VANCOUVER – It’s been one year since the image of a drowned toddler lying face down on a Turkish beach turned the eyes of the world to the Syrian refugee crisis, but observers say the powerful portrait of human suffering did little in the long term to alleviate the hardship in the conflict-torn region.
Friday, Sept. 2, marks the one-year anniversary of the death of Alan Kurdi, a two-year-old Syrian boy immortalized in a chilling photograph that captured the price all too often paid by those struggling to escape the years-long civil war.
“I think Alan’s picture in our minds has kind of faded into the background,” said Rouba Alfattal, a professor of Middle East and Arab politics at the University of Ottawa.
Alfattal said heightened security concerns stemming in large part from increased terrorist attacks across Europe are partly to blame for the West’s waning reluctance to accommodate refugees displaced by the conflict.
“We have been desensitized, unfortunately,” she said. “I feel people have forgotten about Syria.”
But while Kurdi’s photograph may have had little in the way of a lasting impact on Syria, observers say his image had a disproportionately powerful impact in Canada.
Catherine Dauvergne, dean of the University of British Columbia’s law school and a specialist in refugee and immigration law, said the photo affected last fall’s federal election.
“I think the important amount of attention that news story got probably pushed the refugee issue up into the public prominence and linked it to the election in a more direct way than had previously been happening,” she said.
The promise to bring in 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of 2015 became a key plank of the Liberal party’s platform. The newly elected government eventually made good on the pledge, though several months later than expected.
But as time passes the urgency to help is ebbing, Dauvergne said, “not because the situation itself is not as urgent, but because it’s hard to feel that urgency for a long time.”
Some argue that while Kurdi’s photo created a moral impulse in the West to take action, one of its negative impacts may have been that it focused excessive attention on refugee resettlement and distracted from addressing the core issue of stopping the fighting.
“You can resettle refugees over and over again, but if you don’t stop the conflict, that’s going to continue,” said Kyle Matthews, senior deputy director of an institute at Concordia University that focuses on genocide and human rights studies.
“There’s been a lot of humanitarian chest-thumping, that we accept refugees, but we haven’t gone to the core of the problem, which is stopping the Syrian conflict.”
Kurdi’s aunt, Tima Kurdi of Coquitlam, B.C., recently said as much when she lamented how the image of a dust-covered Syrian child pulled from the rubble of a collapsed building might garner support for continued fighting instead of concentrating attention on ending hostilities.
Alan Kurdi died alongside his mother and older brother while attempting to cross the Mediterranean by boat.
Tima Kurdi travelled to Kurdistan to be with her brother Abdullah, Alan’s father, on the anniversary of his family’s deaths.
“Abdullah is not doing well,” she wrote in an email.
“It’s heartbreaking to see him after one year. His health is not good. He cries to me and tells me, ‘I don’t know why I’m alive.’ ”
The two planned to spend Friday visiting a nearby Kurdish Syrian refugee camp.