A photograph is worth a thousand words or more, so politicians jumped when a picture of a drowned Syrian boy, three-year-old Alan Kurdi, splashed across the Canadian media.
Suddenly, the European migrant crisis leaped over the Atlantic Ocean because of initial reports that the child's family had applied unsuccessfully to come to Canada as refugees (an incomplete refugee application had been made, it turned out, but it was for the family of the boy's uncle).
Immigration Minister Chris Alexander hustled to Ottawa for consultations with officials. Prime Minister Stephen Harper defended his government's policies; the opposition leaders attacked, saying not enough had been done. They fell over themselves promising to admit more refugees fleeing the variety of conflicts that plague vast areas of the Middle East and Africa.
What we are witnessing in Europe today – and this should be borne in mind as we decide how to react in far-away, secure and morally superior Canada – is one of what already has been, and what will surely continue to be, a series of waves of refugees trying to reach the continent.
The reasons are easy to identify, the consequences extremely difficult to assess, the solutions complicated and uncertain.
Europe is politically stable and prosperous; Africa and the Middle East are not. Europe's population is steady or declining; Africa and the Middle East have exploding numbers. Europe's geography is not seriously affected by climate change; parts of Africa and the Middle East, already dry, are getting drier and therefore less fertile.
War is all but unimaginable in Europe; military conflict is a fact of life in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya. Human rights are respected throughout Europe (with a few exceptions); human rights are systematically abused by authoritarian and theocratic regimes in some African and many Middle Eastern countries. Women have made startling advances in almost every walk of European life; women are still discriminated against in too many parts of Africa and the Middle East.
These pressures pushing or enticing large numbers of people toward Europe will not disappear. If anything, they will intensify as the years go on, because climate change, demographic pressures, fierce intrareligious rivalries, the lack of respect for pluralism and a host of other entrenched realities will not bend to moral entreaties or military interventions from Western countries.
Those interventions have sometimes made matters worse, or at least fallen far short of achieving objectives set by those who authorized intervention. Afghanistan remains far from a stable state. Iraq, the target of a U.S. invasion, is a failed state. Libya, where a coalition of Western countries, including Canada, intervened to save citizens from leader Moammar Gadhafi, has disintegrated into warring factions.
Syria, where the West did not intervene (despite many calls for such an intervention) has fallen apart, inviting the murderous cult of the Islamic State into Syrian territory to install its caliphate, from which it has not been, and will not soon be, dislodged.
From war zones – Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Libya – the migrants come, and will continue to come, to Europe by land and sea. They will come, too, for economic reasons from deep in Africa, and repressive Egypt, from troubled Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia and Eritrea – and even from profoundly corrupt and terrorist-afflicted (Boko Haram) Nigeria. They will come, if they can, from refugee camps in Gaza, Jordan, Turkey and elsewhere.
What Europe has been facing, and faces anew, is something Canada cannot contemplate and likely does not understand. About 95 per cent of those who seek entry to Canada are immigrants, 5 per cent are refugees. Imagine if those numbers were reversed, as they are, for example, in Nordic countries. It is an open question whether Canada's self-vaunted image of tolerance would be sustained if refugees outnumbered immigrants – year after year – by 9 to 1 or more.
Our politicians have been quick to respond to the photograph of Alan Kurdi, his death a tragedy in and of itself, and a metaphor for a wider crisis. There are additional measures that Canada could and should take today, especially since so large a gap exists between the number of refugees the Harper government has said Canada will take and the actual number who have arrived.
But a considered approach, as opposed to an election-fuelled one, would recognize that today's refugee crisis in Europe will be playing itself out for many, many years, and for many, many reasons.