Last week pictures of three year old Aylan laying face down, dead on a beach here in turkey hit the news. To us europeans the picture was an eye-opener. A reminder of the gruesome reality, the painful fact that children knocking on our doors, asking for our help, die in an attempt to reach a better future.
For many europeans the pictures of Aylan brought the disaster that’s taking place in the Mediterranean closer. To try to understand what made it necessary for Aylan’s family to flee their home is painful, but important. In the public debate and media surrounding the refugee-crisis we talk about numbers, massive numbers. But hidden behind those numbers are lives, families, individuals and stories. Stories of children experiencing war.
The civil war in Syria started more than four years ago. Millions have since fled to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq without much notice in the rest of the world. According to UNHCR (http://data.unhcr.org/syrianrefugees/regional.php ) there’s more than 4 million registered Syrian refugees. That does not account for the numerous unregistered refugees likely to have fled. Here in Turkey alone there’s almost 2 million registered refugees. In Lebanon, a country already struggling with internal issues and refugee-questions dating back to the formation of Israel there’s more than 1,1million registered Syrian refugees, but we don’t care.
We didn’t care that they were fleeing, we didn’t cared about what they were fleeing from. The vast numbers became abstract, we couldn’t comprehend them, we couldn’t recognise the human lives they represented. That people now head towards Europe shouldn’t be a surprise. We didn’t want to see the consequences of the terror-regime of the al-Assad family, we either passively or actively supported. Nor did we want to see the role the west has played through its wars, alliances, and economic and military interests in the region. It’s sad that we first care about the refugees once they head out on the seas towards our coasts, but it seems to be true.
Then we saw the pictures of Aylan. A child, not so different from european children. His skin was almost white, he was wearing western clothes. The picture mattered. For many the bubble popped. We got a glimpse of the humanity of the ‘other’, the abstract numbers became children. The picture told a story of human beings fleeing for their lives.
The picture also sparked debate both in social and conventional media. Was it appropriate to show this picture, a document to the last minutes of a life that lasted for 3 years? Was it appropriate to share it in social media? It seems many came to the conclusion it was. It was after all a Syrian child, a refugee. The story would probably have been different if it was a european, we don’t want to see death among our own as was evident in the debacle surrounding the use of photographs in my native Norway after the 2011 terrorist attack.
The debate concerning the picture of Aylan is however still interesting, both because it illustrates how we treat victims of disaster differently depending on our geographic or cultural proximity to them, and because it clearly illustrated that many did not want to see. To me it’s strange that people are objecting to seeing, and showing pictures of people who are dead. I find myself wondering what drives the objection; is it fear of our own mortality, is it a wish not to have to face the consequences of our own failings to prevent premature deaths caused by war, or is it ignorance, a wish to live undisturbed by the harsh realities of other parts of the world?
For me showing pictures of death in some way honours the dead, it gives insight, it tells a story, the story of how a life ended. By letting the story affect us through pictures it starts to matter. It matters to us that Aylan died. All of a sudden we care, it affected us. Maybe we, when we’re forced to see, become more sympathetic. Maybe it makes us stretch out a hand and help where it’s needed, when it’s needed. Maybe pictures such as that of Aylan can make us see beyond the numbers, and beyond the story of just Aylan. Maybe it makes us recognise the humanity of others fleeing. Maybe it helps us open our hearts, and reach out a hand to help where it’s needed the most, so no more children end up being found, face down in the sand on a beach here in Turkey, one can only hope.
One question does however remain; how can we transform the outrage, the unity and humanity now shown through social and conventional media surrounding the refugee crisis to in tangible support? One way of doing so is by supporting those trying to help. One organisation which has had a tangible impact, saving thousands of refugees is the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS). The funding for their mission in the Mediterranean is due to end on the 31st of October. By taking matters into their own hands the campaign People’s Armada, is trying to raise the funds for the mission to continue and to in the long run create a fleet of rescue vessels to save those struggling to cross the Mediterranean, by supporting that we can save thousands more. Please support our campaign here: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/people-s-armada-fund-a-rescue-boat#/story
This article will also be published on Huffington Post