A June United Nations report on the record exodus across countries and continents chronicled a migration crisis so vast that one out of 122 people in the world is now a refugee, an internally displaced person or an asylum-seeker. That staggering figure equates to the world’s 24th-most populous country. Tragically, half are children.
Reflecting on the report in my June 20 column, “World Refugee Day — and Decade,” I observed that despite the enduring crisis there had not been a media moment that had grabbed global attention or reframed the debate the way that “Migrant Mother,” Dorothea Lange’s iconic Depression-era photo, captured the individual humanity behind mass migration.
That changed last week, when the heartbreaking photos of Aylan Kurdi, the 3-year-old Syrian boy drowned on a Turkish beach, rocketed around social media and news websites and then on front pages of newspapers worldwide. Suddenly, finally, the whole world was talking about the deplorable plight of refugees, asylum-seekers and economic migrants.
It was not the first time that a still image moved people. And it was not the first time that a photo of a child imperiled by war-torn or famine-stricken conditions has been globally galvanizing.
Among many notable examples are four Pulitzer Prize-winning photos. In 1972, a naked, napalmed 9-year-old Vietnamese girl, running alongside other terrified children, spoke to the particular horror of that war. In 1985, the gaunt, haunted looks of a starving mother and child at an Ethiopian refugee camp pointed out how political and agricultural failures can claim lives. A year earlier, another photo of another starving Ethiopian child also won a Pulitzer. And a decade later, the grisly image of a vulture stalking a starving Sudanese girl gave witness to that famine.
“With photography, you have a visceral reaction,” said Deb Pastner, the Star Tribune’s director of photo/video. “As important as the written word is in explaining subtleties and nuance and history, photography can synthesize things into something that anybody can respond to across cultures, across language, across gender, across socioeconomic standing.”
That was clearly the case with the photos of young Aylan. People, and parliaments, shamed over the shabby treatment of migrants moved to act, however inconsistently.
The images were shocking. But the tragedy, unfortunately, unsurprising. Scores seeking a better life in Europe have drowned because of high seas and the low value smugglers put on their lives. The migrant crisis is the story of the year, if not an era, and individual depictions of desperate and, sadly, dead migrants have been broadcast or published. And ample evidence of the horrors of the homicidal Assad regime, whose indiscriminate killing has included children, has documented the Syrian epicenter of the exodus.
And yet, “statistics are human faces with the tears dried off,” said Daniel Wordsworth, recalling a quote. Wordsworth, president and CEO of the Minneapolis-based American Refugee Committee, said Syria’s crisis is “like a humanitarian earthquake rippling from Jordan to Turkey to Lebanon now striking Europe, and it’s emerging out of this place that is full of smoke and darkness and confusion. The image was like there was a break in the clouds, and people saw another person.”
Wordsworth, whose organization is working to provide critical lifesaving and humanitarian assistance to families and communities in Syria, believes that “people are a compassionate species and we live in one of the most compassionate countries that ever existed.” Many may now be prompted to act. (A commentary by Wordsworth about the Syrian crisis will appear in Sunday’s Opinion Exchange section.)
“People will be happy to sit around the dinner table and argue to and fro about political issues, and they’ll talk about whether this is relevant to us and whether we should be acting or not,” Wordsworth said. “But I have never seen somebody looking at a child suffering and not have sudden moral clarity. This is a unifying issue for all people. I don’t care whether you’re German or French. I’m telling you there would have been refugees in Rwanda in refugee camps seeing exactly the same image, sharing that image on Facebook, and being just as horrified as we are. That’s the power of it.”
In fact, “the power of the visual medium,” Pastner said, “is when you look at the photo of the dead Syrian child, you could be French, you could be American, you could be German, you could be Kuwaiti. It’s still going to strike you.”
Indeed, the images of the innocent 3-year-old in short pants, red shirt and cute shoes was a universally understood media moment of the migrant, or any, crisis. Aylan, after all, could have been anyone’s child.
Which, in a manner of speaking, he was.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.