On 2nd September, a year will have passed since the tragic story of Alan Kurdi. The body of the three-year-old was found washed upon the Turkish beach opposite the Mediterranean Sea. Its discovery caused widespread international outrage. Not only because the chilling photo that emerged from it but because it was symbolic of the West's failure to deal with the mounting refugee crisis. However his death did have a bittersweet ending. The conditions for refugees in Europe improved significantly since his lifetime. Yet our sudden sympathy towards refugees and asylum seekers suggests an uncomfortable truth, one which most commentators have failed to mention. It suggests that the only way to get our attention is by feeding us the most graphic and disturbing images. It suggests that the only thing that we respond to is shock therapy.
It is hard not to stress how detrimental Alan's death was in the shift in the worldwide attitude towards refugees. The months preceding his death oversaw a growth in xenophobic rhetoric against Europe's new arrivals. Some media outlets were showing little sympathy to their plight, while others actively sought to demonise them. This was also in the context of a hardening rhetoric from the far-right in Britain and in Europe, which only began to fall on more receptive ears. The anti-Islamic movement Pegida was gaining traction in Germany, particularly in Dresden where many asylum-seekers were rehabilitated. Not only did they reject calls for greater acceptance of refugees in European countries, some also argued that the refugees should be selected in terms of religion. Slovakia stated that it would only accept Christians, a move that was backed by our very own Nigel Farage.
Those on the political fringes were not the only ones supporting a tough response to the refugee crisis. Many of Europe's political leaders were not willing to budge either. This included included our ex-Prime Minister David Cameron, who at one point had referred to the refugees in Calais as a 'swarm'. Britain even withdrew its rescue missions in the Mediterranean Sea on the basis that it was encouraging more people to take the risk. Germany's Angela Merkel followed a similar line when she failed to comfort a Palestinian girl whose family faced deportation on camera. Like Britain, she defended her position by stating that accepting more refugees would encourage others to make the journey and that Germany could not handle anymore. Thus before 2nd September, there was very little hope for refugees making their journeys in to Europe, in spite of the record number of deaths occurring at the Mediterranean Sea.
All that changed once the world saw Alan's lifeless body on the beach. Suddenly, the refugees were not just a statistic: they were given a story. Alan Kurdi had humanized them. Major media outlets published the image on their front page the next day. Almost overnight, the Daily Mail reversed its position as it wrote a headline titled 'Tiny victim of a human catastrophe', when its language prior to the tragedy was anything but sympathetic. Other platforms became more vociferous in their support for taking in more refugees, such as The Independent and Guardian, and perhaps more surprisingly The Times. Within a few days, the mood had completely turned.
The shift was not only confined to the press. The day after, David Cameron softened his tone, claiming that that the photos had 'deeply moved him'. Four days later, he pledged to take in 20,000 more refugees in Britain by 2020. He was not the only one. The fact that the Canadian government rejected the Kurdi family's application for asylum made the whole affair an emotive issue. Steven Harper, the Prime Minister at the time, had to answer for the government's failure in prevent Alan's death. Unsurprisingly, the winning party was the one that pledged the most adequate response to the crisis. Prime Minister Trudaeu promised to take 25,000 refugees and even went to welcome the refugees from the airport. Yet the clearest response came from Merkel who decided to take a lead on issue. Alongside Austria, Germany opened its borders with Hungary for unregistered asylum seekers at 5th September. Such a bold move was unprecedented, especially in the EU where all other member states were dithering in how to respond. Though Merkel went on to moderate her support of refugees (she did impose border controls again at 13th September), Germany still led by example in how to deal with the migrant crisis by accepting the largest number of refugees. All these manoeuvres took place in different political environments. Yet they were all dependent on one thing: Alan Kurdi's death and the public sympathy that followed it. One wonders darkly: what would have happened if Alan Kurdi survived? From the looks of it, very little.
The story of Alan Kurdi is one of many 'martyr' narratives rampant in the media. It follows a process of blind indifference until a point where a grave tragedy occurs. Only then does the media decide to zone in on the issue, when the damage is already done. The same process is occurring with the Syrian humanitarian crisis. Over the past year, coverage on the hardship of civilian life in Syria had plateaued as the Syrian war entered its fifth year. But recently, the disturbing video of Omar Daqneesh, a child recovered from the rubble in Aleppo, has sparked discussion on the issue. Like Alan, he has humanized the civilians in Syria still suffering. His unsettling stillness has projected the true cost of the war. And like Alan, it was too late. The war has already taken its toll on him.
The news has become a commodity we consume. And our consumption of it has led us down a path where we only notice the most graphic or horrifying stories. It has desensitized us to pain and suffering, making it a relative rather than absolute phenomenon. In this age, it is not enough to know. For suffering to be recognized, it has to be seen. And as such, public empathy becomes more a product of framing than anything else. With the hardening of Europe's right and the growing instability in the Middle East, refugees still face many issues. Kurdi's own father claimed that Alan's death did not change anything. But it still can. We have to liberate ourselves from this problematic narrative that relies on loss and tragedy to stimulate change. We have to learn our lesson from 2015 and react before rather than after a calamity. Otherwise we risk mourning more deaths instead of preventing them. We risk witnessing another Alan Kurdi.
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