Crying Syrian woman

The heartrending picture of a lifeless toddler face down on a Turkish beach has transformed the vexed debate on immigration in Britain and across Europe. Three-year-old Alan Kurdi (his name was initially given the Turkish spelling of Aylan) drowned with his five-year-old brother and mother when their flimsy dinghy overturned as they tried to reach the Greek island of Kos, and thus the sanctuary of the European Union.

The EU’s border agency, Frontex, reported that the number of migrants trying to get into Europe had passed the 100,000 mark in a single month (Frontex’s emphasis) in July, with the total since January reaching nearly 340,000—more than in all of 2014 and nearly three times the number recorded in the same period of last year. The nightly attempts by thousands of migrants camped in Calais to board trains and lorries going through the Channel tunnel had racked up the pressure on the British government as news bulletins showed police playing cat and mouse with the relentlessly hopeful migrants.

The Kurdis were just three of thousands of migrants and refugees to die this year trying to reach Europe, according to the International Organisation of Migration—by boat from Libya and Tunisia, overland through the Balkans or by boat in the eastern Mediterranean. Only a week before, the decomposing bodies of 71 asphyxiated Syrian refugees had been found in an abandoned lorry on the Austrian border.

But the picture of the little Kurdish boy—reminiscent in its power of the famous 1972 image of Kim Phuc, the naked Vietnamese girl burned by napalm—went viral. Within a day the British prime minister, David Cameron, was on the back foot as a groundswell of sympathy for the tragic child migrant swept through social media and pushed the picture on to the front pages of virtually every UK newspaper. The ruling Conservative party, which thinks of itself as the embodiment of traditional British values, was seen to be completely out of step with public opinion and the prime minister soon found himself pushed by advisers and his party to respond accordingly.

One of the key Conservative pledges in 2010 had been to reduce immigration to the ‘tens of thousands’ but the Office for National Statistics reported that net immigration had risen by 94,000 to 330,000 in the year to March 2015—‘the highest net migration on record’, the ONS noted. Of the 162,000 EU citizens who came to work in the UK, 39% had no offer of employment. There were 25,771 asylum applications, of which 11,600 were granted.

With an eye to the referendum on EU membership next year, Cameron hoped harsher policies, such as limiting access to benefits for EU migrants, and speeches (he was widely condemned for referring to ‘a swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean seeking a better life’, the BBC reported) would stop the right flank of the Conservative electorate being eroded by the UK Independence Party (Ukip). This explicitly xenophobic grouping went from being a fringe anti-EU voice at the European parliament in Brussels to the third biggest party at Westminster, garnering 12.6% of the vote in the 2015 general election (albeit with only one seat, due to the vagaries of the British voting system).

In keeping with this more hardline stance, the government had allowed in a measly 216 Syrians under its Vulnerable Persons Relocation scheme. But after Alan’s picture went around the world, western governments began to raise the limit on the number of refugees they would accept, despite the boost this gave far-right parties. Eastern European members of the EU were particularly hostile to accepting refugees, with Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, reviving centuries-old fears of Muslim hordes at the gates of Christendom in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung). Cyprus said it would take 300 refugees—and it would prefer Christians, Reuters reported. Iceland capped the number at just 50—and more than 11,000 families in Iceland promptly offered to open their homes to Syrians.

Australia’s prime minister, Tony Abbott, bowed to pressure from politicians and the public to accept 12,000 Syrian and Iraqi refugees on top of its existing annual humanitarian intake of 13,750, despite being fiercely criticised for its own increasingly harsh treatment of asylum seekers, such as detaining them in wretched camps on the Pacific island of Nauru.

The UK said it would take in 20,000 by 2020, a figure dismissed as hopelessly inadequate and ‘calibrated more by political expediency than compassion’ by former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown in the Guardian. France, which took in 68,000 refugees last year, said it would accept a further 24,000 immediately (and join the war on Isis), while Sweden, which received more than 80,000 applications last year and almost 50,000 to August, was the second highest on the list. But Germany trumped them all by saying it could take in 500,000 a year.

While the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, said she was proud of her country’s response to the refugees (with Germans greeting them at stations and relief agencies inundated with donations), there was anger in neighbouring countries at Berlin unilaterally ignoring EU protocols on immigration, the Washington Post reported. And with Germany’s birth rate at historic lows, there was an element of truth in comments by the French far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who told her National Front party: ‘Germany is probably thinking of its moribund demographics.’

What became clear, as the image of Alan rippled through social media, was that most Britons felt shamed by their government’s callous response in the face of such desperation. As people offered to take in Syrian refugees, and money and clothing was collected for the desperate families stumbling ashore on Greek islands or trudging westwards through the Balkans, it became clear that a sizeable percentage of the British population held seemingly contradictory positions: feeling great sympathy for refugees but holding a growing antipathy towards those seen as economic migrants.

This tension may be a feature of societies anywhere but is perhaps felt more acutely in Britain—an island nation with a history of welcoming refugees but with a global presence that draws migrants yet belies its size. The British Isles has had waves of colonisation yet still regards itself as being relatively homogenous. But as the genetic studies of the Oxford professor Stephen Oppenheimer have shown, even the most established notions of British historical identity may be on shaky ground. In Prospect magazine, he concluded that: ‘Based on the overall genetic perspective of the British, it seems that Celts, Belgians, Angles, Jutes, Saxons, Vikings and Normans were all immigrant minorities compared with the Basque pioneers, who first ventured into the empty, chilly lands so recently vacated by the great ice sheets.’ If the orthodox history of the UK is just a founding myth, then any idea of British homogeneity today is even more tenuous. As Guy Lansley, a geographer at UCL, found when he dissected the 2011 census, Londoners speak 80-plus languages.

Though King Edward I created a wave of refugees in 1290 by expelling Jews from England (they were not allowed to return until 1657), Britain first came to be a destination for outcasts when King Henry VIII gave sanctuary to Flemish and Walloons escaping war in the Spanish Netherlands. The first great influx was of Huguenots, 50,000 of whom fled from France to England after the St Bartholomew’s day massacre of Protestants in 1572 until the 18th century. Though they were subject to what the Huguenot Society calls ‘the accusations levelled at immigrants from time immemorial: that their presence threatened jobs, standards of housing, public order, morality and hygiene, and that they ate strange foods’, their skills and industry helped them eventually become a valued and integrated part of British society.

Similarly, the 150,000 Jews fleeing the pogroms of Russia and eastern Europe from 1881—which prompted the first legislative curbs in the 1905 Aliens Act—quickly settled. A Board of Trade report in 1894 said children leaving the Jews’ Free School in London’s East End were ‘almost indistinguishable’ from English children.

The 20th century saw the immigration of disparate groups, some well known, such as the 100,000 Jews escaping Nazi-occupied Europe, but also nationalities whose arrival has been forgotten. Surprisingly, the largest single influx of immigrants into the UK ever was Belgian, the BBC pointed out—250,000 came during the first world war. But as the war dragged on, attitudes hardened and many left, or were pushed to leave, after the war.

Those pressures persist. Local councils have pleaded with the government for more money to help new arrivals, and the social services in Kent have been struggling to cope with hundreds of unaccompanied children seeking asylum after crossing from Calais. Hospitals and schools were already facing huge budgetary strains as the UK population grew—from 6.6 million in 1981 to a projected 10 million by 2020—and doctors complain that they are at ‘saturation point’.

The pressure group Migration Watch claimed: ‘Broadly speaking, immigration has accounted for about two thirds of new households since 1997.’ More than one in four babies born in England and Wales in 2014 was to a migrant mother, it said, and 78% of the increase in births since 2002 was to mothers born outside the UK.

Though Migration Watch figures are hard to verify, Oxford University’s Migration Observatory found that about three in four people wanted immigration, both from the EU and beyond, reduced. An Ipsos Mori poll found that immigration was the most urgent issue for 45%, almost twice as many as those most concerned about the economy. ‘Opposition to the arrival of immigrants in the UK is not new,’ it said, and since in-depth questioning began five decades ago, ‘the overwhelming majority of people in Britain have agreed that there are too many immigrants in the UK.’

The Economist wondered why so many migrants thought the UK was the ‘promised land’, pointing out that benefits were much the same as in France and the 2014 Immigration Act had made it harder for undocumented migrants to live and work in Britain. Noting that the line was increasingly blurred between refugees and economic migrants, it quoted a French charity worker in Calais as estimating that only about 40% of the 4,000 residents of the ‘turd-strewn’ 18-hectare camp had a good case for asylum.

Yet with the pressures pushing people to leave their homes in the Middle East, Africa and Asia unlikely to ease any time soon, and the draw of safe, rich countries stronger than ever, the numbers of migrants and refugees at Europe’s borders will only rise.

As Foreign Policy concluded, the wildly different reactions of Germany and Hungary to the migration crisis mean ‘harsh controls are no solution. The only real answer is further European integration … It should identify safe countries, increase humanitarian aid in the countries of origin, and focus on overall border security.’