungary a couple of weeks ago, or the many more, such as young Aylan, who have perished at sea attempting to cross over to EU countries such as Greece.
The horrendous photos of the young boy are being described as potentially history-changing. Politicians have been clambering for public approval in relaxing their stances on migration ever since media companies and newspapers decided en masse to print the graphic images – for example David Cameron has vowed to accept up to 20,000 refugees directly from refugee camps by the end of the current parliament in 2020.
But is this really good enough? For months this crisis has topped the news agenda. Thousands of deaths have been reported in the most horrific of circumstances yet public opinion had remained relatively unmoved, up until recent weeks of course.
I would count myself among those who remained ignorant, knowingly or otherwise, until I by chance walked directly into the centre of the refugee crisis. As I disembarked the overnight train that had carried me from Salzburg to Budapest whilst interrailing with some friend, the first thing that hit me was the amount of people; the international ticket office was only letting people through one at a time due to demand, and hundreds of people, surely not all waiting for visiting relatives, packed the station floor.
Dazed from an uncomfortable and sleepless night, it didn’t quite hit me what this was. We went downstairs to the adjoining Metro station, and then the penny dropped; thousands of people were camped on the baking warm floor, packed tightly into small tents, surrounded by their possessions and other families. Children kicked a football about without a care in the world but their parents watched on weary and worried. This was the epicentre of the refugee crisis.
And accordingly, it made me sad. Sad that hundreds of human beings (like me) with families (like me), and possessions (like me) were stranded on the floor of a train station, living in conditions not too dissimilar to cattle, save for the ticket machines and commuters passing through.
For the days during our stay in Budapest, the news flashed with contradictory headlines: ‘Migrants pack train to Austria’ – Oh no, we might not make our train if it’s packed! ‘Migrants protest as trains west cancelled’ – Oh no, we might not make our train it’s cancelled! ‘Migrants locked out of station as travel resumes’ – Oh no, they’re going to be stuck in the station for days… but at least we’ll be able to get our train.
Now, I realise that my suffering, in potentially missing a train (albeit with a plane to catch), was insignificant in comparison to the suffering of each and every refugee stranded far from home. However I did what a lot of people have done – I took real interest when my interests were challenged too.
This isn’t to say that I’m some sort of immigrant-bashing UKIP supporter, the very opposite is true – I’m of the opinion that immigration benefits society and helps promote cultural diversity and can change prejudicial attitudes over. As a journalist, I have kept up with the migrant/refugee crisis for months now, but I only now feel invested in it because I’ve seen what the people who are affected are going through.
For the days after arriving in Budapest, I felt it was my duty to tell friends at home about what the refugees were going through and how governments, including our own in Britain were doing very little to help. And then the photos of Aylan Kurdi appeared, and for me it was like some sort of sick, twisted ‘I knew it before it was cool’ scenario. I saw the world’s media suddenly pay attention to the suffering, the pain, and the plight of the Syrian people, the Iraqi people, and all those made homeless by Islamic State and other injustices in the world.
Thousands of migrants are now being able to move more freely through Europe, paths are becoming safer thanks to Cameron’s u-turn on policy, and there has been a giant swing in the public’s mood towards refugees. And this was all because of the photo of little Aylan Kurdi, one child among thousands who have died trying to reach Europe, whose demise has truly captured the world’s attention and made us listen. For his sake, we had better keep our ears up.