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A humanitarian crisis borne out of a political disaster Open in fullscreen

Imogen Lambert

A humanitarian crisis borne out of a political disaster

Refugees arrive in Greece as sun sets [Getty]

Date of publication: 3 September, 2015

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Comment: taken by the harrowing image of Aylan Kurdi, the European public is demanding a humanitarian response while obscuring the political roots of the crisis, argues Imogene Lambert.
On Thursday, the image of Aylan Kurdi drowned off the shores of Aegean Sea while attempting to reach Greece went viral.

The widely-circulated image shocked the world. Mainstream media digged into the story and reached out to his father and aunt.

The harrowing image of Aylan and the story of his tragic journey could be a wake-up call for Europe. On the other hand it could simply be another reactionary humanitarian revelation that does not materialise into a sustainable and long-term policy shift.

UK government under pressure by public

In the UK, a petition demanding that the government accepts its fair share of refugees seeking safety in Europe raced above 250,000 as soon as the image of Aylan emerged.

David Cameron, who said earlier this week that resettling people was not the answer to the EU's refugee crisis, has come under pressure over the past 24 hours from UK politicians across the spectrum.

An astonished public couldn't withstand anymore the Prime Minister's political language regarding UK immigration policies.

Under public pressure, Cameron decided to increase the number of Syrian refugees permitted to enter the UK.

On a humanitarian level, this step is good. Thousands of Syrians will benefit from it. However, beneath this decision, there is a political context that is largely overshadowed by humanitarian pathos. It is implausible to solve, sustainably and comperehensively, a political crisis with humanitarian initiatives.

The shock is temporary, the crisis isn't

"The reader who has been arrested by the photograph may tend to feel...discontinuity as his own personal moral inadequacy," French thinker Barthes wrote upon a visit to a "shock photograph" exhibition.

"As soon as this happens, even his sense of shock is dispersed... the issue of the war which has caused that moment is effectively depoliticised," Barthes adds.

This critique is especially pertinent to Syria and the humanitarian crisis there. Numerous images of anonymous, idle, and bloody corpses, at the front pages of newspapers. A bloody political conflict fuelled at large by state interests across the world is instantly obscured by the resultant humanitarian crisis.

Yet the actions and views of those still in support of the Syrian revolution are not mentioned at all. 

Overshadowed yet unencumbered by drowning bodies, the political crisis continues. 

Leaving the political context behind, the depoliticised public discourse falls back on humanitarianism which, although is a noble pursuit, obscures the very political roots of this crisis.

Morality and responsibility

The political context of the crisis is not only the political conflict in Syria, but also the politics of the EU. The ways in which the EU institutions reacted to refugees coming in from the sea reveals the complexity of the crisis and the shared responsibility behind it.

Refugees have told numerous stories of calling coastguards who never arrived - either they were late, or refugees were told that their boat was outside the jurisdiction.

Sabr Jaafari from Yarmouk related that a rescue ship took eight hours to reach his boat. And Raed Bukhary from Sudan said that a coast guard refused to rescue the boat that was sinking outside the Italian coast.

Doctors Beyond Borders announced on twitter that they had rescued thousands of migrants, adding that it was not their job.

The search and rescue operation in the Mediterranean was drastically cut last year, from Marie Nostrum, which covered almost all the sea until the Libya border, to Triton, which covers thirty miles outside the Italian coast.

So, putting humanitarian slogans aside, it's time for a political stance.

War photography and objectification

"Just stop the war, and we don't want to go to Europe," a thirteen-year old Syrian said during the crisis in Budapest, reflecting the opinions of many other refugees.

Refugees are not seeking refuge while having another choice of survival. European countries that welcome them should not receive praise, neither should refugees feel the need to be grateful to host countries.

This should not be perceived as charity to a mass of helpless victims, but as a basic responsibility towards equals.

Of course it is difficult, as to make the case for refugees - or for refugees to make the case themselves at for. For instance, at asylum interviews, they must present themselves as helpless victims; a process that many have described as humiliating, and disempowering.

Aylan's was not the first photograph of the migrant crisis to go viral. David Etter, a New York Times photographer captured the moment a refugee left a boat, carrying his daughter in tears; many shared the resulting photo.

Etter wrote about the experience in the Guardian saying: "working on deadline, I lost track of the family. I wish I had spent more time with them, getting to know more about them," he said, before continuing: "But in the end, that first moment when I saw them on the beach told me so much more than words possibly can."

What an assumption! The privilege of witnessing this family's pain told Etter all he needed to know about this family.

The Guardian originally titled the piece as: "after taking this picture, I cared about the people more than the image." They later altered the headline to "more accurately reflect the article's content".

Now, the Syrian crisis has literally washed up on the shores of Europe, Syrian "refugees" previously often portrayed as either victims in need of charity, or an immigrant threat, will become neighbours, classmates, friends and family.

Europeans who previously viewed the Syrian conflict as being so distant, so incomprehensible, may find it indirectly affecting their own lives, on both a personal and political level.

Recently, I asked a young woman from Yarmouk who lost her entire family in the Mediterranean last year if she would be able to tell or write about her experiences.

She replied "if I told my story, it wouldn't change anything."

Maybe she is right, as critic Susan Sontag said: "Compassion is an unstable emotion. If one feels that there is nothing 'we' can do...then one starts to get bored, cynical, apathet".

The refugee crisis did not happen in a vacuum. It happened in the context of politics, of a brutal war. Whilst making the case for refugees, this photograph should be - and is - resparking debate about what to do about Syria, away from the dogmatic stances of the "intervention" debate.


Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.

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