By now, the whole world knows that his name was Aylan. Just three years old, born after the beginning of the uprising that plunged his country into a civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands with no end in sight. He and his family were among the millions of Syrian refugees who have fled the horrors of their homeland.
Desperate to find sanctuary in Europe, they took a boat from Turkey that was supposed to bring them to the Greek island of Kos.
Thousands make the same journey from Turkey to the smattering of Greece’s easternmost islands every day, as it is considered one of the safest routes to Europe.
But Aylan, his mother and his brother never made it. They and several others drowned after their vessel capsized shortly before dawn on Wednesday. His father was the only family member to survive.
The image of Aylan’s lifeless body lying face down on a Turkish beach as the waves lap around him has reverberated around the world this week, making the biggest refugee crisis since World War II even more difficult to ignore.
Nilufer Demir, the Turkish photographer who took the pictures of Aylan, said her “blood froze” when she saw his corpse. “The only thing I could do was to make his scream heard…I hope something changes after today.”
Aylan’s full name was Aylan Kurdi. He was a Syrian Kurd from Kobane, a town near the Turkish border which has suffered months of heavy fighting between Islamic State militants and Syrian Kurdish units.
The image of Aylan, dressed poignantly in a red T-shirt, shorts and neat shoes, has gone viral on social media and has been published both in its original form and in various stylised renditions by media organisations across the world. It has pierced the public consciousness in an unprecedented way and sparked outrage at how different nations have responded to the refugee challenge.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey – which has taken 1.7 million of Syria’s estimated 4 million refugees – slated Europe for what he described as its failure to address both the refugee crisis but also the war driving it.
In Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron said he was “deeply moved” by the images of Aylan and others and pledged to fulfil Britain’s “moral responsibility.” French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said the images showed the need for urgent action.
While calls are growing for more European states – including Ireland – to do more about the quickening crisis on its doorstep, the harrowing image of Aylan has triggered debate in the Middle East and north Africa over the inaction of many Arab countries, with particular criticism levelled at the wealthy Gulf states.
Tiny Jordan and Lebanon have taken in millions of refugees from Syria, Iraq and beyond but the Gulf Cooperation Council, which comprises six countries, has accepted hardly any Syrian refugees or asylum seekers, though its members have contributed millions in humanitarian aid since the conflict began in 2011.
In the four years since, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has supported 63 Syrian asylum applications to the GCC states, 33 of which have been successful.
Amnesty International has criticised the GCC’s unwillingness to take in more Syrian refugees as “shocking”. In a report it said: “GCC countries – due to their geographical proximity, historical links with Syria and relative integration potential (due to common language and religion) – should make a significant contribution to the resettlement of Syrian refugees.”
In Arab cartoons and social media this week, the Gulf states were targeted for not doing enough. An Arabic hashtag translating as “hosting Syrian refugees is a Gulf duty” gained much traction as regional commentators argued that the oil-rich states had a moral responsibility to act in order to stave off an even bigger crisis. Some pointed out that given how certain Gulf states had funded armed groups in Syria, there was an even greater onus on them to deal with the consequences.
In one Arabic-language cartoon, a man dressed in traditional Gulf attire is seen haranguing an EU official who is standing behind a locked door as a Syrian refugee sits outside. The Gulf man shouts: “Why don’t you open the door, you heartless person.” He is yelling from his own door, which is surrounded by barbed wire. A work by a prominent Jordanian cartoonist shows a crocodile in traditional Gulf garb crying as a Syrian drowns nearby. Another cartoon showed a parade of men, again in typical Gulf dress, standing over Aylan’s body. The caption reads: “Refugees welcomed by: Saudi: 0, Kuwait: 0, Qatar: 0, Emirates: 0, Bahrain: 0.”
Aylan was not the first Syrian child to die a watery death in a desperate bid for a safer life. And nor will he be the last. As Syria’s war grinds on beyond its fourth year, the exodus from there will continue. The question is how will the world respond.