By now you will have seen the image circling the internet of Aylan Al-Kurdi. The Syrian Kurdish migrant child was found dead on the shores of Budrum, Turkey two weeks ago after his family’s boat capsized in the Mediterranean on their way to Greece. Footage showing the 3-year-old’s lifeless body lying face-down as waves washed over him created an international outcry over the mishandling of the EU’s refugee crisis. The response put more pressure than ever on western governments to open their borders and ease restrictions in refugee intake, particularly in the EU and even several gulf nations.
Those disappointed in the child’s body being overexposed will be hard-pressed to deny the effect it has had on the West in drawing attention to the plight of refugees. In this day and age, shock images go a long way in denting indifference towards such issues. It would seem foolish to say these isolated cases of unanimous outrage can ever have a negative effect. Sadly, that is the case when it comes to the particular situation of Syria.
In Syria, net benefit is all that matters. The recent case of Aylan is a microcosm of this phenomenon; the dignity of the child was sacrificed pragmatically, if you will, and could be afforded out of necessity to attract public attention. It has clearly succeeded: Governments are being called out for poor refugee policy, individual citizens are opening their doors and offering as much aid as they can, and as a result, thousands of more refugees will be given asylum. The world was stunned by the aesthetic of a cute child failing to escape to a better place, and being the citizens of said better places, decided to do something about it. Obviously not enough, but still a net gain for Syrians, correct?
Wrong. The complexity of the Syrian conflict means all conversations that stray from its root causes assist in prolonging it and allowing thousands more to die. The average rational person is haunted by the thought of Aylan suffering in the water before his death, so they take action in relation to the EU and its unwillingness to better facilitate the relocation of refugees like him. The focus becomes Europe rather than Syria, and resources and policy are channeled into what is essentially a bandage solution to a deeply cut problem.
This is not to say Syrians are in the wrong for spreading news of Al-Kurdi’s body. His image resonated with them more than anyone; their struggle is already characterized by victims exposing themselves on camera as the only way to shed light on what they face daily. Gestures made towards refugees internationally before and after the photo are welcome. Outrage at the European Union and gulf states for their intolerance of refugees is necessary.
But it must be asked where those who now feel the need to speak out for refugees have been the past four years. That death must be presented to them theatrically and under conditions in line with their motives to act uncovers selfishness in activism. Exposing this paradox may seem patronizing and counterproductive until one remembers that millions are suffering daily in a war instigated and exacerbated by the Assad regime, its sectarian militias, Hezbollah, Iran, and Russia. Yet Assad and his loyalist forces have once again taken a back seat in the international spotlight, this time to the EU and gulf nations’ failure to accept those running from them.
What does this have to do with the late Al-Kurdi? Well, everything. Dialogue revolving around him has been compared to the manner in which one talks of losing a child to a natural disaster, and in this metaphor EU refugee reform should be made to limit the casualties of an unpreventable crisis. But Al-Kurdi is not a casualty of just a natural disaster–he is first and foremost a victim of Syria’s violence. He escaped the threat of the Islamic State after already fleeing the besieged Al-Ghouta neighborhood of Damascus. This is a man-made conflict that cannot be brushed off as an unsolvable problem.
The approach with which the international community as a whole has dealt with Syria has been borderline condescending. In August of 2012, President Obama claimed the use of the Assad regime’s sizable chemical weapons arsenal would be the “red line” for the US to intervene in Syria. Warning against potential use of such weaponry while thousands were already being killed at the time revealed an absurd double standard regarding the manner in which civilians were dying.
NATO’s pretexts for not intervening in Syria during the early days of the Arab Spring when it had willingly done so in Libya were always empty, and the current chaos proves it: Fears that intervention would aggravate the situation and give rise to extremism have manifested in ways they never could have imagined precisely because no direct action has been taken.
IS was one of these manifestations, and despite their previous conquests of territories in Syria and Iraq, it took the beheading of one western journalist to make them enemy number one in the region. Three and a half years of genocide at the hands of the regime–and the first international military action taken was a sustained air campaign against a group that simply rose in the wake of the destruction and thrives solely because of Syria’s war economy and environment.
Let’s not even get into the despicable behavior of the “anti-war” crowd. That will be a topic for another time, but their self-righteous affiliates are sure to be active in urging acceptance of more refugees from war-torn areas while ensuring these very wars continue.
We have learned a lot from Aylan, for better and for worse. Indeed, many have discovered the tragedy of migrants from him. But perhaps the biggest thing we can gather is that we haven’t learned anything at all. There is no reason that Aylan should be considered more tragic than the children who will live the rest of their lives with barrel bomb shrapnel in their bodies. We are a selfish species, where we pick which of the 300,000 dead in Syria is most worthy of our sympathy and attention. The power of photography has been reaffirmed, but it goes to show just who is being served by this humanitarianism when those who ignored four years of war are now rushing to help refugees like Aylan.
The masses still have the power to incite change. Innocent people are being murdered daily. We must send aid to those lucky to survive. The question is, will we hold open dialogue or educate ourselves on the underlying causes of this refugee crisis that has now garnered so much attention? To what extent are we willing to exert pressure on our leaders, and even then, are we pressuring them to do the correct thing? Will we ever accept the sacrifices necessary to prevent us from seeing another body like Aylan’s? The number of Syrians fleeing the country show that they can no longer wait for these answers.
(Title image via, under CC BY 2.0)