Humanising the Refugee Crisis – A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Words


Pictures emerged a week ago today of three-year old Syrian Aylan Kurdi’s body washed ashore on the Bodrum penisula of the Turkish mainland. He was one of twenty-three people crammed into a ten-man boat set sail from Bodrum to the Greek island of Kos, out of which there are only eight survivors. But this is no anomaly, everyday there are reports of another ‘migrant filled’ boat sinking off the coast of Libya, Turkey or Greece, or of asphyxiated bodies discovered in the back of cramped and overcrowded vans.

So how has it become that the objectification of the boys body, face down lying limp and lifeless in the sand, represents the less comfortable proposition that death, resulting from the refugee crisis, reduces even the liveliest child to a heap of helpless flesh and bone? Why has it taken the distribution of this distressing image to provoke an international outcry, to awaken the conscience of the public to the humanitarian crisis that has been unfolding on their doorstep for nearly half a decade? Over 2,600 lives have been lost this year in the attempt to cross the sea by boat into Europe, yet this number has failed to incite horror and revulsion. It is the picture of Aylan Kurdi, symbolising every one of those deaths, that has turned something we all knew was happening, but somewhere little-known and far away, into a wrenching tragedy that demands immediate action.

The answer lies in both the mismanagement and negligence of European leaders and the apathy of the general public to the reality of the desperate situation that faces many refugees. Firstly, amongst the leaders of the E.U, opinion has been divided over the necessary action to take, leading to their inability to act in solidarity in response to the crisis. Germany has taken the most liberal stance  – Ministers have announced that Germany can take 500,000 refugees per year for several years – overriding the Dublin Procedures which require refugees to claim asylum in the first European state they arrive in. One thing Merkel has emphasised in her attempt to galvanise support, though, is the founding principles of the E.U.; “If Europe fails over the refugee question then it will not be the Europe that we had imagined”. In her rhetoric, she is not suggesting that Europe should take on the misery of the world, but framing the situation in this way runs the risk of fanning the very fear mongering that needs to be defeated. Ed Miliband has fallen trap to this technique too, declaring that the “failure to take in refugees is an abandonment of the UK’s humanitarian traditions.” Although they must be accredited in their attempts to provoke support for greater solidarity, their methods in doing so are merely romanticising our past.

What Merkel and Miliband are so critical of is the egoism that is evident in each leader’s response to the influx of refugees; barbed wire fencing has been erected between Hungary and Serbia, France has constructed razor wire topped fences in Calais, Macedonian officials resorted to the tear gassing of refugees, and Hungary closed Kaleti station in Budapest, leaving thousands both stranded and trapped. Through these actions, European governments are treating the refugees as barbaric imposters and bestial criminals, which is reflected further in their image in the media portrayed to the public; the Daily Mail even suggested that David Cameron should send the British Army to Calais to prevent the refugees from crossing the English Channel into ‘fortress Britain’.

Adding further fuel to the flame is Viktor Orban, the Hungarian Prime Minister, and his emergence as the most outspoken opponent of large-scale migration. He warned that ‘Europeans risk becoming the minority on their own continent’ should Angela Merkel’s ideal of free-flow migration take prominence. Although he is standing by official regulations of the European Union by forcing all refugees that arrive in Hungary into camps and to register as asylum seekers, his xenophobic and feudal attitudes toward their influx are illustrated in his reference to religion; ‘we do not like the consequences of having large numbers of Muslims in our country and have the right to decide. I see no reason for anyone to force us to create ways of living together’. When falling upon open ears, these words will intensify the intolerance and exacerbate the expulsion that refugees are facing.

Since the distribution of the photograph of Aylan, however, attitudes have taken a notable turn; its power to change the perceptions of the world is amplifying. If there were to be a turning point in the refugee crisis it would undoubtedly be last week, when it was released. In its ability to provoke empathy, distress and charity, it has shown that refugees are not just intangible statistics or a figure of speech incomprehensible in the western mind; it has humanised the crisis by painting the features of the faceless. Previously, David Cameron had stood by the opinion that the solution wasn’t just a matter of taking refugees, but required bringing peace and stability to Libya and Syria, despite this being a world-wide long-term goal. On Friday, in the midst of what has become an international crisis, Cameron, under huge domestic pressure, confirmed that the UK is to provide settlement for thousands more refugees. Finally the establishment has realised that we cannot act as witness to the devastation, whilst more lives are not only ripped to shreds by violent dictatorships, oppression and violence in foreign lands, but also lost in the pursuit of sanctuary. Every human is entitled to that feeling of belonging, which comes hand in hand with safety, if only the public had awoken to this reality sooner.


About the author

Charlotte Dowd

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A recent History graduate from the University of Leeds. Interested in human rights and the impact of colonialism, both overseas and in 20th century Britain, attempting to recover the Subaltern voice. Currently involved in a love-affair with cereal.

  • Aaron

    Great article Dowd, I enjoyed reading it :). For the sake of debate, I would disagree with this though:

    “Finally the establishment has realised that we cannot act as witness to the devastation, whilst more lives are not only ripped to shreds by violent dictatorships, oppression and violence in foreign lands, but also lost in the pursuit of sanctuary.”

    I’d say it’s more Cameron realises looking too heartless might lose him some precious votes so he better make a token gesture. There’s so much more the government should be doing and yet his accepting of a meagre amount has quelled public outrage just enough, but the problem isn’t going away anytime soon.