It’s impossible to guess how many people have seen the photo of Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old refugee from Syrian Kurdistan who washed up, dead from drowning, on a beach at Bodrum, in Turkey. Originally published through Turkey’s Doğan News Agency, it’s circulated through the Associated Press and MSN, being picked up along the way by the UK’s Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail, among many other outlets. Visitors to YouTube can watch a three-minute slideshow where photos of the boy in his crib give way to photos of a Turkish Jandarma agent gaping at his lifeless body as Michael Jackson sings “Gone Too Soon” in the background.
By definition, the death of a three-year-old is heartbreaking. By journalistic standards, this invitation to voyeurism is tasteless and cheap, the exploitation of a family’s misfortune. But for those concerned with the fate of Syria’s refugees, this overexposure could be the best news of the year.
In Western eyes, the Syrian Civil War looks like a hideous tangle of factions. With the Sunni-dominated Free Syrian Army revolting against the Alawi-dominated Syrian Army before being eclipsed by the Islamic Front, it’s been hard to pick a side that can restore order to this shattered nation without committing too many atrocities along the way. With its singular savagery and global pretensions, ISIS has helped to capture and hold foreign attention, but the clarity it imposes is a false clarity. Knowing whom to fear is not the same thing as knowing how to act, much less resolving to do so.
Increasingly, Syrians have been laying their country’s problems — and themselves — on the West’s doorstep. Since the beginning of 2015, almost 350,000 migrants, many from Syria, have arrived in Europe. The routes are fraught with danger, those who brave them risk abuse and exploitation at the hands of human smugglers. An estimated 2,600 have died along the way, including 71 recently found locked in a truck at Parndorf, in Austria — and, of course, Aylan Kurdi, drowned along with his older brother Galip and his mother Rehan while trying to cross the Aegean to Greece.
This tsunami of broken humanity has confronted Europe with its worst humanitarian crisis since the Balkan Wars of the 1990s. The hundreds of thousands of migrants already settled are starting to enrage natives fearful that foreigners — particularly Muslims — could gain a permanent foothold in their countries. In Meissen, Germany, suspected right-wing arsonists burned down an apartment building converted to house Syrians and other asylum-seekers. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban spoke for millions of his countrymen, as well as other Europeans, when he begged the refugees, “Please don’t come…it’s risky to come. We can’t guarantee that you will all be accepted.”
It shouldn’t take a blood-and-soil nativist to recognize Orban’s worries as legitimate. Sovereign nations are not designed to absorb sizable alien populations over a space of months. Even if closing Europe’s borders were defensible in the face of humanitarian concerns, it wouldn’t be possible. The Mediterranean is big, truck routes through the Balkans are numerous, and smugglers ever more inventive. War has already displaced 11 million Syrians from their homes; 4 million have fled abroad. With no sign of peace in sight, it’s a sure bet that more will be making their way over to Europe.
What’s needed here is a long-term, even a permanent, solution, not simply a series of Band-Aids. Any updated strategy for the care of and feeding of millions of displaced persons would cost vast sums of money, and would almost certainly fertilize Europe’s far-right Identitarian movement. By now we know the price of Middle Eastern nation-building, not only in dollars and cents, but also in helicopters and bombs and boots on the ground. Even more to our dismay, we know the dividends, which include follow-up wars, like the one causing this current crisis.
For demanding that some concerted effort be made to resolve it, even at a cost odious to all parties, you can’t beat Aylan Kurdi’s post-mortem picture. In terms of circulation, it’s the nearest thing to Anne Frank’s diary the Syrian Civil War has produced yet. But Aylan Kurdi, being only three, is less sharply defined as a personality than Anne Frank. Spiffily dressed in red shirt and tiny shoes, he offers mute testimony to the universal value of parental love. With his face partly hidden, sunk into Turkish sand, he could be almost anyone’s child.
Judging by the heartfelt reactions, the world is ready to adopt him. But, like it or not, Aylan Kurdi isn’t an orphan. He belongs to a family the size of a nation. Hopefully, sympathy for him will last through the painstaking process involved in re-ordering the lives of his millions of surviving relatives.