Aylan Kurdi, along with his mother Rehen and brother Galip, died in an attempt to escape the horrors of war-torn Syria and reach Europe. They were among the tens of thousands of refugees who have been pleading with Europe for assistance for years, and like thousands of their fellows, they died in the attempt. Yet, the EU’s refugee crisis — from turning people away at the borders to incarcerating people indefinitely in horrific conditions like those at Lampedusa — has remained largely abstract to much of the world, which flips idly across headlines without much interest.
Kurdi became the face of the crisis when global media decided to publish an image of his dead body on the shoreline of Turkey, sparking global discussion and controversy (numerous publications were forced to publish justifications for running the graphic image). Turkish photographer Nilufer Demir is likely to become as famous for this iconic image as Nick Ut (the naked Vietnamese girl screaming as she runs down the street covered in napalm), Kevin Carter (the vulture looming ominously next to a starving African child), Richard Drew (the businessman tumbling down the face of the Twin Towers), or Joe Rosenthal (the raising of the flag in Iwo Jima). The ability to mobilize the globe with a single powerful photograph is a profound testimony to the critical need for documentary photography, but it’s also chilling to know that the world was largely indifferent to the refugee crisis until Demir’s shutter closed over the disturbing scene on the beach.
Just a week earlier, over 70 refugees died in the back of a truck in Austria, with nearly no media attention — but somehow, a photograph of someone else’s dead child galvanized the sluggish West into action. An outpouring of rage was followed by substantial fundraisers and demands for justice, with Germany and Britain announcing that it would change its policies for refugees — even as refugees begged for admission to Canada, Australia, and many other nations. Notably, documents from Australia released by The Guardian showed that officials knowingly sent refugees back to certain death.
The state of the refugee crisis from Syria and the Middle East is horrific, and the fact that the West needed to see a picture of a dead child to care is a grim testimony to the callousness of the so-called ‘developed world.’
But there is a particular hypocrisy about the screams of outrage from the United States, a nation that’s currently holding massive fundraisers for Syria’s refugees and demanding that Europe change its policies, because the United States is facing a refugee crisis of its own, and that crisis is being pointedly ignored. Between 2000 and 2014, 6,000 people have died on the border between US and Mexico, including men, women, and children fleeing violence and persecution throughout Central and South America. This number pales in contrast with the 40,000 people who have died crossing the Mediterranean in the same time period, but it’s still a signifier of the lengths to which people are willing to go to reach the perceived safety of the US, a nation with considerable hostility directed at immigrants and refugees.
Central and South Americans attempt to cross the border (and die) in suffocatingly hot trucks, trek across the desert (and die), and are shot by Border Patrol just feet from the massive and expensive wall the United States constructed in an attempt to close its borders. They are raped by Border Patrol as well as the ‘guides’ who claim to be willing to take them across the hostile border. On any given day, 34,000 immigrants, including refugees, are kept in detention, with many facilities privatized and run for profit by companies like Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group. Nearly 440,000 people were deported from the US in 2013, as part of an escalating trend of removals that include not just undocumented immigrants but also refugees and asylum seekers along with, sometimes, legal residents and citizens of the US.
LGBQT people in particular suffer almost unimaginable treatment in detention, with trans women especially accounting for 20 percent of documented rapes in detention — the real number is likely much higher. On nearly the same day that Aylan washed ashore in Turkey, a court in the US rescued a trans woman from deportation — and certain rape, torture, and possible death — to Mexico. It’s unusual for LGBQT people seeking asylum in the United States to obtain it, and the case attracted almost no media attention. She was one among many undocumented people in the US who made the dangerous decision to pursue non-legal methods of migration after realising that their applications for asylum would likely be denied, or would take too long to process.
People in the US paid attention to the plight faced by trans refugees in the US only briefly, when most were condemning Jennicet Gutiérrez for speaking out at an Obama press conference.
Refugees trapped in US detention facilities face highly disturbing conditions: Lack of health care, filthy environments, insufficient food, little to no education or enrichment for children, rape, assault, and crowding. Despite the Obama Administration’s promise to address these issues, immigration policy in the United States remains stalled — and people in the US appear unwilling to address the crisis in their own backyards whilst beating the drums over Europe’s misdeeds.
It is, of course, possible and in fact critical to care about many things at once. There is nothing to stop residents of the United States from caring passionately about and advocating for Syrian refugees while also taking on the issue of Central and South American refugees at home. However, the silence on the subject — particularly from those leading the charge on handwringing over Syria — is a troubling testimony to the power of people in the US to avoid the messes they both make and live with. Is it entirely reasonable to condemn Europe, Australia, and even Canada for their failings on those seeking asylum when we cannot even create necessary policy changes within our own borders?