After the deaths of thousands of refugees on their way to Europe, the scene of a child lying face-down on a beach suddenly penetrated media headlines around the world. The resulting personification stemming from these photographs and descriptions motivated a significant shift in debate on the ongoing refugee crisis.
Graphic detail generally surrounded recollection of “the corpse of the kid laying face-down on the beach sand rinsed by waves”. Sources like Russian TV Rain created stark contrast in stressing that the beach was “not far from the fashionable resort of Bodrum.” But the most powerful discourse may have been found in the photos themselves, as news sources like the Wall Street Journal “published an image of a Turkish officer carrying Aylan’s dead body, with the boy’s face not quite visible and the man looking away, as if not able to bring himself to look at the child.”
Following identification of the body, European sources like Süddeutsche Zeitung started to include his name in headlines such as “The short life of Aylan Kurdi” and “What could save the next Aylan Kurdi.” Lithuanian media even referred to the child simply as “Aylanas” (or “Aylan”). The retelling of his family’s story by Abdullah Kurdi was based on very particular – and at times inconsistent – details on earlier life before civil war, hardships of the refugee condition, and even the unfortunate conditions leading to very death of the man’s wife and two sons. Tagesschau.de concluded that, “through the dead three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, the refugee misery gets a name.”
Conversation on the topic repeatedly attempted to attribute responsibility for the death of Aylan and the ongoing crisis. German media took a strong stance against the policy of the EU, with highly charged language criticizing the UK and Eastern European countries for their unwillingness to cooperate. Mainstream European media also diffused responsibility for accepting refugees to other Western countries such as the United States and Canada. On the other hand, American discourse regularly traced the ongoing crisis to Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy in Syria. Official Russian media also contributed considerably to discussion on the topic, with special commentary by the likes of Dmitry Kiselev on mismanagement of the crisis.
“While Europeans poked each other with photo of the drowned child, they were ashamed. But to help Syrian families with these boys while they are still in Syria, they don’t want to for some reason.” – Weekly News with Dmitry Kiselev
Estonian and Lithuanian media abstained from including Aylan Kurdi in addressing the refugee crisis as it concerned their respective societies. Instead, articles in both countries examined propaganda mechanisms in the case of Aylan Kurdi. One Estonian opinion piece notably addressed the positive potential of propaganda. The author claimed that only negatively minded people used fear and anger for gain of attention and popularity. In this particular instance, the Aylan Kurdi story was seen as “positive propaganda” appealing to the core humanity of the reader bases. On the other side of the Latvian border, an article from Lithuanian source 15min analyzed the power of the photograph in influencing public opinion. Only here the propaganda was also attributed to the Islamic State and in its efforts to discourage migration to Europe.
American media also provided considerable analysis of European coverage on the topic. An article entitled “Image of Drowned Syrian Boy Echoes Around World” commented on the worldwide attention to a “variety of iterations of the image of the boy, with many expressing editorial outrage at the perceived inaction of developed nations to help refugees.” The article continued to explore political reactions from the likes of Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and David Cameron of the UK. Another article compared images from the scene to other popular photos that changed history, although most of the events depicted in the photographs were specifically related to American history. Comparison was made to the iconic “Migrant Mother” photograph, a depiction of the plight of American migrants affected by the Great Depression. The author directed overarching discourse with reference from professor Joshua Brown: “‘The photos were part of a government effort to shape and support’ the New Deal policies of President Franklin D. Roosevelt… ‘They were very carefully chosen for publication’ to support those programs.”
As observed in last week’s article on the three American heroes, construction of media narrative relies on establishing personal connection with the reader. To audiences around the world, the refugee crisis attained this dimension in Aylan – or even Aylanas, the three-year-old son of a desperate barber seeking a better future for his family. Despite graphic detail in the photographs, one never quite sees the face of the child in this particular scene. Instead the reader is left with an avatar for what could have been anyone’s son or daughter. After all, piling statistics on refugee casualties simply cannot pull at the heartstrings like images of Aylan Kurdi and the story of his father, Mohammad Kurdi. Findings from observed media reports also suggest that placement of this genuine human tragedy with specific political context largely directs discourse on the ongoing refugee crisis.