Drowned children point to larger migrant stories

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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.

The Rio Grande as seen from the International Bridge near a section where a father and daughter drowned attempting to cross into the United States on 26 June 2019. (Photo by Verónica G. Cárdenas/Getty Images)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' to read about migrant children suffering in custody. Yet in 2011 Clinton gleefully celebrated US intervention in Libya and spared no remorse for the victims, among them children, of the war to 'bring democracy' — a pretext to oust former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and create another failed state.

Unfortunately, societies are attuned to this selective remembrance practiced to perfection from the podiums of national and international institutions. How much relevance was attributed to Kurdi in these four years, before Martinez's drowning jolted remembrance? How will governments frame this recent drowning, and will societies assimilate the security narratives promoted globally, where the migrant is perpetually singled out as a threat to be eliminated?

There have been attempts to distribute blame between migrants and politicians, despite the fact that the disparity — in terms of power favouring the latter — between these two groups is what causes migration in the first place.

It could be argued that under Trump, clamping down on migration has become more visible. Yet there is a background of imperialist intervention, regionally and globally, that contribute to the current human rights violations passed off as policy. The same goes for the EU and member states moving to criminalise NGOs helping migrants in distress to safety, away from the perils of the Mediterranean sea, which is now a graveyard to thousands of victims of war, aggression and exploitation.

Against this violent backdrop, to what extent has society reacted to the deaths of these two children? There is a recurring simplification where awareness stops with the available imagery. Drowned children on western shores are processed differently in our psyche to the children killed in drone attacks, buried under rubble, their absence of identity compounded by statistics which dissociate humanity from numbers.

And yet, even the photos of Kurdi and Martinez are not powerful enough for spectators who are increasingly becoming desensitised, just as the political agenda expects. If these deaths do not generate enough scrutiny to ignite a collective opposition to all forms of warfare, no amount of image sharing, increases in donations, vigils or introspection will hold the true perpetrators accountable, and honour the memory of all victims of political violence.

 

 

Ramona WadiRamona Wadi is a freelance journalist, book reviewer and blogger. Her writing covers a range of themes in relation to Palestine, Chile and Latin America.

Main image: The Rio Grande as seen from the International Bridge near a section where a father and daughter drowned attempting to cross into the United States on 26 June 2019. (Photo by Verónica G. Cárdenas/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Ramona Wadi, Aylan Kurdi, Valeria Martinez, Syria, Mexico, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton

 

 

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"There have been attempts to distribute blame between migrants and politicians, despite the fact that the disparity — in terms of power favouring the latter — between these two groups is what causes migration in the first place." Let's not also forget why these desperate desperate people feel compelled to upend their lives and these huge risks. Finally someone who does have the ability to make a real difference identified the responsibility his country has in the plights of refugees and migrants in central America - El Salvador's President Nayib Bukele. How he is able follow that up with real public policy will be the kicker.
Anthony McBride | 02 July 2019


Well, yes. Societies have selective memories. Individuals, too. Hillary Clinton isn’t alone in shedding genuine tears for a dead child on a Turkish shore, while choosing to remain in ignorance of thousands of dead and mutilated children in the ruins of a Syrian city. Most of us do, too. That’s what we’re like. Human beings are deeply flawed. We’ll instinctively protect ourselves from extreme pain and horror, while allowing ourselves a tiny pang, not enough to keep us awake at night. But somehow things change for the better. Maybe our lives are too short to see the change, but it happens. It happens because there are just enough of us to do something -anything - that we can do. Like many contributors to Eureka St, Ramona Wadi is giving what she has to the transformation of the world in time, and together we can give enough. If we can avoid being crippled by grief, remorse and horror...
Joan Seymour | 02 July 2019


Once again we are being reminded by Ramona of the immense collateral damage caused when so called enlightened leaders of western nations take it upon themselves to impose their version of "good governance" on other weaker nations or to interfere in the internal affairs in regions where they have a vested interest. Human history is full of such events, particularly by European nation states since the time of the Renaissance. Today with the advent of up to the minute media reporting, we see on the nightly news, scenes such as this tragedy. Of course there would be many other incidents that we don't see. I completely agree with Ramona that there is no chance of change unless we, the people, show our anger and dismay far more strongly then we are currently doing. Maybe the mass migrations resulting from human induced Climate Change will finally get some action by our leaders. There is a very good chance that Australia, the driest inhabited continent, will be one of the first industrialized countries to experience the consequences of our Government's inaction on this matter.
Gavin O'Brien | 02 July 2019


I am extremely cynical when most politicians, including the almost secularly sainted Hilary Clinton, attempt to gain kudos by weeping over a drowned child or similar shocking incident, but do nothing. Angela Merkel has done something about the current refugee exodus, perhaps due to her deep Lutheran faith and has suffered politically for it. There is no doubt that the world refugee crisis, due to wars; repression in failed states; climate change; persecution of minorities; economic collapse etc is currently one of horrific proportions. It could get worse. Where to from here? I'm staggered by the magnitude of the problem. There is no deceptively 'simple' solution. This situation took years to come to its present stage and will take massive effort and resources to bring under control. Is there the knowledge, ability and collective will to achieve a workable solution?
Edward Fido | 15 July 2019


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