Refugee crisis: emotions help, but we need lasting solutions

8 September 2015
Comment

Last week the UK was holding firm on its pledge not to increase the number of Syrian refugees it would accept; this week David Cameron announced that his government would resettle 20,000 more Syrians living in camps bordering Syria, while doing ‘all it can’ to end the conflict in the country.

This is a remarkable political U-turn – mainly triggered by the response to a single picture of desperation. Is it good enough, and will it make a real difference to the current crisis?

Like others I felt sad and angry seeing Aylan’s lifeless body on the beach. He could have been my son. I found the courage of men, women and children walking across Hungary inspiring. At the end of the week, I was moved and uplifted by the scenes at the train station in Munich.
 

A single picture has changed the conversation – what next?

In many ways it felt good to wake up on a Monday morning knowing that something has actually changed: the image has made a difference, the mood music has turned more urgent and politicians have been forced to react. Something will now be done about this humanitarian crisis.

This change of heart is less surprising to those in the aid world: we have learnt that images, especially those of suffering children, have a lot of power.

In the 1980s the images of starving children from Biafra brought hunger and starvation to the world’s attention. This was followed, in the 1990s and 2000s, by unprecedented pledges to end world poverty. Today the UK is committed to giving 0.7% of its GDP in aid to developing countries and leads the way in global development efforts.

But those pictures also did a lot of damage: recent debates on the 30th Live Aid anniversary stressed that the negative images that still dominate aid campaigns distort reality – of people’s lives, potential and opportunities – in Africa and beyond. They insult and offend people in these countries, tired of being portrayed as the eternal victims.

We should not make the same mistake again – and this crisis is an opportunity to get it right.

The development sector has been too timid about migration

As we call on our political leaders to take action, let’s be clearer about what it is that we can do.

By ‘we’ I mean the development and humanitarian experts who know that this crisis is not a one off, and will require more than a short term emergency response. ‘We’ have plenty of evidence to demonstrate that far from being a problem, migration and human mobility is an integral and beneficial component of economic and social development – for both developed and developing countries.

‘We’ know that our ageing European continent and our struggling economies could do with more, not fewer migrants and refugees. ‘We’ can explain that long term solutions are possible. Our countries have learnt how to facilitate trade between countries, and the time has come to focus on finding ways to facilitate, not discourage people who want to move.

The development community and ‘we’ the experts have simply not done enough to engage with migration issues thus far: many NGOs have until recently been silent, and the global community has done too little to ensure that migration is at the heart of development efforts and strategies.

The Sustainable Development Goals may offer an opportunity to begin to correct this, having introduced human mobility and migration policies for the first time in a global development framework: we should seize this chance. We should not shy away from difficult conversations about what the role of aid is in all this, at home and abroad.  We should stop being so timid about migration.

While the images are on our screens and fresh in everyone’s minds let’s be clear that these people – not just refugees – walking across European borders are resilient, resourceful and knowledgeable human beings. All of them are vulnerable and need help, most of them are educated, many will be happy to go back home one day. And by the time they do, they will most likely have made a positive contribution to our countries and our own lives in the West.

So let’s change the tone of this conversation. As AC Grayling put it, ‘perhaps if we matched the courage and determination of migrants with our own, we would not take such a timid stance, but would welcome the opportunities that the times are bringing to our shores.