British tabloids, which have been scaremongering about refugees for years, telling Britons to fear and resist any immigration and helping to drive the UK's shameful anti-refugee policies, discovered their compassion for refugees on Wednesday when a small child's body washed up on a Turkish shore.
The child was a Syrian refugee who, like many hundreds of other refugees, had died during the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean. A photo of the young boy went viral, and the same British tabloids that are overtly hostile to living refugees decided that this one was worth caring about, and have plastered their covers with his image.
Some British outlets are even running the image alongside sanctimonious headlines, decrying the loss of the life that is a direct and foreseeable result of the very anti-refugee policies they spent years clamoring for. The Sun, which is famous for anti-refugee headlines such as "Halt the Asylum Tide Now" and "Draw a Red Line on Immigration or Else" is running the dead child's photo on its Thursday cover with the headline "Mr. Cameron, Summer Is Over ... Now Deal With the Biggest Crisis Facing Europe Since WW2."
The Daily Mail, just in July, ran an anti-refugee front page with the headline "The Swarm in Our Streets." Today, suddenly, it cares about refugees, and will join the Sun (and, seemingly, much of the British press) in splashing the image of the dead child across its front page with the headline "Tiny victim of a human catastrophe."
The hypocrisy of these outlets is not surprising, but it is shameful. The fact that tiny refugee children are dying in the Mediterranean is not new; it's been happening for more than a year, and has been especially catastrophic all summer. The outlets that are today pretending to care know this, and they know that the anti-refugee policies they helped push for contribute to this suffering, and their response to all the dying children was only to press for even harsher anti-refugee policies.
But because this young Syrian boy's death produced a viral image, suddenly he was worth caring about. That's not compassion; it's voyeurism.
This has always been about exploiting the suffering of refugees to sell newspapers. For years, these British outlets been exploiting that suffering to gin up fear and hostility to refugees. Who could forget fearmongering Daily Mail covers such as "True Toll of Mass Migration on UK Life" or "Migrant Influx Fuels New Crisis in Schools."
The Sun typically goes the extra step of writing headlines that explicitly tell the UK government to bar all refugees, as in the examples above. But it also runs columns such as this summer's famous "Rescue boats? I’d use gunships to stop migrants." And, just a week ago: "I'm not allowed to say it, but migrants *are* swamping the UK."
People are dying as a result of European anti-refugee sentiment
These anti-refugee headlines have consequences. As a result of the UK's anti-refugee sentiment, the country has taken in only 216 Syrian refugees, and Prime Minister David Cameron has reassured voters he won't take more than 1,000. (Germany has pledged to take 800,000 asylum applicants this year alone.) Last fall, the UK cut funding for the Mare Nostrum search-and-rescue operations that saved an estimated 150,000 people in one year, saying the rescues encouraged more people to make the crossing.
In the French town of Calais, just across the English channel, thousands of refugees are being prevented from crossing into the UK. According to one poll, 67 percent of Brits support deploying the British Army to Calais to keep the refugees out — something that the Sun has called for on its cover.
The message is clear: Refugees who are alive, and especially refugees who live or want to live in the UK, are to be feared. They are a threat to you, to your job, to your school, to your way of life. It's very important to implement policies to keep them out, even if it means contributing to their suffering. But refugees who are dead, and are dead in a way that is photogenic enough to get the feelings of British readers going, should be cared about.
This is just an unusually blatant expression of Western hypocrisy on refugees
But this is not just a problem of British tabloids. Those outlets, though loathsome, are in many ways just expressing an extreme version of the overwhelming sentiment among Western countries: that a single dead refugee child is a tragedy, but a million suffering refugees are a threat. The fact that British tabloids are compassionate to a dead refugee but hostile to the many refugees whose lives could be saved is entirely consistent with Western attitudes.
This is why European countries, with the recent and laudable exception of Germany, have been implementing policies to keep refugees out, even at the cost of, for example, making the Mediterranean journey more dangerous. It's why the United States, for all of the American hand-wringing over images of dead refugee children, has taken only a few hundred; it's why so many of the unaccompanied Central American children who showed up on the US border got rewarded with deportation.
This isn't British tabloids' hypocrisy; it is just standard Western hypocrisy laid a little more bare than usual. If you actually want to help Syrian refugee children like the little boy in the viral photo, it's not enough to care about this single dead child; you have to care about living refugee kids too, and in fact you also have to care about living refugee adults. If the image of the Syrian refugee boy made you feel something, that's great, but it only matters for making an actual difference in the world if you can apply those feelings to living refugees as well.