Philosophers are fond of asking this question, to press peoples’ intuitions about the right thing to do: Imagine you are walking by a pond, in your fanciest suit on your way to an important meeting, and you notice a baby drowning in the pond. Whose job, asks the philosopher, is it to rescue the drowning baby? Most people answer immediately: I am responsible, they say, it is my duty to rescue the drowning baby. Most people are not distracted by the dangers of ruining their fancy suit or by being late for a meeting.
This example is no longer abstract. The baby has a name and it is Alan Kurdi. His image, spread via social media, is a heart-wrenching one, because the passersby in their fanciest suits, on their way to their very important meetings, did not rescue him and now he is dead.
Alan’s image has captivated the world’s attention and focused it on the ways in which those with the ability to rescue desperate people have failed to do so, to staggeringly horrific effect. It has focused Canada’s attention, because whether or not he had hoped to join his family in Canada, he certainly has Canadian family that cared for him deeply.
There is much hand-wringing and finger pointing as blame for his death, and the deaths of many others, is distributed.
ISIS is to blame, as Stephen Harper reminded Canadians: Alan’s image should strengthen our resolve to fight ISIS, which is after all engaged in a bloody battle that is producing so many thousands of refugees. Stephen Harper’s Conservatives are to blame, says the Opposition, citing the battery of policies pursued in the last 10 years that have made it increasingly difficult to gain permanent admission to Canada.
But Canada’s government is not alone in being blameworthy; rather, it is in good company. Nearly all wealthy democratic states are to blame for the ways in which they have worked to make it difficult for those fleeing hopeless situations to reach their borders, often citing the need to deter future travellers. They are to blame for the ways in which they have complicated their bureaucratic procedures so that claiming refugee status is increasingly difficult. They are to blame for forcing air carriers to refuse transportation to anyone who seems like they might make an asylum claim on landing. Air carriers are thus forced to participate in making exiting so dangerous that many refugees, even those with money for commercial travel, are forced into situations requiring rescue — rescue that often does not appear.
But these are policies pursued by democratic states, responding to citizenries that are reluctant to share their wealth and who worry about the dilution of the culture they value. These policies are pursued by political actors who are responding to citizens and their anxieties about weakening economies and their long-term abilities to provide for their own children, which they believe are at risk.
So refugees are attracted by smugglers, who at least offer a way out of hazardous circumstances. The smugglers who operate the boats that ferry desperate individuals away from conflict towards European borders may also share the blame, perhaps for lying to their passengers about the dangers of the journey and the likelihood of rescue in case of emergency. But, perhaps they are guilty only of profiting from the combination of democratic states’ desire to avoid taking in refugees and from the terrible situation their potential passengers face as a result.
These policies contributing to the refugee crisis have continued until now without much collective outcry. They have grown up in the context of an international environment pays lip service to the right of citizens to exit their state, but which in practice forces refugees to find safe havens in neighbouring states that are too poor to accommodate them.
The Syrian conflict has been going on for years. Four million people are displaced, some internally and some across borders in neighbouring states. Hundreds of thousands have died already, in Syria, in neighbouring states, and on their journeys to safer shores.
The time for finger-pointing is over: nothing can be gained from engaging further in trying to identify which guilty party is most blameworthy. We are all guilty for failing to rescue the drowning child. We are now all responsible, jointly, for preventing that from happening again.
Just action is required of us now: states must open their borders, wide, to refugees.
We can offer Alan’s family only one thing now, and that is the solace of knowing that their little boy’s death has galvanized an uncaring world into action.
This piece was originally published on the Huffington Post’s blog. Read the full version here.