To call the image of Aylan Kurdi ‘tragic’ doesn’t seem to be enough. The word can’t carry the necessary levels of revulsion, horror, anger, upset, not only at the image itself but at the fact it has gone ‘viral’ today. To even write that in the context of a dead three-year old boy feels so, so wrong.
Aylan and his family, hailing from Kobanî in Syria, were attempting to get to Canada, where his aunt Teema and other family members lived. The authorities in Canada had already rejected an application for refugee status made by the family, with the fact that the UN does not register Syrian-Kurdish refugees in Turkey as refugees and the Turkish state does not give them exit visas cited as ‘complexities’ leading to the decision.
Aylan’s father, Abdullah, survived. We don’t know what he thinks about his son’s corpse making front pages around the globe and popping up on social media sandwiched between Buzzfeed lists and the Miley Cyrus/Nicki Minaj ‘beef’. Who knows if anyone has even asked him? He may plan to take the bodies of Aylan, Aylan’s brother Galip and their mother Rehan back to Kobanî but the image will endure long after even Abdullah is dead. It belongs to us now, weaponised as a means to ‘make people care’.
It’s said 11 other people died in the drowning which claimed Aylan. The UNHCR states that over 2,500 have died in recent months attempting to cross the Mediterranean to reach Fortress Europe. Amnesty states that over 1,700 died in the same circumstances in the period January-April. In Syria and Iraq alone, some 15 million people have been displaced (to elsewhere within and externally) in the past few years, while poverty, war and persecution has led millions to flee Libya, South Sudan, Bangladesh, Eritrea, Myanmar, Nigeria, Ukraine and more. This is not a new problem – the UNHR stated in June that the number of people displaced in the world was at its highest point since World War II – yet Aylan’s image is being shared with a previously unseen sense of urgency and purpose.
Clearly some good will come from this, yet it is profoundly troubling that we as a society instrumentalise the image of a dead child in order to ‘make people care’. Without wishing to diminish the complexity of the situation, the countries contibuting directly to the refugee crisis are almost without exception ones which have been subject to colonial, imperialist interference by the countries now hand-wringing over how many refugees to take, scrapping sea rescue operations and whether to use gunboats to deter the people from coming. Decisions have been made in afternoon meetings which have wreaked havoc on the lives of people thousands of miles away. Now we replicate this mindset, taking it upon ourselves to share images of death in order to ‘help’. Whether dead or alive, it would appear that we like our ‘victims’ to be silent and subservient. Contrast the spreading of Aylan’s image with the response to images of the on-air news shooting in the USA or of Western victims of ISIS – the latter is widely seen as morally reprehensible and met with condemnation. The bodies of ‘Westerners’ are seen as worthy of dignity and respect, not to be used as propaganda in order to ‘raise awareness’ (a motive which, in a dark irony, ISIS almost certainly uses to justify its own sharing of brutalities). It’s a mindset and dynamic present in the ebola outbreak, where images of dying black bodies contrasted with ‘human stories’ of Western victims. The racism at its core of this mindset is underlined by its presence within countries like the USA when it comes to sharing images of black victims of violence:
Though these images highlight and often expose injustice, they show human beings at some of their most vulnerable moments. Personally, if I am ever murdered or beaten, I don’t want it to become a public spectacle for critique, entertainment and observance. We consume these images for public debate and recycle them as energy to push our protests, whether it is for a protest sign or to hear Peter King say, “If you can’t breathe, you can’t talk.” In our observance of incidents, we rarely stop to ask ourselves what the victim would think of our gaze.
The common thread here is that, however well-intentioned the sharing of the images are, the people in them are seen as ‘the other’, as fundamentally different from ourselves. They are seen as weaker, less able to speak for themselves, less complicated human beings, lacking in their own agency. They are seen as people ‘we’ need to save and if they keep quiet while we do it, all the better. One fundamental problem here is that it presents the problem as a humanitarian one, rather than a political one – we need to save them but there is far less focus on how we contribute to the creation of the issue in the first place.
Yet it’s clear that sharing such images can feel like doing something (and a common response to the above criticisms is ‘well what are you doing about it?) Their sharing may reflect a deeply-ingrained insidious mindset (which none of us are untouched by) but can come from a place of impotence, a sense of our own powerlessness. Here are some ideas for what we can do instead of sharing such images:
1 – If you want to post about this on social media, use that small platform to amplify the voices of those directly affected. There are interviews in newspapers, sites devoted to documenting the stories of those at the Calais camp, organisations led by migrants which seek to strengthen their own voices, events like Refugee Week and groups like Counterpoint Arts which seek to support the expression of people who have been migrants or refugees. Make an effort to find these voices – however imperfectly framed they may be (e.g. filtered through a Guardian interview) it is infinitely better in promoting our common humanity.
2 – Wherever possible, use ‘people’ instead of ‘migrants’ or ‘refugees’. The latter terms aren’t to be shied away from but language matters here.
3 – Support and be led-by organisations already working in this field. Refugee Action, Migrant Rights, the Red Cross, Asylum Aid, Bail for Immigration Detainees, Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, Migrant Offshore Aid Station, the Refugee Council, Refugee Legal Centre, Music Against Borders, Doctors of the World, Asylum Welcome, Calais – People to People Solidarity, Scottish Refugee Council, the Information Centre about Asylum and Refugees, Refugee Women’s Association, Student Action for Refugees. There will be many more, including local groups. I’m sure all could use your donations but get in touch if you want to help and listen to what’s needed.
4 – Educate yourself about the facts of immigration and asylum. Some of the organisations above are good places to start with this but this brief book is a great primer. This is a brilliant read on the UK’s long, rich foundation of immigration while this makes a level-headed positive case for its benefits. There are already strong myths which have taken hold regarding the current ‘crisis’.
5 – Educate yourself about government policy on immigration and asylum. Understanding this exposes the stark hypocrisy of politicians like Yvette Cooper, who supported every aspect of New Labour’s regressive asylum policy. The Migration Observatory has a lot of good briefings while organisations like Liberty tackle the UK’s egregious policies. There are briefings on different aspects, such as the labour market, and pieces which tackle the common myths head-on. Understand the difference between ‘migrant’, ‘asylum seeker’ and ‘refugee’ but ask reject the narrative of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’.
6 – Understanding the political context of immigration and asylum, make links to other issues. The current ‘debate’ is intertwined with Islamophobia and wider racism. It is linked to our foreign policy, with London Review of Books articles on our role in Syria and Iraq being a wealth of information. It is linked to the arms trade and our support for despotic regimes. It is linked to climate change. It is linked to our history of colonialism. It is linked to the politics of trade, debt and aid. Re-politicise the images we are seeing and understand our own agency here.
7 – With this knowledge, try and influence the ‘debate’ in your own way. Speaking up whenever the people around us are engaging in anti-immigrant sentiment is difficult and uncomfortable but one small way in which we can directly make a difference. Call out the media when it repeats myths, makes factually incorrect statements and perpetuates stereotypes. Write to politicians at every level demanding they fight the poisonous atmosphere around this issue. IfListen to and support those affected. Support those working in linked areas.
All of us living in countries such as the UK benefit from Fortress Europe. Understanding the violence inherent in that fortress is essential but it doesn’t mean we have to feel powerless and reduce our action to further dehumanising people or signing a petition. I probably wouldn’t have written this if the photos of Aylan hadn’t appeared everywhere but that doesn’t mean the photos should be uncritically accepted as ‘making a positive difference’. We need to educate ourselves and keep fighting this fight, long after these photos have vanished from the public consciousness into Google’s archives.