In September 2015, the photo of a young Syrian boy (Alan Kurdi) face down on a beach in Turkey profoundly shifted the narrative on refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria. Denied resettlement in Canada, the four members of the Kurdi family boarded a boat for Greece; when the boat capsized, Alan died along with his brother and mother.
There are few instances in which a single photo had such a profound impact in such a short time, leading Time magazine to name it one of the most influential images of all time. Widely shared on social media, the photo resonated with viewers in a way that news media reporting on the conflict and massive dislocation had failed to do.
At the time of the photo’s circulation, the conflict had been raging for almost four years, more than 6.5 million Syrians had already been displaced, and more than 6,000 migrants had lost their lives crossing the Mediterranean Sea. The dominant response in Europe and North America to that point ranged from indifference to hostility.
While this one photo did not fundamentally flip the narrative, it shook many viewers out of their indifference. Donations to charities assisting Syrian refugees surged overnight. In Europe, governments ignored the Dublin Convention, allowing asylum seekers to travel into Europe to submit asylum applications (the Dublin Convention had required asylum seekers to apply for protection in the first EU state they entered).
In Germany and Austria, large crowds greeted and cheered the arrival of Syrian asylum seekers. In Canada, the Kurdi photo contributed to a change in the election outcome, bringing Justin Trudeau and the Liberal party to power, in part due to his commitment to increase the intake of Syrian refugees. The Canadian population also responded, forming local community groups to sponsor refugees for resettlement in numbers unseen since the Southeast Asian boat exodus in the late 1970s and early ’80s.
The story, however, does not end with the humanitarian response in 2015 and 2016. The impact of the Kurdi photo also demonstrates the limits of a system that requires constant mobilization by visual depictions of tragedy. Four years later, we are still no closer to solving the conflict in Syria and various other conflicts driving displacement in the world, the number of forcibly displaced people remains at historically high levels, and anti-immigrant sentiment and political movements have found popular and electoral success in many societies.
Efforts to more equitably distribute responsibility for assisting refugees, such as the New York Declaration and the Global Compact for Refugees, have had little noticeable effect — 85 per cent of refugees are still housed in developing states. Resettlement rates for refugees have plummeted, from 126,291 in 2016 to 55,680 in 2018 (initial figures for 2019 appear no better).
While this decline is driven largely by a drastic reduction in resettlement spaces in the United States (fewer than 25,000 refugees were resettled there in 2018), it is notable that the combined efforts of the 164 signatories of the Global Compact have not increased sufficiently to offset the decline in the United States.
The work of Tima Kurdi, a close relative of the Kurdi family, and other passionate advocates for refugees reminds us that the crisis for refugees is not over. In many respects, it has worsened as states have begun to tighten their border controls, reduce resettlement and forge agreements with developing countries to restrict the movements of refugees.
Tragedies such as those that resulted in the deaths of Alan, Ghalib and Rehanna Kurdi occur daily around the globe; it shouldn’t take a tragic photo to spur concerted action. In addition to pressuring their governments to increase resettlement spaces, respect their obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention and to implement the Global Compact for Refugees, citizens in Canada can directly participate in refugee resettlement. They can work with and support refugee-advocacy organizations, such as the Canadian Council for Refugees or local organizations (in Victoria these include the Inter-Cultural Association and the Victoria Immigrant and Refugee Centre Society).
On May 29, Tima Kurdi, author of The Boy on the Beach, will speak at the University of Victoria about her family’s escape from Syria and her commitment to helping refugees worldwide. For more information visit: eucanet.org
Scott Watson is a professor of political science at the University of Victoria.