Visual politics in action: How the image of a dead boy on a beach did little to change foreign policy or attitudes towards refugees

A few iconic images have shaped responses to humanitarian disaster and war. Who does not remember the naked girl in Vietnam, running away from a Napalm attack – captured by Associated Press photographer Huynh Cong Ut on 8 June 1972 in a photo that subsequently won him the Pulitzer Prize. It arguably had an important role in ending one of the most brutal and divisive US foreign policy interventions in history. The fact that her picture was taken has ensured the subsequent survival of Kim Phuc, the then girl in the picture. It has also overshadowed her subsequent life in often less than positive ways.

Then there were the pictures that came to define a profound change in the way humanitarian compassion became understood and charitable giving organised: Who of a certain generation does not remember Michael Buerk’s famous report from Korem, the epicentre of famine in Ethiopia in 1984, and the accompanying footage by late cameraman Mohammed Amin: white-clad starving figures on an Ethiopian plateau that reminded one of biblical famines. I have analysed elsewhere how this representation of famine has led not only to a formerly unimaginable surge in charitable giving and the unprecedented rise of not always accountable NGOs, and enforced an understanding of Africa as a place of quasi-permanent disaster and destitution. The famine footage subsequently also produced its own ‘poster child’, Birhan Woldu, who became the face of Bob Geldof’s Live Aid campaign – and as was the case for Kim Phuc, this fact has overshadowed her life in multiple, not necessarily beneficial, ways. But pictures of Third-World-children are too easily used and abused for wider ends, even if taken with the best intentions in mind.

The toddler in the latest image of such a child, an image that has come to symbolise the failure of Europe to respond to the current refugee and migrant crisis, will be spared any repercussions for his future life: he became famous because of his death. The boy, Aylan Kurdi, was three years of age when Turkish photographer Nilufer Demir saw him, while she was crossing a beach in Bodrum, Turkey, and felt to take his picture was her way to ‘express the scream of his silent body‘. He and his family came from the Syrian city of Kobane close to the border with Turkey. Kobane was for months defended by Kurdish fighters against the advance of the terror movement that calls itself ‘Islamic State’. Turkey, supposedly a European alley and NATO partner, did all it could to put obstacles in the way of Kurdish fighters, using the Syrian quagmire for its own internal political ends and anti-Kurdish policies – a stand that has only changed recently with ‘Islamic State’ attacks on Turkish soil. Aylan, his parents and his five-year-old brother, had fled Kobane and boarded a boat from Turkey to Greece. Aylan’s father is the sole survivor of this ill-fated journey.

Aylan was brought to the breakfast table of many UK households lying on a beach in a rather peaceful posture (or alternatively in the arms of a Turkish policeman who carefully carried the corpse away). There are many reasons why this particular picture has become so significant. It was taken from an angle that all of us probably know: Looking at a pristine beach and being curious about something that has been swept on land by the waters. We would expect a piece of rubbish or a treasure, a wooden plank, or the body of a seal – but in this case it was the corpse of Aylan. For many, it brought the refugee tragedy home in a scene that everybody could have encountered during their holidays. Conveniently, the corpse lying on the beach was that of a small child, a common symbol of innocence and in that quite different from the exhausted men that have arrived for a number of summers now on the shores of tourism islands in Greece and Italy, to the annoyance of many British holidaymakers. Decades of campaigns by charities of all kinds that see no ethical problems with exposing suffering children to large public audiences have trained us to be moved by the plight of children in particular – personal rights and protection concerns of those very children vanish in the competition for donations. What is also forgotten in this zooming in on the most innocent victims are the political and power dynamics behind every conflict – and the responsibility that UK and European foreign policy often has for those. As the British Band Chumbawamba observed in a counter-release to the Band-Aid representation of the Ethiopian famine at the time, Pictures of Starving Children Sell Records and, one could add, support for those fighting for political change and a more just world order does not.

In Britain, Aylan’s pictures were published by all major newspapers, tabloids and broadsheets alike. This was in stark contrast to for example Germany, where many papers made a conscious decision not to publish, out of respect for the dignity of Aylan, but also to make the case that it should not need such contested visual footage to make us sit up and act with compassion to the current refugee crisis. But then Germany has, perhaps surprisingly, become one of the most welcoming places for refugees these days, and its political leaders have come down firmly on those who try to undermine this hospitality through demonstrations and/or attacks.

One can have different opinions on whether Aylan’s pictures should have been published. Wherever one stands on this issue, it should also not be forgotten that because dramatic pictures have the power to change debates, they can easily be abused by populists from all sides of the political divide. Take for example a recent headline in an Austrian newspaper: It shows the photograph of Syrian refugees who were luckier than Aylan and his family and made it to Hungary trying to cross the barbed-wired fence between Hungary and Austria. ‘Refugee Wave out of control’ the headline runs. When looking at the picture one could as easily have written a headline that says: ‘What has Europe become if people are forced to scramble through barbed wire to feel safe?”

The picture of Aylan, possibly because he was put into focus not as part of a wider refugee movement but as a single, dead, innocent soul, has united even the formerly hard-core anti-immigration press in the UK – and so even the Sun has come down on Aylan’s side. In addition to a headline that demands ‘Bomb IS so that Aylan didn’t die in vain’ more in line with it’s usual political stance, the Sun has started a campaign in support of foster homes for orphans combined with a fundraising effort ‘to help save kids like Aylan’. Money donated will go, rather unsurprisingly, to the Save the Children appeal that not only has in its mandate the exclusive focus on children but in traditional fundraising manner uses photographs of individual children singled out through their unique story of suffering to secure donations. But even that is too much for many of the Sun’s readers who have commented on the fact that many refugees were indeed men and instead of fleeing their country of origin cowardly they should have stayed and defended their families and in any case should not be dragging their children across borders.

A not so dissimilar ambivalence is found in the (belated) reaction to Aylan’s death by British PM David Cameron, who not so long ago had used language similar to the Sun and the Daily Mail in describing the refugees and migrants of Calais as ‘ a swarm of people’. Not to be outdone by the public mood, he ‘as a father’ declared himself moved by the pictures of the small boy on a Turkish beach. Whereas he had proclaimed on the day before the pictures went viral that taking in more refugees could not be the answer to the current crisis and that Britain was in fact one of the largest donors to the humanitarian effort in Syria, he suddenly announced his readiness to take in more ‘genuine’ Syrian refugees.

Meanwhile, the UK as a whole seems to have caught something akin to ‘refugee fever’. Unsurprisingly perhaps, also old hands in the politics of making personal dismay the guidance of emotional appeals like Bob Geldof chipped in. In a highly charged interview on Irish radio in which he called politics towards refugees an ‘absolute sickening disgrace’ he offered to give sanctuary to four refugee families in his properties in London and Kent. In other programmes on TV and radio British volunteers were invited to tell their tearful stories about what they experienced when helping refugees. The mood only changed slightly when one of those refugees lucky enough to have managed to make it to the UK described how ‘nice’ British people had been in welcoming him. But when he subsequently mentioned that he was mainly here seeking a better life and had not fled mortal danger, a nervous expression appeared on the face of the moderator and the topic was quickly changed.

And as time went by, it also became abundantly clear that the new hospitality proclaimed by the PM had strict limits, and that the UK would in no way become a partner in European efforts to tackle the refugee and migrant crisis jointly and as a union not only of economic exchanges but moral values. In a similar vein as the Eastern European countries under the leadership of Hungary abscond from any responsibility towards the refugees and migrants on their territory – calling it a ‘German problem’ as that was where most wanted to go to, Britain has made clear that it will not allow any of those already in Europe into the UK – and has remained silent on the festering crisis in Calais. The PM has chosen his words carefully. The story of Aylan may have brought the conflict in Syria and the humanitarian disaster accompanying it back to the front pages, a disaster for which fundraising has actually proven difficult, as it is a rather complex story without easy and clear fault-lines between goodies and baddies. But the potential additional Syrians welcomed into the UK will be carefully selected from refugee camps near the Syrian border – in order to give those who aim to leave the often desperate conditions in those camps no incentive to do so. The message remains clear: if you try to make your way to Europe on your own, like Aylan and his family, you have forfeited the right to be considered worth of asylum in the UK.

Some newspapers promptly followed suit in supporting that line. The Daily Telegraph for example warned not to become too welcoming and reminded its readers that after all Aylan’s family was already in ‘safe’ Turkey before embarking on their journey – a journey that they hoped would take them to Canada to be re-united with family relatives living there. In the wake of Aylan’s death, the message remains that refugees are welcome (to a certain degree) if they give up their personal aspirations (and with it part of their humanity) before they enter the UK, and gratefully take the assistance on offer – be it a foster home for an orphan or a place in Bob Geldof’s villa in Kent. The PM’s claim that Britain is a ‘moral nation’ and will fulfil its ‘moral responsibilities’ rings rather hollow when looking behind the rhetoric towards actual deeds.

One major ‘answer’ by the British government is to have sent the Royal Navy to the Mediterranean ‘in order to save lives’ in the words of the PM. Or rather, in order to collect intelligence on smuggling networks to destroy them as has also been claimed? Britain is more generally pushing for an accelerated military response in the Mediterranean. But people smugglers exist because they provide the only means for most to enter Europe, and destroying boats will simply mean more unsafe boats attempting the journey and will make crossings more expensive. But then, so the logic of UK politics seems to suggest, if you are trapped in Libya, or find yourself on a boat towards Europe, it is ultimately your fault, after all you could have stayed in a save refugee camp in Turkey!

The death of Aylan remains tragic in many ways, but is also a logical consequence of UK and EU policy decisions, like the thousands of deaths in the Mediterranean and at other EU borders before him and since. The moral question raised by Aylan’s picture concerns our complicity in those seemingly allowable deaths.

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