Gestures aren’t enough to prevent more drownings

If Europe is serious about sparing other children Aylan’s fate, and about stemming the human tide, it should act meaningfully and decisively in Syria, writes Jonathan Gornall

Refugees cheer as they arrive at the main train station in Munich on Sunday September. Sven Hoppe / EPA
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The day after waking to the heartbreaking photo­graph of a three-year-old Syrian refugee lying drowned on a Turkish beach, I drove to Harwich, a port town in the east of England, to meet some friends arriving on a ferry from the Netherlands.

As I waited, I noticed that none of the disembarking passengers even glanced at a small metal plaque they hurried past in the arrivals hall.

Between 1938 and 1940, 10,000 Jewish children landed in Harwich after being snatched from the rabid maw of Nazi Germany. They were cared for in the town until permanent homes could be found throughout the country.

The plaque, “a gesture of thanks … from the children”, was presented to Harwich by the survivors on the 50th anniversary of the mercy mission known as the Kindertransport.

In the days since the death of Aylan Kurdi, the Kindertransport has been repeatedly invoked in the British media as part of the pressure on the government to “do something” about the Syrian refugee crisis.

That, goes the argument, was Britain at her best. Prime minister David Cameron’s belated response – in stark contrast to the open-door generosity of Germany – was Britain at her worst.

In 1938, Neville Chamberlain’s government reacted to the public outrage at Kristallnacht, the pogrom against Jews throughout Germany.

Last week, it was the sight of Aylan’s lifeless body that overnight transformed UK immigration policy. In a week, the government went from insisting it would take no additional refugees to saying it would welcome 10,000.

In both cases, public and media pressure forced the government’s hand. But there are two fundamental differences between 1938 and now.

In 1938, the British made the tough decision to take only children. Most would never see their parents again. But, facing an imminent war with Germany, there was no question of admitting thousands of adult German refugees.

Until last week, European countries were focused on preventing the radicalisation of young Muslims, fearing those who travel to join ISIL in Syria will return home as terrorists.

Now look at the photographs of the thousands of Syrian refugees who have been admitted to Germany. Some are children and their parents. But many more are young, single, adult men.

Given the confused state of Syria, how can any country be sure that none of the tens of thousands of young Syrian men they plan to host is infected with ISIL’s deadly ideology?

That question gained traction on Sunday, when one British newspaper carried an interview with an alleged Syrian people smuggler who claimed that as many as 4,000 ISIL fanatics, posing as refugees, had already sneaked into European countries.

The other difference between now and 1938 is that, until Mr Cameron’s crowd-pleasing U-turn last week, Britain already had a sound and socially responsible refugee policy in place.

In the past week, both Britain and the US have been accused of a “shameful failure”. In fact, their only failure has been in failing to communicate to their own citizens the extent to which they have been helping those in the camps.

In March, 37 nations gathered in Kuwait to pledge billions of dollars to the UN’s Syria response plan, but only a fraction of the promised money has materialised. “We are so dangerously low on funding,” António Guterres, the UN high commissioner for refugees, said in June, that “we risk not being able to meet even the most basic survival needs of millions of people over the coming six months”.

As of this week, only 14 of the 37 countries have made good on their offer. In all, only $1.82 billion (Dh6.68bn) of the $4.53 billion needed for the UN’s Syria response this year has been funded. As a consequence, says the UN, the refugees are facing winter with inadequate shelter, food, clothing and medical care.

Among those who have fulfilled their pledge is the UK which, after the US, is the second largest provider of funding to the Syrian crisis. This year alone the UK has given $475 million, to which Mr Cameron added another $100 million on Friday – more than twice, incidentally, the $225 million donated by Germany.

If anything, the death of Aylan Kurdi has exposed not the failings of western governments but the hypocrisy of those spurred to the moral high ground by the sight of his poor dead body.

After all, we already knew exactly what was going on.

In 2013, the Oxford Research Group reported that Syria's war had claimed the lives of 11,420 people under the age of 17.

On Thursday, the UN announced that so far this year 2,500 migrants, including refugees, had lost their lives risking the fraught crossing of the Mediterranean in search of safety and a better life.

To that figure, of course, must be added the most recent toll: the 250 dead from two boats off Libya and the 71 Syrian refugees, including a baby girl and three other children, who suffocated in the back of a locked lorry in Austria.

Taking any number of refugees will not stem the haemorrhaging of humanity at its source. But the politicians and pundits now accusing Mr Cameron of shameful inaction over the refugee crisis were the first to protest in July when it emerged that British RAF pilots were taking part in US-led bombing raids against ISIL in Syria.

Now the UK government is ready to seek parliamentary approval for air strikes on ISIL targets in Syria. With the country braced for the verdict of the long-awaited Chilcot inquiry into its part in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, that is an act of political courage that should be applauded.

Aylan Kurdi, his brother and his mother were killed not by the immigration policies of western governments, but by a catastrophic civil war, murderously escalated by the fanatics of ISIL.

Handing out food, nappies and wet wipes to refugee families arriving in Vienna and Munich is a lovely, human gesture. But if Europe is serious about sparing other children Aylan’s fate, and about stemming the human tide flowing over its borders, it is time to act meaningfully and decisively in Syria.

Jonathan Gornall is a freelance journalist in the UK