In 2015, at the height of the refugee crisis, images flooded the online world of a young Syrian toddler whose body had washed up on the beach, lying face-down in the surf. Aylan Kurdi’s death, one of many children who had died, sparked an outpour of condemnation, sorrow and outrage. Briefly it also flickered a political will to do better. Politicians who had absolved themselves of any sense of humanitarian obligation and duty were compelled by the moral outrage of their citizens to do something, to do anything. But it was only fleeting.
Because, four years on, images of another young child lying face-down in the waters, arm slung around the neck of her dead father, has prickled the national conscious of America. And it brings into focus the utter callousness and lack of heart that is underpinning Donald Trump’s immigration policy.
Oscar Alberto Martinez Ramirez arriving seeking asylum in the USA with his family. But when he realised that could take weeks, he sought to cross his family into America. According to news reports, both he and his 23-month-old daughter were swept away by a current. Democrat candidates immediately blamed Donald Trump, citing his inhumane immigration policy, including refusing to allow refugees to present themselves for requesting asylum.
Trump’s endgame is to demoralise refugees from attempting to seek asylum in America. The hostile border policy is one aspect of it. The separation of families in detention centres, subjecting migrant children to cruel, unsanitary and inhospitable conditions, is another. Within these centres, children have faced abuse, been psychologically scarred, and treated essentially no better than animals. Many children, both within the centres and on their way to America, have died. The number of dead children should be the first judgement on Donald Trump’s presidency when history recounts this debacle.
Having an immigration system is not inherently racist. It’s important to have policies that advocate integration and community cohesion, such as requiring migrants to learn the language, and social initiatives to facilitate dialogue between newcomers and locals. It’s the only way to create the politics of solidarity and shared destiny, to unlock the common bonds between people to overcome the barriers that may exist.
But when you discriminate against a group of people coming to the country, and then discriminate against them inside the country, it is racist. Trump has reserved his hostility towards migration for particular demographics, especially the non-English speaking countries. His whole brand of politics has existed around polluting the image of immigrants, to where you could plausibly find people who could see the picture of a dead father and his daughter, and defend Trump’s policies.
Yet it is difficult to see the situation improving at all. Politicians are supposed to be malleable to reality and truth, but Trump is someone whose politics depends on rejecting them. He is not an Angela Merkel who tried initially to introduce a welcoming refugee policy in Germany, nor a Justin Trudeau, who for all his faults remains one of the more tolerant leaders in the West. This is a man who relishes winding up his opponents, who finds humour in their rage. And right now people are angry and desperate for answers on the migration crisis. He is happy for the conservatives to engage in a terminology war with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as to whether or not the ICE migration detention centres are concentration camps or not (countless historians have said they are). Whatever the left responds with, Trump absorbs it and spews out something worse.
And that is what is deeply distressing about the crisis on America’s border. The plight of these asylum seekers could only get worse. Their desperation and search for survival and safety for their families will mean, irrespective of Trump’s policies, they will try to come. And more people are likely to die. More families are likely to be split up. Parents who won’t see their children for weeks or months. Babies deprived of their mother’s care for a dangerously long time.
Britain cannot sound too self-righteous on this given our own migration detention centres and the documentation of abuses happening there, but it is a bleak situation when you would be unsurprised if no-one in government says anything at all. What is there to say to Donald Trump or about him?
Whenever something appalling happens, the world shudders, and vows “never again” only to find history repeating itself. Never again has become over again. Four years we thought the image of a dead Syrian toddler washed up on a Turkish beach would awaken some empathy in the hearts of our politicians.
Four years later, we are still waiting.