The fact that the shocking image of the body of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish shore has jolted so many people in Europe out of apathy toward the refugee crisis can only represent a positive development. That there are now increasing numbers of people who are either pressuring their governments to do more or are taking matters into their own hands is a welcome departure from what has up until recently largely been cold indifference.
However it goes without saying that Aylan Kurdi was not the first child to die at sea having fled Syria in search of refuge. Many more had perished prior to the global circulation of a harrowing image encapsulating the collective failure of Europe. And the structural reasons for all of these deaths have remained more or less constant. So while the emotive response on the part of ordinary European citizens is both laudable and necessary, it is also crucial that this response takes into consideration these structural factors, if it is to avoid ultimately compounding the very process whose outcomes we now seek to minimise.
What follows is not in any way intended to diminish the importance of the recent outpouring of initiatives in support of refugees. On the contrary, I put together this brief, non-exhaustive list of propositions and guiding principles with a view to suggesting how our response, whatever form it may take, can be as effective and emancipatory in the long-term as possible.
In order for this to be achieved, this response, at some level or another, should involve:
Recognition of the central role played by border policies in the misery and suffering that so horrify and outrage us
Awareness of how Western governments have created, maintained and exacerbated situations in the Middle East and North Africa that produce refugees in the first place
A desire to alleviate the extent of our own complicity in other people’s suffering rather than a materially detached moral obligation to help reduce that suffering
A willingness to apply the same standards and values to others that we historically and presently apply to ourselves
A challenge to the notion that one’s life must be at risk in order to ‘earn’ the right to travel freely from one country to another
The knowledge that universal values, such as freedom of movement, apply to everyone or else they do not apply at all
An interrogation of what this observation might imply for our contemporary border regime and all of the discriminatory and exclusionary practices that it entails
An examination of the logic of a system that dogmatically insists upon the unconditional mobility of capital and goods while strictly regulating and restricting the mobility of human beings
A view of refugees as being agents of progressive change rather than helpless victims
Solidarity rather than pity