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Drowned children point to larger migrant stories

  • 01 July 2019


Let us not fool ourselves into believing that the image of toddler Angie Valeria Martinez, who had drowned alongside her father as they attempted to make it across the US-Mexico border by crossing the Rio Grande, will change global attitudes towards providing safe haven for asylum seekers.

Four years ago, the image of Syrian Kurdish toddler Aylan Kurdi, washed ashore in Turkey, prompted global outpourings of sympathy. Martinez's horrific death was quickly compared to Kurdi's drowning: both were victims of the perils involved in migrant trajectories, and of exploitation posthumously.

The photo of Kurdi unleashed global outrage and sympathy, yet it was clearly the reaction to a particular photo, rather than migrant and refugee narratives more broadly, which prevailed. Martinez's image is likely to go the same way — pity the toddler, but not the migrant identity which is implicit in her tragic death.

Following the publication of Kurdi's photograph across media outlets, a report about fundraising stated that 'People who had been unmoved by the relentlessly rising death toll in Syria suddenly appeared to care much more after having seen Aylan's photograph.'

Is it easier to connect with a drowned child, rather than children bludgeoned, mutilated and massacred in wars where corrupt governance and foreign intervention are the prime culprits? What role has society played in normalising politicians' rhetoric of 'collateral damage', to the point that distinctions are made based on where and how children die, instead of focusing on the prime causes of their deaths?

In 2015 when Kurdi drowned, the EU 'implemented measures to better control external borders and migration flows'. Despite claiming a humanitarian outlook, a look at the EU's strategy shows a bloc intent on keeping the numbers down and fighting trafficking networks, but never questioning its own role in creating refugees through supporting and participating in warfare against sovereign nations.

In the US, the Trump administration is currently under intense scrutiny for allowing serious violations to occur at the borders and in detention centres, to the point that a court was debating whether migrant children should be allowed basic necessities such as soap and blankets while in custody. By May 2019, six migrant children were reported to have died in US custody.


"Will societies assimilate the security narratives promoted globally, where the migrant is perpetually singled out as a threat to be eliminated?"


From the political sidelines, former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton unconvincingly took to Twitter to express being 'heartbroken and horrified'