Seven years ago in July, and before social media was quite at the heights we “enjoy” today, several broadsheets in the UK ran the story of two teenage Roma girls washed up drowned on an Italian beach. The story wasn’t so much that once again people from a disadvantaged and persecuted race had been left to rot like so much rubbish; but that the bodies lay decomposing and lightly covered in full view of Italian families enjoying a family day out.
The picture (opposite) wasn’t widely reproduced, whether out of a sense of decency or a collective editorial view that the “victims” didn’t merit it, wasn’t clear; but the story had some coverage, but very little reaction outside of Italy. And nothing like the global outrage to the mass reproduction of the images of Aylan Kurdi. The girls it appears had been selling trinkets on the beach when they decided to enter the water, though it was unsure if either knew how to swim.
Seven years on and the public reaction to human tragedy of the loss of a young life in appalling circumstances on a beach in Turkey, that most of us couldn’t contemplate, has quite rightly caused horror and outrage; and appears to be having an impact on our political leaders in the UK, though by how much and with what strings attached, is way too early to say. The image of a child lying dead face down in the surf on a beach that many other 3 year olds were playing on, only weeks before, is imbued with such tragic irony that few could remain unmoved. For those of us with children, no matter how grown, it sears into us the primal fear of having a child die before us. And for people everywhere it’s the image that is the antithesis of hope, a life ended too young.
But Aylan isn’t the only child to die too young this week. In fact he wasn’t the only child to die on that beach. Aylan’s brother Galip perished too along with his mother and nine others including other kids. The thousands of children who have died this week across the globe, through hunger, poverty, disease, war and crime; won’t be the last. We know this and we know we know this, but in our busy lives it’s as if we need to know this, at a distance, removed from view, and not over the cornflakes thank you very much. With every capsized boat during this summer’s sailing season, with every group of a hundred or so refugees dying on our beaches, still the politicians turned a blind eye, still the right wing press perpetrated the myths, still most people turned away uncomfortable, uneasy maybe, but still unsure about “these” people.
Then came the picture. I said to someone yesterday that I thought the image was exploitative. The look of distaste on the face of this person who has, to be frank, come late to the party of humanity and concern was almost comic. How could I, of all people, say that? Didn’t I understand what was happening? Look at the impact it has had. And it is precisely because of the impact it has had that I stand by my claim. Exploitative in a general sense as no family member back home, I believe was consulted or asked about a having this image splashed across the world and exploitative because it was published with only one aim in mind, precisely to get the reaction it did. But saying that it is exploitative is not to condemn its use or to criticise the decision firstly to take it or publish it. Far from it. Though I would prefer that reason and argument and evidence of the needs of refugees and migrants were what shaped policy, I’ll take what I can get. The fact that our and other European governments, are immune to reason, argument and evidence is shocking and ultimately very worrying. So if it takes the image of a dead child to galvanise public opinion and make a difference then the use of it is justified but it doesn’t change the fact that it was a calculated decision. For those of us who believe that generally the end justifies the means, remember that that’s fine just so long as the ends are the ones we want. And remember of something is exploitative someone else is being exploited.
The fact that the media shapes public opinion rather than reflect it is something I have written and spoken about many many times. The fact that it is often in cahoots with government is something responsible citizens not only have to wake up to but to challenge at every turn. Yet on the issues of refugees and migrants fleeing impossible conditions for the last 15-20 years, both the media and many responsible citizens have not only been silent on, but deliberately misleading. The case of the Roma girls 7 years ago (not markedly different) proves that.
So let’s be thankful for the light that has been shone on the misery of our fellow human beings but let’s be wary too. The people in the boats, behind the razor wire in Hungary, in the camps in Calais and those yet to flee Syria or where ever will still be there when the papers carrying the pictures have been thrown out, and when the social media chatter has slipped down our page feeds. One they are settled in communities they will continue to need support. They might become your neighbours, your workmates, use your health services, attend your schools, hell they might even get a job you apply for. And when that happens or when people think that will happen or the media tell us it will happen, how supportive will you be then?
I’m pleased and relived that hundreds of thousands of people are discussing the issues that every day as Director of the Bridges Programmes me and my team deal with. Let’s hope it makes our job of promoting economic and social inclusion and integration of asylum seekers and refugees in Scotland easier. Let’s hope more doors are open, less hostility is evident. Send your dry goods, warm clothes, toys, but also send you hope, compassion and humanity. But can I also ask you when the pastas been cooked the clothes distributed that you keep your hope, compassion and humanity flowing. That’s the only way to make sure politicians listen, to make sure that things will change. That is the proper legacy for the Kurdi brothers.
Maggie Lennon is director of the Bridges Programmes, based in Glasgow working with asylum seekers refugees and migrants http://www.bridgesprogrammes.org.uk