3 Sep 2015

Aylan Kurdi: images that changed UK views on refugees?

The heart-breaking images of a Syrian toddler lying dead on a Turkish beach have reverberated around the world, but will they lead to a change in British attitudes towards the refugee crisis?

Aylan Kurdi

Three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, his five-year-old brother Galip and mother Rhian died when their dinghy – trying to cross from Turkey to Greece – capsized.

The family, including father Abdullah Kurdi, who survived – had fled the besieged town of Kobani last year to escape advancing fighters from the so-called Islamic State group.

According to reports they had been trying to reach relatives in Canada, where their aunt Teema Kurdi had sponsored the family’s refugee application – which had been rejected.

Teema, a hairdresser in Vancouver, said: “I was trying to sponsor them, and I have my friends and my neighbours who helped me with the bank deposits, but we couldn’t get them out, and that is why they went in the boat.

“I was even paying rent for them in Turkey, but it is horrible the way they treat Syrians there.”

‘Violence and conflict’

Aylan’s family were among thousands of refugees trying to reach Greece. According to Europe’s border agency Frontex 23,000 people arrived in Greece by sea last week.

The UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR) said on Thursday that 300,000 people had used the dangerous sea route across the Mediterranean so far in 2015, including 200,000 arriving in Greece.

“Many of the people arriving by sea in southern Europe, particularly in Greece, come from countries affected by violence and conflict, such as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan,” UNHCR said.

“They are in need of international protection and they are often physically exhausted and psychologically traumatised.”

The plight of refugees travelling across Europe has been a constant feature of European headlines over the past few weeks – from the thousands trapped at Budapest’s train station, to the efforts of those trying to board trains at Calais, to the Syrian refugees found dead in the back of a refrigerated lorry, left abandoned at the side of a road in Austria.

‘Deeply moved’

But it is the picture of Aylan Kurdi that appears to have injected urgency into the issue.

Prime Minister David Cameron was criticised for saying on Wednesday that the answer to Europe’s refugee crisis was not to take more into the country but to bring peace and stability to the Middle East. Hours later the picture of the dead toddler emerged.

A government spokesperson said the images from the Bodrum beach were “clearly shocking”, but that the UK was at the forefront of aid efforts to help refugees and a major aid donor.

On Thursday Mr Cameron said “as a father I felt deeply moved” by the picture of Aylan and that Britain would fulfil its “moral responsibilities”.

However, David Cameron is now facing calls from within his own party, and from his political rivals, to open the door to refugees.

‘Doing more’

On Monday Angela Merkel said Germany expects to take 800,000 asylum seekers this year and the German Chancellor has become a hero to Syrian refugees after moves to allow Syrians into the country. By contrast, the British government said in June that it would accept fewer than 1,000 Syrian refugees.

In the 12 months to June 2015, the UK took in just 166 Syrian refugees.

David Burrowes, the Conservative MP for Enfield Southgate said: “We should be doing more to provide a voluntary solution for Syrian refugees.

“We are in the hundreds – I said then it is too little, too late and we are still in that situation where other countries are accepting thousands.”

Former Tory senior Foreign Office minister Baroness Sayeeda Warsi echoed the calls for the UK to take more refugees, saying: “We have to be prepared to share the burden.”

“This is not about having an open door policy, this is about having quite a specific responsive policy in the areas for example that we have expertise,” she told the BBC.

“Unaccompanied minors, women fleeing from sexual violence, for example territories held by Isis.”

A number of Tory MPs also took to Twitter to call for the UK to do more to help refugees.

Mr Cameron’s political opponents also called for more to be done with Labour leadership hopeful Andy Burnham calling for a Commons debate and vote on the crisis next week, and Yvette Cooper saying the UK take 10,000 more Syrian refugees in one month.

Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron said the government’s refusal to take more than a few hundred refugees was “morally wrong” and “politically foolish” while Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said: “We must do more.”

Of the main political opponents only Ukip’s Nigel Farage warned against accepting more refugees saying “They are not all from Syria”.


But it is not just in the corridors of Westminster that the calls for the UK to do more were echoing.

The hashtag #RefugeesWelcome has exploded across Twitter in the last 24 hours, appearing in more than 50,000 tweets in one day (compared with 123,000 tweets over the past 30 days). The hashtag #AylanKurdi has featured in 11,000 tweets.

The surge in support for refugees was accompanied by British newspaper front pages, from the Independent to the Daily Mail, showing the harrowing image of lifeless Aylan.

Events are being organised across the country, including a vigil being held in Londonderry by the People Before Profit organisation.

“Across Europe people should be raising their voices against this horrendous scandal on Europe’s borders,” said organiser Eamonn McCann.