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These photos will change how the world sees the Syrian refugee crisis

Neither the first, nor the last.
  • Annalisa Merelli
By Annalisa Merelli

Senior reporter based in New York City

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Several newspapers, including the Independent, the Guardian, and the Times, will run variations of the same picture on this morning’s front pages. It’s the image of a Syrian child, lying face-down on a beach. He reportedly drowned, and so did his five-year-old brother, when the boat carrying him to Europe sank in the waters between Turkey and Greece.

His body was found in the town of Bodrum, Turkey. At least 11 other Syrian migrants are said to have died with him in an attempt to reach the Greek island of Kos.

Some publications have elected not to show these photos, or to show only parts of them. Others have been criticized for making them public, as if it were indecent to show this most heartbreaking of deaths. What is indecent is that this death happened, when it could have been avoided.

The image below is disturbing. But sometimes we should be disturbed.

EPA/Dogan News
Turkish gendarmerie stand by the body of a child in Bodrum.

The boy is thought to be a three-year-old named Aylan from the Syrian town of Kobani, according to the BBC.

Although he is one of many, this photo, released by a Turkish news agency, seems to have stirred the conscience of Europe in a new way. Perhaps that’s because it puts a new perspective on what the bureaucratic jargon about a “migrant crisis“ looks like in real life. This is what barbed wire erected around luckier nations looks like. This is what xenophobia and ignorance look like.

Artists have already begun turning the photo into a symbol of the continuing tragedy at Europe’s gates:

It’s easy to forget the exact numbers—that 638 migrants died crossing the Mediterranean in August alone, and more than 3,600 worldwide this year, according to the International Organization for Migration—but it’s hard not to grieve the loss of a little boy in a red t-shirt.

Every once in a while, a simple photo reveals what the world really looks like when our humanity fails. This is one of those photos. If we look long enough, maybe we will find the courage to do something more about it.

📬 A periodic dispatch from the annual session of the United Nations General Assembly in NYC.

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