On 2 September, 2015, the body of a young boy was swept onto the shore of Bodrum in Turkey, embodying the refugee crisis flowing from Syria that year. The three-year-old boy, by the name of Alan Kurdi, reported as Aylan by the media, was the devastating fatality of just another of the boats boarded by Syrian refugees fleeing their homeland on their journey to Europe.
Hailing from the northern Syrian city of Kobane, to a family of Syrian Kurds, Alan was forced to flee with family from the fierce battles between the Kurdish militias and Daesh, which had expanded their caliphate spanning across the Syrian-Iraqi border.
After crossing the border into Turkey, the Kurdi family temporarily settled there before deciding – like millions of Syrian refugees residing there unable to find work – to make their way to a more stable and prosperous life further into Europe. The human spirit does, after all, seek contentment after reaching safety.
The father of the family, Abdullah Kurdi, arranged on that fateful morning to board a small boat on the beach of Turkey’s tourist region of Bodrum, in an effort to reach the Greek island of Kos. The boat was designed to fit a maximum of eight people, however, over a dozen people boarded, without any functioning life vests or equipment being provided.
Only five minutes after departing, that boat capsized, causing Alan, his older brother and his mother to drown in the waters of the Aegean Sea. Alan’s body then washed up onto the shore, face down in the sand.
The harrowing image of the tiny, lifeless body of three-year-old Alan, face down in the sand, with his red T-shirt and blue shorts, stunned the international community and drew outrage at the apathy of governments around the world. The Gulf states were criticised for blocking off refugees and lacking the adequate infrastructure to take them in, and Europe was chastised for its lack of will to use the resources it possessed to help.
The most significant impact of Alan’s grievous death was that it effectively changed the course of public opinion, within the West, towards the refugees and the Syrian conflict. Rather than images of young and able-bodied men overrunning fences, that had so often made the papers and the headline news, Western audiences now saw the refugee crisis for what it was – entire families fleeing persecution, women and children fighting for survival, and fathers risking their own lives, and those of their families, in hope of a better life.
The main questions to be asked are, did this heart-breaking image of Alan result in a major change and policy shift, either by ending the war in Syria, or by creating a policy shift to help Syrian refugees?
There was certainly a shift in public emotion following the release of the image, with a study finding that the number of daily donations to the Swedish Red Cross’s campaign for Syrian refugees increased by 55 times in the following week, compared with the previous week – from $3,850 to $214,300. This increase was reportedly also seen in other charities, with monthly donations increasing and more repetitive donors emerging. Six weeks after the drowning, however, that amount decreased to around $6,500, representing the temporary nature of the humanitarian response, even with regards to the worst human tragedies.
There was also a shift in media representation. Papers begun to switch their wording of the asylum-seekers from “migrants” seeking economic opportunities, to “refugees” fleeing from war and persecution.
There was a notable policy shift from western nations, with European Union (EU) member states pledging to accept a certain number of refugees within their capabilities over the following years. That also largely collapsed, however, with some not committing to the amount that they pledged to resettle, and others in southern and eastern Europe even closing off their borders.
The refugees were stuck with little opportunity in countries such as Turkey and Lebanon, continuing to attempt to make their perilous journeys across the Mediterranean to the shores of Europe, with little to no help. In reality, the degrading treatment they face has only increased by those who have the opportunity to help, such as the Greek authorities and border force, who have instead been shooting at refugee boats, pushing them away, detaining and torturing them, and expelling and abandoning them at sea.
According to statistics by the United Nation’s refugee agency, around two million refugees and migrant have made the journey across the Mediterranean since 2014, and approximately 20,000 have died as a result.
Possibly the most dramatic action taken in the search for justice for Alan was Turkey’s sentencing of three men involved in the human trafficking ring responsible for his death, in which they were all sentenced to 125 years’ imprisonment each, earlier this year.
As for Alan’s distraught father, Abdullah, he reportedly resides in the city of Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan, where he co-runs an organisation named the Kurdi Foundation, working to deliver aid to children in refugee camps. His Canada-based sister Tima runs the foundation with him, however, her attempts to help him settle in Canada remain unsuccessful.
Five years on, little has changed since the tragic death of Alan Kurdi.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.