A picture can change everything

Andrew Donaldson on the impact of the death of three-year-old Aylan Kurdion on the European refugee crisis

A PICTURE can change everything – especially a photograph of a drowned child washed up on a Mediterranean beach – and now we’re all sitting up and taking note of the refugee crisis in the north.

It’s not as if we weren’t aware of it. All year, there’ve been reports of migrants, an estimated 350 000 of them, fleeing north Africa and the Middle East for Europe. To date, an estimated 3 500 have died in the attempt to get there. 

Last Thursday, the bodies of 71 people – thought to be Syrian – were found in an abandoned 7.5 tonne refrigerated truck that was used to smuggle them into Austria. 

That’s a lot of people in a truck that size. To demonstrate the point, a German theatre company invited members of the public to cram themselves into a similar sized truck to get an idea of what those refugees had experienced before they suffocated. When the 71 volunteers finally squeezed into the truck, a space measuring 2.5 metres by six metres, they could not shut its doors.

But however inventive cramming healthy Germans into a truck may be, nothing has grabbed our attention as much as those photographs of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, the boy whose body was found on a Turkish beach on Wednesday, the morning after he and his family set out with other Syrians in an overcrowded rubber dinghy in the dead of night from Bodrum, Turkey, for the Greek island of Kos. 

It is a short journey, no more than a few kilometres, but it is a dangerous one and they had been at sea for all of four minutes when the dinghy’s owner abandoned the vessel and its passengers. 

The dinghy was one of two vessels that sank that night. At least 12 people drowned – including Aylan’s five-year-old brother brother, Galip, and their mother, Rehan. Their father, Abdullah, was found semi-conscious and taken to hospital before returning to Syria. He buried his family yesterday.

Galip was also photographed, slightly distended belly exposed. But for all the horror of that grim tableau at the water’s edge, it was Aylan’s pictures that, according to one headline writer, “broke the world’s heart”. 

There were two memorable images. In the one, the boy lies face-down, in his sneakers, blue shorts and a red shirt, almost as if he’s peacefully asleep. It is the other, though, that has captured editors’ imaginations, the one of Aylan in the arms of a Turkish rescue worker who had scooped him up from the surf.

Sarah Crowe, a former BBC journalist who covered the South African story in the 1980s and is now Unicef’s chief of crisis communications, has likened it to the iconic Soweto uprising photograph of a fatally wounded Hector Pieterson carried in the arms of a student, a startling image that came to symbolise the struggle against apartheid. She has however warned that the proliferation of such images on social media could desensitise the public to the plight of the refugees. 

That may yet happen. But Aylan’s fate has, for now, certainly resulted in much handwringing, and there is a great clamour that Britain and the United States do more to shoulder Europe’s burden here, if only because their military involvement in the region’s conflicts has done much to make leaving seem the better option. 

But there are other reasons why refugees from Syria, Egypt, Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq, Eritrea, Somalia and elsewhere are flooding into Europe. They include the fallout from the Arab Spring, drought, poverty and sectarian warfare. 

Regarding the latter, it is doubtful whether President Jacob Zuma would have suggested a tour of Darfur’s killing fields when he accepted an invitation from Omar al-Bashir, the well-known fugitive from Khartoum, to visit Sudan when the two met in China this week. 

Still, one hopes. He has much to learn of the world.

Elsewhere, South Africa has now, of all times, chosen to deal with its own unwanted foreigners by withdrawing the refugee status of about 2 000 Angolans and deporting them in what has been described as a strategy by the Department of Home Affairs to reduce asylum-seekers. Very bad timing, you could say.

Many of these Angolans have been here for as long as 18 years and have families, according a report from Scalabrini, a migrations organisation. Some 89% of them are employed here, and 34% own their own businesses – 69% of them employing locals. 

The Scalabrini report was presented to Home Affairs on behalf of the Angolans, but as The Times put it, “officials were unmoved”. Showing them photographs of Aylan probably wont’t do much to change the situation, either.

This article first appeared in the Weekend Argus.