Alan Kurdi graffiti

The ship, the child, and the refugee debate in Europe

How images define the moral positions in the refugee crisis

7 minutes to read
Jan Blommaert

Since the phenomenon acquired its name in the spring of 2015, the present "refugee crisis" in Europe has been characterized by a dual rhythm. One rhythm is that of EU policy development and decision making. That rhythm is fast and erratic; it is punctuated by incidents in member states often provoked by tabloid or social media hoaxes (think of the Sweden rape hoax), and by EU summit meetings featuring frustrated and disagreeing member state officials. It's a sort of free jazz played by political and media actors, and there is a great deal of repetitiveness to it too, only ruptured or accentuated by each new election in an EU member state realigning existing coalitions within the EU Council.

The second rhythm is much more interesting. It is slower, more intense and more emphatic - a slow sequence of very big bangs, if you wish. It's the rhythm of a small handful of iconic images of the refugee crisis. These images literally detonated in mainstream as well as social media, and they effectively transformed the debate over refugees in Europe, creating a layer of grassroots policies frequently at odds with those of EU member states' authorities and outlining the big moral lines in the refugee crisis.

The child who changed the refugee debate

It is easy to forget that, when the Syrian refugee arrivals in early 2015 reached big numbers, the political consensus in the EU was one of containment. Refugee numbers had been modest for some years prior to 2015, and governments had, generally, avoided taking proactive measures allowing for more capacity when new waves of immigration would hit the continent. Governments were, therefore, unprepared and consequently unhappy with the large numbers of refugees landing on the shores of Greece and Italy. Popular opinion in EU countries, too, remained initially unperturbed.

This changed in april 2015 when a first iconic picture hit the news. We saw a heavily pregnant woman from Eritrea supported by a Greek rescue worker, struggling through a strong surf on a rocky beach somewhere in the Aegean after the crash of a shabby refugee raft on the reefs. The picture is one of concentrated energy. There are the stormy waves crashing on the rocks of the coast; there is extreme physical strain readable from the face of the muscular rescue worker; and there is pain, despair and fear in the body of the refugee woman. The picture captured all that could be read as a counterpoint to the rational and businesslike discourse on the refugee issues by the policy makers. It captured helpless and vulnerable people in great danger, desperate to survive atrociously hostile conditions, and supported by other people for whom only the qualification of "heroic" would be appropriate.

The picture captured all that could be read as a counterpoint to the rational and businesslike discourse on the refugee issues by the policy makers.

That picture instantly triggered waves of solidarity throughout the EU - not from politicy makers but from citizens, individuals as well as organized ones. It gave birth to a pro-refugee mass movement which has been active all over the EU since, and it caused Merkel's famous Wir Schaffen Das statement of August 2015. But the movement acquired additional and enormous momentum a few weeks later, when a second iconic picture went viral.  

The picture of a dead 3-year old child called Alan Kurdi on a beach in Turkey was a bombshell. Like the first one, featuring a pregnant woman, the toddler Alan (initially erroneously called "Aylan" in the media) embodied utter vulnerability combined with, of course, extreme danger, in Alan's case with a fatal outcome. In our social, cultural and moral universe, such human beings must be assisted. And so, while the statistics of refugee arrivals in the EU reached a peak and policy makers quarreled about ways of containing the masses of immigrants, tens of thousands of football fans in Germany, Spain and elsewhere deployed huge "refugees welcome" banners during games and donated cash to existing and ad-hoc refugee support organizations. And millions of other citizens in the Union started putting pressure on their governments, advocating a far more lenient and humane approach to this crisis. 

Two contrasting perspectives on the "crisis" had by then emerged. The first one was held by policy makers, arguing that the arrival of large numbers caused a crisis for us, for member states unwilling to accommodate them. The refugee crisis, in this perspective, was a crisis caused by refugees, and refugees were its perpetrators. The other perspective was held by the grassroots mass movement arguing that the crisis was a crisis in which refugees were victims whom we have the duty to support. If refugees created problems for EU citizens, such problems were nothing compared to the problems that caused people to become refugees.

The picture of Alan was a game changer. It gave the "refugees welcome" movement a rallying symbol, an icon formatting emotional, moral and political reactions into a clear black-and-white binary frame. No normal person could remain unaffected by it, and those who did could be instantly identified as morally questionable. Public debates all over the EU since then are characterized by such sharply articulated moral binaries: it's about being human and having respect for other human beings, versus being in violation of values we hold most dearly.

A ship in search of a harbor

Another iconic image is presently in the making. It's that of the Aquarius, a refugee rescue ship carrying 629 refugees, which was refused access to harbors in Italy and Malta prior to being allowed into the port of Valencia, Spain. The iconicity of the image of a refugee ship in search for a port is obvious: it's another image of extreme vulnerability and despair, of people literally adrift. And within the binary frame just sketched, it unambiguously highlights the moral diacritics of the debate. 

It also triggers direct intertextual links with some of the darkest pages of European twentieth-century history. In 1939, the St. Louis, a ship carrying Jewish refugees from Europe, was refused entrance to the port of Havana, Cuba, and later also to US ports. In the US, popular opinion of that time favored immigration restrictions, and president Roosevelt chose to ignore the deperate pleas for admission by passengers of the St. Louis. The ship returned to Europe and hundreds of its passengers later perished in the holocaust.

This image accentuates and enlarges the moral and political binary characterizing the debates, while also adding a dimension of fatal precedent to it.

In an already polarized debate, such direct references to the holocaust do hurt those in favor of restrictive policies on migration. The power of images of a ship sailing in search of a port, with hundreds of helpless refugees on board, is substantial for it accentuates and enlarges the moral and political binary characterizing the debates, while also adding a dimension of fatal precedent to it - few things have a more powerful appeal than the Auschwitz reference. This, too, may be a game changer. And even if it is not, it will give the "refugees welcome" movement another lease of life at a time when deals with Turkey and other countries around the Mediterrean have given EU politicians the downward turn in immigration statistics they so wanted. 

The cacophony of the refugee crisis

The signal sent by the Aquarius is that things are not under control. Yes, politicians can proclaim huge successes by pointing to the effectiveness of their containment measures, and they might even win elections on that ticket. But their victories can be shown to come at a terrifying cost: a return to the genocidal xenophobia of the 1930s, which is precisely the thing the creation of a united Europe was supposed to avoid. Even more: the European project was always and systematically motivated, among other things, by the claim that such forms of inhuman exclusion and rejection should be impossible to repeat. 

The European project was always and systematically motivated by the claim that such forms of inhuman exclusion and rejection should be impossible to repeat.

And so the image of a ship at large and of politicians proudly refusing its access to their harbors is deeply harmful for the EU. It intensifies the contrast between the two rhythms of the refugee crisis, its binary moral and political frame and the polarization of debates surrounding it. These debates are sure to shift gradually towards a converging point: a compromise over containment, but not the type of containment that leads to the dimensions of cruelty and disrespect for human lives that can be read in the iconic images that got millions of citizens involved in support of refugees.

But in the meantime, the political cacophony produced by unlikely coalitions such as that recently inaugurated in Italy may become the standard. Electorates are deeply split over the refugee crisis, and as long as the crises generating the millions of refugees are not terminated, such profound splits will continue to determine electoral results in the EU. The split is a moral one, and cannot be bridged by the kind of unfiltered and case-based pragmatism proclaimed by e.g. Macron in France, for one cannot be consistently practical in a field of extreme moral polarization. Clear value-based choices will impose themselves, and they will inevitably alienate and erode part of the support base for such politicians, leading to another sort of cacophony in the constituencies. The search for a shared moral basis in the debate will be more pressing with every new instance of cacophony.

In 1914, a girl was born in Caernarfon, Wales. Her parents, the Van Laethems, had arrived there with their two sons from a village in Flanders when the German armies invaded Belgium. During a short break in the journey to the Belgian coast, their third son died in a swimming accident. They never got the time to bury him - they had to move on. My highly pregnant great-grandmother struggled to get on board of a ship in Ostend, but she made it and could give birth to my grandmother a few weeks later in the safety of a refugee shelter in the UK.

It is the memory of such cases - just one out of many millions in twentieth-century Europe - that is inscribed in texts such as the European Charter. That text should be compulsory reading for every European now, for the shared moral basis is right there and doesn't require much updating. As for illustrations to the text: there are no pictures left of my great-grandparents as refugees. But the iconic images of contemporary refugees can do an excellent job as reminders of the fundamental moral stances one needs to consider in addressing any refugee crisis.