When the image of the drowned boy on a Turkish beach first came onto my screen I thought it was an art work. An artist highlighting the tragedy playing out in the mediterranean with thousands and thousands of ‘boat people’ crossing the waters away from chaos and conflict in search of asylum and peace in Europe. The porcelain coloured skin against the absurdly bright red t-shirt, the soles of his shoes and that pasty colour of his ear seemed to me surreal, artistic, not real life. I did not pay a great deal of attention at first.
But as the image went viral, I soon learnt that this was no artistic impression. This was a real boy, a real young life cut short, for reasons that we struggle to fathom. It is a picture of a reality far removed from my comfortable flat in the centre of Copenhagen.
It was in those days that the Danish Government’s first advertisement appeared in Middle Eastern papers, telling people things are not as good for refugees in Denmark as they might think. These ads were an election promise, following the lead of the government of my other country, Australia, the No Way campaign. Oh, the shame. It looked peculiarly like the ads were the response of a small nordic country surrounded by water to the images of little drowned boys in the faraway Mediterranean.
Then refugees came over the border from Germany, arriving in Rødby on Lolland or at the land border in Jutland. 800 people arrived in this way in a couple of days. But they did not wish to seek asylum in Denmark. They did not want to be sent back to Germany. They had walked through Europe, headed for the land of milk and honey, Denmark’s neighbour, Sweden. Perhaps the government’s media campaign has worked: We don’t want you in Denmark. Go away. Take your misery somewhere else, we are quite comfortable with our Danishness, ryebread and ‘hygge‘, thank you very much.
Not all Danes agree with Government’s hard-line policy against asylum seekers and immigration. People voted with their feet and came out in droves to try to help the wandering refugees with food, water, clothes. Some tried to give a lift, but were discouraged by police officers advising them that helping a refugee into or through the country is a crime. The law was also like this during the second world war, when brave ordinary people helped people flee to Sweden. In spite of the law. Because it was what humanity demanded. Because we cannot stand by and look at injustice.
Traditionally, the term migrant would refer to migratory birds. Some mammals also might also migrate to their breeding grounds and with the seasons to maximise their chance of surviving winter. Increasingly the word is used about people too. People are of course mammals and in today’s media language migrants are people maximising their chance of good life by seeking a new place to settle. Refugees are people seeking to maximise their chance of survival. An emigrant is someone who leaves their home to make another place their permanent place of abode. An immigrant is someone who has left their home and settled in a new place.
Danish has a telling expression: ‘folkevandring’, literally ‘people wandering’. It is usually translated as migration. But perhaps exodus is a better translation. Throughout history humans have migrated. This is how we came out of Africa and settled every continent on Earth. It is how we have dealt with drought, flood and other natural disasters that makes living in a place difficult, unsustainable. We have found new places to live. Sometimes violently, beating existing populations in the process. This is no different, though people are migrating from a man-made conflict, not a natural disaster. And it is a sign of things to come.
It is said that 9 million Syrians are displaced today. The United Nations Refugee Agency estimated that in mid-2014 there were 18 million refugees in camps, 5 million of these in refugee camps established in 1949 to care for displaced Palestinians. At that time 50 per cent of refugees were in Asia, 28 per cent in Africa. This is a massive, world-wide problem and not one that should have just come to our attention because of a picture of a drowned boy.
European Union President Jean-Claude Juncker urges Europeans to be brave, not scared. We can build walls and fences, he said, referring to the reactions in Eastern Europe to the human exodus. But just imagine yourself with your child in your arms in a country of conflict. No wall could be tall enough, no sea wide enough to discourage you to cross for safety. He is probably right.
The point is that no country, no continent should be alone in dealing with this exodus. This was a reason the UN Refugee Agency was created in 1951: to deal with the 1 million people displaced by the second world war in a global way. A number thought too great for one country to deal with. All nations must get behind the UN to solve the crisis. The biggest refugee crisis since the second world war.
But with that many displaced people in the world, the debate cannot really be about whether Denmark takes 10000 or 20000 refugees, or whether Australia takes 13750 or 25750. Any such number is but a drop in the ocean. An ocean of desperate lives. It is crucial that we, the world community, help resolve the conflicts that cause people to flee. In the meantime we must deal with those people who knock on our door and cross our borders in a humane way.
It is not just about the little boy drowned. It is about our humanity. It is about us. The photo of the boy was possibly more provocative and effective than something any conceptual artist could have dreamt up, though artists have not been slow in picking up the motif.