Australia’s Tony Abbott: Drowned Syrian Child Shows Asylum Boats Must Be Stopped

Syrian refugees
Stefan Postles/Getty Images

The image of a two-year-old Syrian boy named Aylan Kurdi lying dead on a beach in Turkey, drowned after a failed attempt by refugees to cross the Mediterranean in unreliable boats, has become a flashpoint for the European migrant crisis. It is not yet clear what conclusions will be drawn from the tragic incident.

Two distinct schools of thought are emerging. Some see Aylan’s death as proof that Europe must accept more refugees, absorbing an immense new population streaming from the Middle East without further resistance. Within a day of the Aylan Kurdi photo gaining international attention, British Prime Minister David Cameron announced that his country would accept thousands more asylum-seekers. “Anyone who saw those pictures overnight could not help but be moved and, as a father, I felt deeply moved by the sight of that young boy on a beach in Turkey,” said Cameron.

Others, such as Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, contend that halting the wave of refugee boats is the only way to save lives and deal with the migrant crisis in a rational manner.

“If you want to stop the deaths, if you want to stop the drownings you have got to stop the boats,” Abbott said on Friday, as reported by the Sydney Morning Herald. “We saw yesterday on our screens a very sad, poignant image of children tragically dead at sea in illegal migration. Thankfully, we have stopped that in Australia because we have stopped the illegal boats.”

“We have said to the people smugglers: ‘Your trade is closed down,'” Abbott continued.  “If you want to keep people safe, you have got to stop illegal migration and that’s what we have done.”

Abbott found himself somewhat at odds with his own Agriculture Minister, Barnaby Joyce, who called for Australia to take in more of the refugees through “proper and legitimate channels.”

“We must do so through appropriate processes otherwise you can see what happens when there are no controls on the border,” said Joyce. “Who thinks watching a child drown is a good outcome?”

The Sydney Morning Herald notes that Joyce thought priority should be given to “persecuted Christians with nowhere to go,” a choice not really on the table for Europe, which has tens of thousands of migrants streaming across its borders. One occasionally hears European officials suggesting that Syrians should be given some special priority, but even that level of discrimination is nearly impossible, given the numbers involved and the amount of reliable documentation available for the refugees.

Abbott responded by saying his government is already doing what Joyce wants, offering another 4400 spots to Iraqi and Syrian refugees, with Abbott saying the resources for such refugee programs are available precisely because Australia has already taken steps to improve border security.

Back in the United Kingdom, meanwhile, Cameron’s approach to the crisis faces critics such as Nigel Farage of the UK Independence Party, who has previously called for immigration and border security reforms modeled on what the Abbott government implemented in Australia.

“What we want to do is change our relationship with the European Union, take back control of our borders and put in place a positive immigration policy,” the Sydney Morning Herald quotes Farage saying earlier this year. “By that I mean we want an Australian-style points system to decide who comes to live, work and settle in this country.”

The UK Telegraph on Friday described Farage expressing a “very, very genuine fear” that jihadists would use the refugee crisis as a way to get into Europe, and making the case that permissive refugee policies—such as those strongly advocated by German Chancellor Angela Merkel—had “compounded” the problem by encouraging more asylum-seekers to make the risky journey across land and sea.

Farage described the photograph of Aylan Kurdi’s body as “horrible, depressing, and saddening,” saying that as a father himself, he was “horrified” by the images. He also referenced the deaths of refugees trapped inside sweltering, poorly-ventilated trucks used by human smugglers.

“Given that Europe and Germany in particular has now given huge incentives for people to come to the European Union by whatever means, I am sorry to say that the shocking image that we saw of that young boy and the deaths in those lorries actually become more likely and not less likely. The only way to stop the deaths is to stop the boats from coming,” said Farage.

These disputes in Australia and the United Kingdom highlight the immense pressures the migrant crisis has placed upon the Western world, leading to seemingly impossible conflicts of humanitarian impulse, political and economic reality, and national security. The debate is dominated by more emotion than reason—a very large number of people have drowned in the Mediterranean while trying flee the terrorist- and dictator-dominated ruins of the Middle East, and many of them were children, but a single photo of the most recent young victim changed the course of an international debate overnight. Images and their emotional charge remain enormously powerful.

The humanitarian issues are undeniable, and heartbreaking, but the security threat is equally present. “When ISIL say they will use the migrant tide to flood Europe with 500,000 of their own jihadists, I think we better listen,” Farage is quoted by the Telegraph. “Five hundred thousand may not be realistic but what if it’s 5,000, what if it’s 500? And already one of the ISIL terrorist suspects who committed the first atrocity against holidaymakers in Tunisia has been seen getting off a boat onto Italian soil.”

Farage is essentially correct on both counts: ISIS did indeed threaten to unleash a migrant invasion on Europe, and boasted that it would hide terrorist operatives among the refugees. (They said they would be sending 500,000 refugees with terrorists among them, not 500,000 terrorists, but otherwise Farage is recalling the story accurately.) A suspect in the horrific March slaughter of tourists at the museum in Tunis did slip into Italy on a migrant boat, but it happened before the attack—he was denied asylum but didn’t leave, eventually popping back over to Tunisia for the attack and getting arrested by Italian police shortly after his return.

As for the humanitarian crisis, how can it possibly be humane to dangle enhanced migration possibilities before the dislocated populations of the Middle East… and then dare them to get onto leaky boats or hot-box trucks to make the trip? Shouldn’t Europe’s hyper-humanitarians provide safe naval transport, sending ships to Libya to pick up the migrants, and cutting smugglers out of the equation? It is otherwise difficult to dispute the contention that throwing open the borders will place the security of host nations at risk, and encourage more people to undertake journeys they may not survive.