The pictures I am writing about have already been seen countless of times, tweeted and retweeted, and have repeatedly appeared on other social media platforms. It’s my decision not to re-post the photograph for this edition of my blog not out of fear of causing upset; nor do I find the image gruesome or horrific, but simply heartbreaking. I hope that by examining the image’s meaning and its implications in the following, my words here will carry enough weight to remind ourselves never to forget.
On September 3, two gut-wrenching photos appeared in many front pages of newspapers in Turkey and across Europe and America. The first shows a boy wearing a red T-shirt and long shorts that stop below the knee. His midriff is exposed as he lies face down with his round cheek pressed to the sand as if he is sleeping, except for the waves lapping his face. He is dead. The second photo shows a policeman carrying the boy away. The officer is wearing latex gloves, and the boy’s face is hidden due to the angle of the shot taken. The toddler’s tiny feet dangle below the policeman’s waist with one of the velcro straps on his sneakers undone. It is hard to discern what the policeman is thinking as he carried this small, lifeless child in his arms. But one thing is certain, he is looking away.
The boy who was washed up on the beach is three-year-old refugee Aylan Kurdi from the Kurdish city of Kobanî, near the Turkish border in Syria. His father Abdullah, mother Rehanna, and elder brother Ghalib had first crossed the border from their Syrian homeland to Turkey in 2012. Here, Abdullah found some work as a laborer but did not earn enough to support his family, but he had a sister, Tima, who emigrated to Vancouver 20 years ago, where she works as a hairdresser. The family have been trying to reach Canada since, but like thousands of other Syrian Kurdish refugees in Turkey, the United Nations would not register them as refugees, and the Turkish government would not grant them exit visas.
So on that fateful night of September 2, Abdullah paid smugglers to take him and his family in an attempt to cross the Aegean Sea to reach the Greek island of Kos from the Turkish resort town of Bodrum. The smugglers had promised Abdullah a motorboat for the trip but they showed up with a 5-meter rubber raft that would, at best, carry a maximum of eight people but was loaded with 16 Syrians migrants. They got into trouble within half a mile of their journey with unmanageably high waves. All 17 passengers including the smuggler were flung into the sea. Only five survived, including Abdullah who swam ashore, but sadly his entire family had drowned.
The image of Aylan shook the world. Western nations can no longer look away from the massive outpouring of grief and finger-pointing—it has damningly forced the world to confront the consequence of a collective failure to address the migrant issue all across the globe, in places such as Syria, Iraq, Africa, Bangladesh and Myanmar, among others.
The Syrian refugee crisis resulting from the country’s civil war started in March 2011 and has caused hundreds of thousand of deaths under the regime of president Bashar al-Assad. Why has the United Nations Security Council remained silent? For the two million Syrians in Turkey who are living in dire conditions and have so little faith in peace being restored in their home country—along with thousands of Afghan, African and Iraqi refugees—it seems the only solution is to risk their lives and move to Europe and other developed countries by relying on illegal means.
By definition, a refugee is a person who has to leave his/her country because of serious threat posed against his/her life and rights. In the current migrant crisis facing the European Union countries, every destined country has the responsibility and obligation not to send refugees back to their home where they would face serious threat under the principle known as non-refoulement, which entails that the people who sought refuge in a country out of fear of their lives should be admitted without question. It is for this reason Hungary is being criticized for its measures such as troop deployment and the construction of razor wire fence along its border to repel the influx of migrants.
On August 24, German chancellor Angela Merkel made one of the most significant move in the migrant crisis by announcing that her government would no longer enforce the Dublin Protocol to Syrian refugees. Under the protocol, refugees are tested to see if they first entered the European Union via another member state. If officials determine that to be the case, they can return the asylum seekers to that state. Germany also canceled all planned deportation of Syrians.
“Germany is willing to help. But it is not just a German challenge, but one for all of Europe,” Merkel told a gathering of trade unionists on September 20. “Europe must act together and take on responsibility. Germany can’t shoulder this task alone.” She is right and it is precisely this kind of leadership that is much needed to initiate a process to address this complex and critical issue collectively.
Although the photograph of Aylan Kurdi has no real bearing on the decisions taken by the German government, it poses the questions as to why this image has caused such a massive global awakening and why it has triggered a whole series of debates on its ethical implications? Some questioned the images’ repeated appearance on Facebook and Twitter news feeds, and a debate broke out about the ethics of sharing such graphic images of a dead child. Some even questioned why the photograph was taken in the first place.
On a personal level, I welcome all these questions for it serves to point at the underlying power of a single still image. The picture offends me not for its depiction of a dead child, but as the biggest indictment of collective failure. How many more children like Aylan must suffer the same fate before we say it’s enough?
Children who live under conflict often die in cold blood, their lives stolen in insidious ways. Those who have fled their homes suffer either under the hands of smugglers, or often take on exploitative jobs to maintain their survival, leaving no room for anything but isolation, trauma and deprivation. It is unbearably painful to look into the face of a child yearning for the home he or she has left behind, wishing for a way out, desperate for school and a chance to live a stable life.
Children are our only hope, they are the source of rejuvenation for our beleaguered world. No child should suffer what Aylan has gone through—he has fled from his home where he wasn’t wanted, sought shelter on an island that didn’t welcome him, and died on the shores of a land that had no plans to take him in. Turkish photographer Nilüfer Demir, who had taken the heart-wrenching photographs of Aylan, told the Turkish Doğan News Agency, “I wish there was no problem in their country, that they hadn’t left it and hadn’t tried to leave Turkey and that I hadn’t taken this photograph. . . But as I found them dead, all I could do was take these pictures to be their voice. . .” Thank you, Nilüfer.