The photograph of a child whose lifeless but perfect little body was washed up on a Turkish beach will take its place in a long line of iconic images that raise more questions than answers.
Three year-old Alan Abdullah al-Kurdi drowned when his family attempted to reach Greece in a pathetically small, inflateable dinghy. His five year-old brother, Galip, and their mother, Rehan, drowned alongside Aylan. Aylan’s family had applied for asylum in Canada but had been refused.
Several newspapers chose to run the picture on their front pages and social media users flooded their timelines with both the image and their outrage.
The image ticked every picture editor’s box in its portrayal of vulnerability – the unblemished form of a child’s body in a position that every parent has seen asleep in its cradle – except this child was foreign and dead.
Can we, in the security of our distant moral indignation, imagine the desperation that drove a Kurdish family to abandon sense and safety and undertake a short but risky journey to the Greek Island of Kos?
The list of culprits is both too long and far too complex for quick-click activism, fickle headlines and NGO fundraising – the protagonists in the drama of image circulation – and there, along with the duplicity of our politicians, lies our shame.
So where to start? Is it with the question of ethics raised by publishing a picture of a dead child who was not-quite-white? Would a picture of a dead American or European child be published on front pages in all its fragile exposure?
Did Aylan’s father give permission or sign a consent form? And if he did, does the let-out clause of informed consent really have meaning or truth when the signature comes from a traumatised hand?
Could Aylan’s father, frozen in his shock, really comprehend how the image would be used in multiple ways and with multiple motives? Is the abandonment of these ethical considerations justified as a means to political ends? What exactly are those ends?
The so-called ‘Refugee Crisis’ has captured our screens and our airtime in similar ways to the ebola story last year. Like a concoction brewing in a cafetiere, the bubbles rise and fall and fade away and rise again with a little more urgency.
The frontline staff who deal with these apparently far away issues continue unseen in their stoicism and practical problem management. And then it gets out of hand…….
The world’s media descend with their ‘personalities-as-heroes’ doing stand-ups in front of amorphous masses of nameless humanity. We can debate the labels but the effect is always the same.
A few individual stories are collected and aired as examples of a bigger point to be made in a three minute clip that’s squeezed to the front of news agendas that, apart from a few regional variations, suffer an alarming similarity.
Has anyone asked why Aylan’s family had to flee not just Syria but Turkey? Did anyone realise that calling his home town of Kobani by the arabic name of Ayn-al-Arab signifies a political insult?
Turkey is a safe haven for Syrians – unless they are Kurdish Syrians.
Not so long ago images of Kobani, heroic Kurds and female fighters also flooded our screens and then faded away like the print on our newspapers. We even had livestreams of the bombing.
Turkey, along with Lebanon and Jordan, has been hosting Syrian refugees for a long time – 1.7 million of them. The Turkish camps, while never ideal in their NGO logo-encrusted transience, are seen as some of the best equipped and managed in the world.
But Turkey’s refugee policies are in tatters as it hedges its bets on much-coveted entry to the EU and its treatment of Kurds is in freefall, with elements of the jackboots and bombs of the 90s.
Stateless Kurds from Syria can live in a refugee camp but can not have a passport. Outside the camps they are classified as ‘illegal’.
I’m right here where he drowned and there are hundreds if not thousands waiting for midnight to cross. Officials do not “see” them, civilians walk past, as if they are invisible.
The Syrian Kurds held ISIL at bay while Turkey watched, literally from the sidelines. And now Turkey is bombing Kurdish enclaves and clamping down on Kurdish politicians and activists at home. So where’s the outrage?
NATO policy and thus by default the EU, has always been janus-faced when it comes to Turkey. How else could the EU justify classifying the PKK as terrorists while Turkey bombed half of South Eastern Anatolya to ruins, banned the Kurdish language and forcibly displaced hundreds of thousands of people?
I witnessed this Janus-face first hand in 1996 when Turkey’s paramilitaries kicked and beat 700 of the mothers of the ‘disappeared’ with the gun butts and jack boots that signified authority. They dragged them by the hair into waiting buses in the middle of Taksim Square and they too ‘disappeared’.
I spent half my time in Turkey in the 90s evading the clumsy spooks in suits, with barely hidden weapons, who tailed me every time I went out.
I interviewed Clinton’s representative, Melissa Kimball, at a UN conference, and she refused to discuss the subject while parroting in a monotone: “Turkey is a friend of NATO”. At the time, Turkey was also allowing Israeli war planes into its airspace – that’s realpolitik for ‘we’ll look the other way.’
Late in the night, on the beach in Bodrum where Aylan drowned, a journalist, Bikem Ekbazadi, described to me the cynicism currently on display in Turkey: “I’m right here where he drowned and there are hundreds if not thousands waiting for midnight to cross. Officials do not “see” them, civilians walk past, as if they are invisible” she said.
For why should Turkey worry if the tides carry away their problems and offload them on an old foe like Greece or an EU that makes membership conditional? The people smugglers are laughing all the way to the bank.
As usual, it is the frontline staff such as the man seen carrying Aylan’s body out of the sea in Turkey and the small Greek Island communities, who bear the brunt.
The neighbouring Gulf countries, while funding, arming and harbouring the very militias, including Al Qaeda and ISIL who, along with Assad, are the principle reason for the refugees in Syria, are deaf, dumb and blind when it comes to offering safe haven.
We have begun to acknowledge the shameful disaster of Bush, Blair and Iraq but what about Germany’s national political rivalry, shrinking tax income and point scoring in the EU. Is Merkel’s stance really as altruistic as it appears?
Can Britain’s David Cameron wriggle out of the corner he’s backed himself into with his stance on refugees and manipulations of EU migration policies?
Despite high claims, the EU was constructed in the name of business. The internal free movement of people has driven wages ever downwards while corporations devour national assets and offer minimal harmony for labour rights. Poverty is endemic in places and helps fuel the rise of fascist Right-wing groups. The same groups that bomb refugee hostels and attack migrants.
It seems ironic that while the EU managed to focus on business and the economy in Greece it missed the ever-rising numbers of refugees and migrants landing on Greek beaches.
Why should the EU use foresight for what was going to be an obvious problem and plan, build and organise Asylum centres at mediterranean entry points when Italy can do the dirty work and FRONTEX is a major source of income for Europe’s multinational arms companies?
Will the image of Aylan change anything? For the answer to that I remember Kevin Carter and his equally iconic picture of a Sudanese child and a vulture. Kevin tormented himself about that photo and later it probably contributed to his suicide but it’s not the taking of the photographs that is the problem.
Meanwhile, Aylan al-Kurdi has become yet another poster child for an NGO economy that competes for headlines and contracts, often in morally ambiguous ways. Almost no-one and I mean no-one, comes out of this clean.
Sod due diligence, Twitter is your friend when the credit cards are down.
Bikem has now written a post about the refugees and migrants sailing from Bodrum – it is really worth a read.