Occasionally an image encapsulates an entire tragedy. Kevin Carter’s photo of a vulture looming behind a prostrate starving child in Sudan, or that of Phan Thi Kim Phuc fleeing her village in South Vietnam after a napalm attack, have come to symbolise their respective horrors.
Now it seems the unsparing image of Aylan Kurdi’s lifeless body being washed ashore on a Turkish beach will do the same for the vast tragedy unfolding across the sea from Europe.
As well as representing a desperate hopelessness, this image, more so than of any other death, seems to have generated an urgency that until now was missing. Such is the clamour that “something be done” that governments across Europe undoubtedly will have to be seen to act. Yet, given the current political climate, it is unlikely that any measures taken will prevent further deaths let alone address the scale of the problem or its root cause, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
First, it has to be remembered that Aylan’s death was not caused by Europe’s immigration policy. The fact is Aylan died trying to make the journey, not because the borders were closed.
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Similarly, whether Europe’s borders were open or closed was immaterial to the estimated 2,500 people who, according to UNHCR, have drowned in the Mediterranean this year alone. They died simply because they entrusted their lives into the hands of human traffickers who promised them an escape and who placed them in overcrowded and unseaworthy vessels.
Impunity of human traffickers
Therefore, the idea that in response to this particular tragedy Europe should simply open its borders is irrelevant.
When it comes to preventing deaths at sea politicians posting photos of themselves with the hashtag “#refugeeswelcome” simply could not be doing less. To encourage more refugees to come to Europe without facilitating their transit across the Mediterranean is to push them into the arms of the human traffickers who operate with such impunity.
If Europe seriously wants to prevent more drownings then it either needs to tackle the scourge of human trafficking or conduct humanitarian evacuations itself. Given the lawless nature of certain states across the Mediterranean it cannot do the former, therefore the only option left is to deploy its own navies and expedite the evacuation of those refugees it is prepared to accept.
To encourage more refugees to come to Europe without facilitating their transit across the Mediterranean is to push them into the arms of the human traffickers who operate with such impunity.
Yet, this is something Europe is not prepared to do. Simply put, Europe’s coastline acts as a fairly effective, if dangerous, deterrent to many would-be refugees, and Europe is simply not prepared to accept the number of people looking to cross its borders. While there may be plenty of talk about “needing to do more”, politically, there is no inclination to address a tragedy of this magnitude.
If Europe is to provide genuine assistance then there are some very difficult questions its politicians need to answer. Are those calling for Europe to open its borders willing to accept unlimited numbers of refugees or will there be a cap?
Similarly, will Europe only save those who are able to move quickest or will its borders be open in perpetuity or until regional stability returns – possibly one and the same?
Such an ostensibly humanitarian response requires an honest appraisal of the unintended, yet detrimental, consequences for those left behind. Accepting those young, fit, and wealthy enough to flee not only ignores the plight of the elderly, sick, and poor but exacerbates the original situation by removing those most capable of bringing peace and prosperity back to the region.
If there is not the political will to tackle a crisis of this scale then there is even less inclination to actually address the issues that led to it in the first place.
In fact, it is a solution that Europe and the West have studiously avoided since the region imploded on itself following the Arab Spring, ie, how to tackle regional instability and the rise of ISIL.
To resolve this tragedy requires both short and long-term strategies. In the short term, there needs to be immediate relief to those who have already fled ISIL. Unprecedented levels of support needs to be provided to those countries like Jordan or Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) that are hosting the majority of refugees.
Similarly, those threatened and contemplating fleeing need to be assured that ISIL’s days are numbered and that a better life exists and awaits them following its destruction. This can only be achieved by the immediate destruction of ISIL.
Yet, unless the humanitarian crisis starts to actually impinge on Europe’s stability there will never be the inclination to navigate a path through such tortuous and interlinked military, social, and political issues. For the moment, despite the occasional uncomfortable reminder, the problem remains too far removed.
While images can raise awareness and change public opinion, they cannot alert the course of events alone. Just as children continued to starve in Sudan and the fighting continued in Vietnam so this current tragedy will continue to unfold.
Until the West is serious about destroying ISIL, the refugees will keep coming, the human traffickers will ply their trade and the bodies will continue to wash up on Europe’s shore.
Crispian Cuss is a former British Army officer who has worked and lived in the Middle East. He currently acts as a defence and security consultant.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.