How much has changed since little Alan Kurdi died?
A year after the boy drowned, those trying to escape war still get little help from Europe
A Turkish police officer carrying Alan Kurdi’s body off the shore in Bodrum, southern Turkey, after a boat carrying refugees sank while heading to the Greek island of Kos. Photograph: Nilufer Demir/AFP/Getty Images
Alan Kurdi’s body lying on the shore in Bodrum, southern Turkey, after a boat carrying refugees sank while heading to the Greek island of Kos. Photograph: Nilufer Demir/AFP/Getty Images
For more than four years, the civil war in Syria had served up daily galleries of harrowing imagery: victims of chemical weapons, decapitated bodies, razed cities, grieving families. The exodus of Syrian refugees towards Europe through 2015 – the largest mass movement of people on the continent since the second World War – had been documented through thousands of smartphone photographs that captured the terror of crossing the Aegean in an overcrowded boat.
Yet the defining image – the one that promised to shake the world out of its complacency about the unfolding crisis – showed neither slaughter nor the act of fleeing. Instead, it was of the prone, lifeless body of a small boy in shorts and a T-shirt, washed up on the Turkish shore.
The boy, three-year-old Alan Kurdi, had drowned with his five-year-old brother Galip, mother Rehan (35) and nine other people when their vessel capsized while trying to reach the Greek island of Kos. Instantly the photograph went viral, filling social media timelines and appearing on front pages across the world. “Urgent action required – A Europe-wide mobilisation is urgent,” tweeted French prime minister Manuel Valls, reflecting a global sentiment.
One year on, how much has changed since Alan Kurdi’s death? According to a study by researchers at the University of Sheffield, the popular outrage prompted by the image resulted in a shift, at least on social media, in the language of the migration debate.
Having analysed close to three million social media posts before and after the dissemination of the photograph, the team from the university’s Visual Social Media Lab identified a “sudden and unexpected shift in the way people were talking about the issue of migration.”
In particular, “refugee” became far more popular than “migrant” as a label for those attempting the sea crossing, the research found.
“Politicians said after the death of my family: never again,” Abdullah Kurdi, Alan’s father, told Germany’s Bild newspaper this week. “Everyone allegedly wanted to do something after the photos that had so moved them. But what is happening now? The dying goes on and nobody’s doing anything.”
The death of Alan and his family members was followed by a flurry of diplomatic activity that culminated in an agreement by the European Union to relocate 160,000 refugees within the bloc so as to relieve pressure on the frontline states of Greece and Italy.
Although that process has accelerated in the last six months, as of last week just under 4,500 people had been relocated under the scheme. “In the interests of solidarity, it’s important that states accelerate that process,” says Philippe Leclerc, representative for the UN refugee agency in Greece.
Participation in a separate resettlement scheme aimed at transferring Syrian refugees from Jordan, Lebanon and Syria is “still very low”, Leclerc adds.
Recent months have seen a sharp decline in the numbers arriving in Greece by sea from Turkey. In January, about 3,500 landed on Greek islands from Turkey each day. In August the figure was closer to 100. And while Syrians remain the largest single national group, at about 47 per cent of the total, the UNHCR has observed a shift in the overall profile, with more Iraqis, Afghans and Pakistanis among the new arrivals. So far this year, 142 people have died and 51 have gone missing while attempting to cross from Turkey to the Greek Aegean islands.
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Second, a deal between the EU and Turkey, designed to staunch the flow of people across the Aegean, means those who arrive on the Greek islands must have their asylum claims processed there and are liable to be returned to Turkey if their applications are refused. Increased interception rates by the authorities, both at sea and in Turkey, have also contributed to the fall-off.
Yet the cumulative result of all these trends has been to compound the problems faced by those who remain in Greece.
With the closure of the northern border and the handling of asylum claims in Greece, island “hotspots” (where these claims are processed) and camps on the mainland remain overcrowded and under strain in catering for tens of thousands. “The situation is extremely precarious,” says Leclerc.
“We and the state have to be prepared for these people to get through the winter, because most of them will not benefit from the relocation measures that have been put in place by the European Union.”