The nightmare of the Syrian refugee crisis intensified again overnight. The above image of a dead Syrian child washed up on a beach in Turkey has been published across most European news media. The rhetoric in the UK has gotten uglier with David Cameron refusing to admit more refugees, describing the families fleeing the civil war between ISIS and the Asad dictatorship as a ‘swarm’ trying to break into the UK for their private economic advantage.
John Key has, as usual in international policy, adopted Cameron’s position although his rhetoric is softer. Key refuses to take in more refugees as a response to the crisis because ‘it won’t solve the problem’. Well, it won’t stop the civil war in Syria – that’s true. But if we can reduce, even by a fraction the number of children suffocating to death in delivery trucks or washing ashore as corpses then that would be a great thing.
We’re not doing that – yet – because migrants present both upfront costs and political risk. Key’s mother was a refugee from the Nazis though, and you’d think that if any politician could see the virtue of giving these families a new chance on the other side of the world and to sell that to the public it’d be him. But Key didn’t get to where he is today by empathising with and helping helpless people, even though he’s ultimately only here because someone else did that for his family. His instincts are to help those who can help him and then extract maximal benefits from the exchange. And this mentality works for him personally, obviously, but it points to the nihilism in the dark heart of the transactional politics Key is such a master of: impoverished refugees have nothing to offer him, so they get nothing.