Three powerful, conscience-stirring books use personal testimony to help us see the refugee crisis through the eyes of its victims
This September it will be three years since the body of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy in red T-shirt and blue shorts, was washed ashore on a beach in Turkey. The picture that ran on the front pages of newspapers across Europe, and prompted calls for politicians to confront with all urgency what even the Sun called the “biggest crisis since the second world war”, was perhaps the only moment in recent memory in which popular empathy for refugees clearly outweighed disregard or antipathy.
For a month or more, maybe, after the picture ran, and Alan lay face down in all of our consciences, there was a feeling in European capitals that a different approach was desperately needed; several cities saw rallies in which crowds carried banners reading “Refugees Welcome Here”. In November, however, the Paris attacks happened, and the popular mood once again hardened against “migrants”. That new year the lurid reports of mass sexual assaults from crowds of young men of “north African appearance” in German cities were used to justify a far more alarmist rhetoric, which culminated in the calculated and algorithmed scaremongering leading up to the EU referendum. Weaponised borders became a critical and mythologised issue; deliberately “hostile environments” for “aliens” a matter of political pride. In the 24 months after Alan’s body was discovered on the sand, 8,500 people drowned or disappeared trying to cross the Mediterranean to a place of greater safety; had it not been for the volte face in humanity of the Italian coast guard, the number would have been far higher. Comparable numbers will have perished this year, but not one of their pictures has made lasting front-page news.