A picture’s worth a thousand words, and whose heart did not break at that photograph of the innocent little three-year-old boy in his smart red tee shirt, blue shorts and trainers lying dead face down on a beach in Turkey. Like the little Polish boy with his hands up in the Warsaw Ghetto, or the crying burned child from the Vietnam War – these are appalling heart-rending icons of a cry for help. The dreadful deaths of migrants in the Mediterranean, the squalor of the Jungle Camp in Calais, the chaos in Budapest – all of these things are but symptoms of a much wider malaise.
We are witnessing the largest mass migration of peoples in the history of the world. Behind it lies warfare in Syria, Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan; terrorism across much of the northern half of Africa as well as the Middle East; the Israeli/Palestinian conflict; poverty across half the globe (while the other half suffer from obesity); the pernicious effects of people using religion as a cover for their own greedy, violent, demented ends; these are influences predicted by the Willy Brandt Report thirty-five years ago. They are now taking place.
I absolutely agree with all of my constituency correspondents who say that “we must do something about it.” But I also have every sympathy with those who reply “Yes, but what?” The other half of my mailbag in the last few months has been full of letters of outrage at the very high immigration figures, demanding that we should close our doors to migrants, arguing that we have neither the space nor the resources to house them. Half of my constituents want to see compassionate immigration; the other half want to see the drawbridge pulled up at Calais.
My own view is that we must try to differentiate between economic migrants (the Dick Whittingtons of the twenty-first century), genuine political asylum seekers like the Afghan interpreters; and the millions of refugees displaced from their homes and their homelands by warfare and persecution. Now how you differentiate amongst the different categories, each of which is worthy of a different level and type of help, is anyone’s guess, especially when they are all jumbled up in migration camps across Europe.
I very much welcome the Prime Minister's statement last Friday that "we need to act with head and heart to help those most in need," and I welcome his announcement to Parliament on Monday that we will take 20,000 refugees from the camps on the border of war-torn Syria over the course of this Parliament. I am also delighted that Britain has already provided over £900 million in aid for those fleeing war in Syria and Iraq. This is more than any other European country. But there isn't a solution to this problem that is simply about taking people. Simply throwing open our doors, as some have suggested we should do out of compassion, would solve really very little. Indeed it might make things worse since it would be saying to the remaining people in Syria, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere "make your way to the borders of Europe and we will give you shelter."
So we must be compassionate; we must find a way to help these poor people whose lives have been destroyed by warfare at home; we must give political asylum to true asylum seekers, but we must filter out the fakes and economic migrants, and violent terrorists who may well be hiding amongst them. And at the same time as all of that we must – by overseas aid or military means – try to establish peace and security in these peoples’ homelands; we must police the vicious thugs who are trafficking them, and we must seek to rebalance the world’s inequalities of food and water and economic resources. If you fancy that job then you’re a braver person than me.
But the poor little boy in his best outfit dead on the beach in Turkey is an image which will last forever, and which prompts Winston Churchill’s great cry “Action this day.”