In 2015, a toddler gained world fame most tragically. Alan Kurdi, a three-year-old boy, drowned alongside his brother Ghalib and their mother Rehanna Kurdi while trying to cross the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece. The photographs of his washed-ashore body lying face down on the beach on the Bodrum peninsula in Turkey travelled around the world and caused a global outcry.
These images were widely modified and re-mediated in forms of cartoons, drawings, graffiti, sand sculptures and re-enactments to raise awareness of the EU’s lethal borders. Moreover, they became a token for solidarity with people seeking refuge in Europe. Alan Kurdi represented the death of so many others and thus became a symbol for the protracted disaster in the Mediterranean Sea. The dead child’s images represented more than anything else the fear, anger and hope revolving around the so-called ‘EU refugee crisis’ in 2015.
For a brief moment, the global indignation caused by the photographs made many critics of the EU border management believe that EU policies towards migrants and refugees might change. While the outrage about the EU’s role in producing this deadly sea has triggered scattered protests in the past, nothing spurred such a vehement reaction as the images of the dead child. Not only members of civil society but also policy makers expressed sorrow over his tragic death. The cruelty of the border regime became tangible and even contributed to the opening of the Balkan Route.
Nevertheless, over five years later, people still keep dying on their migration journey to Europe. In 2020 alone, more than 1,200 refugees lost their lives in the Mediterranean Sea, and thousands of people are stuck in refugee camps across Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, many under miserable conditions further exacerbated by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Departing from the global outcry caused by the motif Alan Kurdi, our Identities article, ‘Transnational moralities: the politics of ir/responsibility of and against the EU border regime’, explores the moral sentiments and controversies of ir/responsibility concerning the EU border regime. In the article, we analyse how and when moral indifference, indignation, anger and sadness result in political action, and explore how these sentiments and their political expressions resonate over time and space.
The local responses to Alan Kurdi’s death in Europe, Turkey, Palestine, Morocco and elsewhere show how the EU politics of irresponsibility are transnationally contested. Yet, the EU and its member states maintain an ‘organised irresponsibility’ by exempting themselves from any responsibility for death during migration and shifting responsibility to smugglers and refugees themselves, thereby concealing the structural violence causing these deaths. Europe’s persistent politics of irresponsibility also materialise in the ‘temporary protection scheme’ that has prevented refugees from settling in Turkey, and has contributed to the thousands of perilous passages and the ‘EU-Turkey Deal’ that externalises the EU border regime and pushes people towards more dangerous migration routes.
Although the transnationally distributed images of Alan Kurdi and their translation into a motif of indignation, solidarity and humanitarian intervention have created a global outcry, these collectively shared moral sentiments had only temporary power. They created a highly volatile transnational connectedness in commemoration and solidarity; however, being built mainly on morality, this could not transform the irresponsibility of the border regime. The moral sentiments caused by Alan Kurdi’s death were ephemeral and faded over time, giving way to everyday routine and comfortable indifference, and thus organised irresponsibility.
As we conclude in our article: ‘The memory of the child’s body, once strong enough to open the Balkan Route, seems to have washed away on the same tide that momentarily carried it into the moral, political, and media economy that engulfs the current state of irresponsibility on the Mediterranean’.
Blog post by Gerhild Perl and Sabine Strasser, University of Bern, Switzerland
Read the full article: Perl, Gerhild & Strasser, Sabine. Transnational moralities: the politics of ir/responsibility of and against the EU border regime. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2018.1507979