It is a picture that is hauntingly heartbreaking, encapsulating the human cost at the heart of the European refugee crisis. Two year old Aylan Kurdi lies face-down on a beach in Turkey, having drowned at sea with his mother and four year old brother after attempting a perilous journey across the Mediterranean in order to reach Greece. Once seen, it is a sight that cannot, and perhaps should not, be forgotten. It is impossible to not be moved by the image, and to not feel both sadness and anger at the circumstances that could have led to such a tragedy.

Many of the thousands who wept upon seeing little Aylan’s fate cannot have helped but feel that they could do little more than shed tears of impotent rage in the face of the seemingly intractable economic and political forces that have converged to create the humanitarian disaster that has been unfolding across Europe and the Mediterranean for the better part of this year. This year, despite the fact that more than 2,600 people have died trying to reach European shores from Northern Africa, tens of thousands more are expected to make the attempt despite the risks, putting their fates in the hands of unscrupulous traffickers and smugglers profiting from the desperation and misery of people seeking nothing more than safety for themselves and their families.

Those who manage to succeed in reaching Europe face an uncertain future; in Hungary, Greece, Italy, and other parts of Europe, refugees are being subjected to inhumane treatment in temporary camps where they lack meaningful security and support. Germany is a notable exception in this regard, with its offer of unconditional asylum for those coming in from Syria, and volunteers across the continent have stepped in to lend a helping hand where their governments refuse to do so. Nonetheless, in a context where Europe continues to experience economic stagnation, and where the debate on immigration and asylum has been dominated by a resurgent far-right and a xenophobic tabloid press, the general attitude towards the refugees has been characterised by hostility and suspicion.

The facts of the matter, however, are clear. Contrary to accounts that have consistently sought to portray the refugees fleeing to Europe as feckless economic migrants seeking to exploit the generosity of their prosperous hosts, it is overwhelmingly obvious that the tens of thousands of people attempting to cross the Mediterranean are fleeing death, torture, and oppression. The majority are from Syria, where hundreds of thousands have been slaughtered by the Assad government, and yet more are at constant risk from the spread of ISIS. Many are originally from Iraq and Afghanistan, two states completely eviscerated by over a decade of war and violence. Some are from Eritrea, where the truly brutal regime of Isaias Afewerki has been accused of systematic repression. The sheer hopelessness of the situations these refugees are fleeing can be gauged from how, when given the choice between staying at home and risking death in the Mediterranean, it is the latter that seems like the more rational choice.

If the stories of misery and suffering that accompany the refugees serve as a testament to humanity’s cruelty, the same can be said of the indifference with which they have been received across the world. Despite its economic woes, Europe remains one of the richest and most prosperous parts of the world, possessing the means and the ability to tackle the refugee crisis head-on. Instead, it has moved slowly and inadequately, remaining hostage to baser political instincts that belie its avowed commitment to liberal values. In a context where three decades of neo-liberalism has eroded the social protections at the heart of Europe’s welfare states, and has played no small part in creating the economic uncertainty that plagues the continent, there has been limited space and appetite for the type of radical politics that would be required to once again put people at the center of the European project. Instead, foreigners have become convenient scapegoats for every kind of economic malaise, with small-minded national chauvinism, and a toxic anti-immigrant discourse premised on lies and fabrications, becoming the main lens through which the refugee crisis is seen and understood. Europe’s indifference is made worse by the way in which it is arguably complicit in creating the circumstances that gave rise to the crisis in the first place. The Iraqis, Afghans, Syrians, and Libyans leaving their homelands are doing so precisely because of the way in which those countries, and others, have been destabilised by violent conflict initiated and abetted by the West.

While it makes plenty of sense to castigate Europe for its response to the refugee crisis, it is also important to remember the complete and utter lack of compassion demonstrated by the wealthy Gulf states. For all their gleaming towers, fancy malls, and expensive toys, countries like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar have not lifted a finger to help the people risking all to reach Europe. Instead, while continuing to make matters worse by funding and fuelling extremist violence, terrorism, and sectarianism in the region (by, for example, bombing Yemen and backing their proxies in Iraq and Syria), the despots at the head of these states have made it clear that they will not tolerate or accommodate refugees crossing their borders. While Europe at least offers the possibility of respite and help, particularly as public pressure grows for European governments to do more about the crisis, the moral bankruptcy of the Gulf and Arab states remains unashamedly on display for all the world to see.

The refugee crisis demonstrates one of the main paradoxes that defines our age; despite the presence of material abundance and prosperity on a global scale that has never existed before, as well as the emergence of states and bureaucracies capable of successfully undertaking tasks of great logistical complexity, the world remains blighted by tremendous inequality, deprivation, and misery. To tolerate this status quo, and to stand by and do nothing as injustice prevails, is inexcusable. If the system is broken, if it is in urgent need of reform, it is our collective responsibility to do whatever it is that we can to make things better. We will never know what Aylan Kurdi might have accomplished in life had the world been a fairer place, but we do know that his death could have been avoided. That, perhaps, is the most damning indictment of all.