It’s easy to forget the world as it is.
You can watch the news and be told what should be important to you, based on your geography and nationality. You can seek out and read other sources of news to find out what should be important to other audiences, within other borders.
The language we use, and the ways we’re informed, imply multiple worlds and multiple realities. There is what happens here, versus what happens there. There are third-world crises and first-world problems. There are developing countries and developed ones, along with expectations of what we’ll accept and tolerate within each.
Sometimes, these worlds collide, but often to little lasting impact in either. For example, there’s worldwide horror about the 2013 factory collapse in Bangladesh that killed over 1,100 people, and little today that reminds consumers of the relationship between those working conditions and the cost of cheap clothes in Canada.
There are bake sales and telethons and songs that feature two dozen artists impassioned to raise funds and awareness for causes overseas. Each year, countries around the world pledge millions in disaster relief and humanitarian aid to whichever countries need it, and sometimes we deliver on those promises. We care, sometimes. Or we half-heartedly try to. But there seems to be a fundamental disconnect between how we – primarily western, democratic, developed first-world countries – perceive the world, and act toward it, as if we’re somehow separate from everyone and everything else.
Over three million children die each year from poor nutrition. Over three million people have been forced to flee their homes in Syria due to recent violence, civil war and repression. About 20 per cent of the global population – 1.4 billion people – in developing countries live on less than $1.25 a day.
It’s easy to forget that this is our world, too; that we share this world with the starving child or the Syrian refugee. Once the channel is changed and we unplug, there’s no evidence of any of it. There’s no “evidence” of these other worlds unless you actively choose to examine the labels on your clothes, or on the cans in the cupboards. It’s easy to live separated from the “rest” of the world.
That is, until the rest of the world washes up at your doorstep. And not in symbols, not in the form of cheap clothes or good coffee: by the boatload, washing up alive, dead, unavoidably on the shores of your world.
The news was dominated last week by the “boy on the beach,” a photo of a young boy, lying face-down on a Turkish shore, having drowned along with 11 other Syrians escaping to Greece. It’s as disturbing as it is heartbreaking. Headlines have asked who is to blame. Newspapers have defended why they chose to run such a horrifying photo. People have asked whether it will define our generation, comparing it to the photo of the young girl running naked, screaming after being severely burned by a napalm attack in Vietnam. Others have called it a symbol of humanity washing ashore.
Like the “Napalm Girl,” the photo of a lifeless Aylan Kurdi has galvanized millions, as it should. But it’s worth noting that photos and videos and stories of migrants escaping repressive regimes who kill, torture or turn a blind eye to human rights have been shown and shared for months. The “migrant crisis” is not new, nor is it unique to this particular conflict, nor is it only happening right now with regard to Syria.
There are two points that should be made about where we are now. The first is about the language we’re using to describe, and subsequently define, what is going on. When we call it the “migrant crisis,” are we referring to the mass exodus of people fleeing horrific conditions in their home countries? Are we referring to the conditions that have caused mass migration? Or are we, deep down, in part referring to the impact all of this has on the countries that are receiving refugees by the thousands? When it gets said that the EU is now facing a “migrant crisis” that must be dealt with, it sounds like an eleventh-hour call to action because what’s going on in Syria, and how that directly impacts the EU, has finally reached a point where it can no longer be ignored.
This leads into the second point: if the world cared about what has been happening in Syria over the past several years – if this had been looked at as a humanitarian issue – we would have acted long ago. Action would have been taken against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad after he crossed Obama’s “red line” and used chemical weapons on civilians. Action would have been taken to increase aid and military support in Syria and Iraq. Action would have been taken in Canada and the U.S. to accept more refugees, even before ISIS came on the scene.
That Aylan Kurdi lost his life is tragic. That many others die each day trying to flee conflicts at home is also tragic. But just because a photo has caught the attention of the world, does not mean attitudes, let alone policies, will change. There are the countries people flee from, and those that they desperately try to flee to. And then those in the fled-to countries begin to talk about erecting walls, and halting trains, and fears over the spread of radical ideologies and religions.
What the “migrant crisis” has made blatantly clear, is that the divide between these worlds is much wider than the Mediterranean.