The photo was heartbreaking: A toddler in shorts and a red T-shirt lay face down at the edge of the surf, waves lapping at his head, his body settled into the sand like a piece of driftwood. His name, the world would learn, was Aylan Kurdi, and he and his Kurdish family were heading from Syria to Canada — from war to peace and, they hoped, safety. Instead, 3-year-old Aylan, his 5-year-old brother Galip and their mother all drowned when their smuggler’s boat capsized off Bodrum, Turkey.
The image won’t end the wars in Syria and Iraq. Most likely, it won’t even change European policies toward the migrants and refugees pouring in from the Middle East and Africa. At best it may spotlight for the public the modern world’s failure to observe basic elements of humanity.
The U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees has reported that the flow of displaced people around the world, some 60 million now, is at its highest level since World War II. While attention has focused understandably on the crisis in the Mideast and Africa, with the desperate drowning at sea or suffocating in the backs of trucks as they try to reach Europe, people are on the move around the world, fleeing war, oppression, persecution and poverty.
Of course there is no easy resolution to this problem, and it is true that the United States has wrestled for years — often unsuccessfully — with the thorny moral issues arising from large-scale immigration. What’s more, it is undeniable that refugee crises and immigration emergencies are best solved by ending wars and encouraging stability and development in the areas from which the migrants are fleeing.
But those truths should not become excuses. Today’s crisis is real and growing, and it must be addressed.
Earlier this year, the European Union came up with a triage plan for trying to resettle 60,000 refugees around Europe, but the plan exempted Hungary and Bulgaria, and Britain opted out. Clearly, the EU plan is inadequate to the task. Germany’s reception centers have received nearly 550,000 migrants, and Sweden’s 230,000. Other European nations, such as financially troubled Spain, have taken only slivers of the population.
Meanwhile, Hungary’s nationalist prime minister, Viktor Orbán, has cynically sought to frame the crisis as a battle for European identity against Muslim interlopers, introducing a repugnant layer of intolerance. “Is it not worrying in itself that European Christianity is now barely able to keep Europe Christian?” he said recently. “...We have no option but to defend our borders.”
In recent days, Hungary has banned thousands of migrants from traveling out of the Keleti train station in Budapest, leaving them stranded; Australia has turned back boats packed with migrants.
These refugees and migrants are mostly innocent victims of political failures, from the war in Syria and the rise of the Islamic State to incessant insurgencies and political oppression in Africa. The world should not compound those failures with a moral one.