The image of a father and daughter drowned on the US border is harrowing. We need a radical shift in how migrants are seen
The politicians said after the deaths in my family: ‘Never again!’ Everyone claimed they wanted to do something because of the photo that touched them so much. But what is happening now?” said Alan Kurdi’s father, Abdullah, a year after his wife and two sons died trying to seek refuge in Europe, and a photograph of his youngest, face down, drowned on a beach in Turkey, appeared on the front pages of newspapers across the world. “People are still dying and nobody is doing anything about it.” His words are still instructive today.
Strikingly similar to the picture of Alan, the harrowing image of 26-year-old Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez, and his daughter, Valeria, nearly two years old, who both drowned crossing between Mexico and the US, has received global attention. As it sparks a discussion in the US about immigration, we should learn from what has come before.
After Kurdi’s death, there was, at least momentarily, a shift in the debate. Certain European countries changed policy to admit more refugees and public attitudes, at least in the UK, seemed to soften. Just like the reaction to the Windrush scandal, the response to the image of three-year-old Alan showed that public opinion is not as hard and unchangeable as politicians would have us believe.
People’s so-called “legitimate concerns” are one of the ways politicians in countries such as the UK and US justify their deeply exclusionary and restrictive immigration policy. Anti-immigration views are treated as if they’re born in a vacuum, a natural response to “too much” immigration, but in reality they are produced in particular political contexts where demonisation and stigmatisation is the norm. The moments that expose the reality of refugee and immigration policy suggest that a different kind of politics is possible, but they don’t guarantee change.
In the year after Alan Kurdi died, the UN estimated that 4,176 people had died or gone missing in the Mediterranean, the deadliest year on record. So far in 2019, the Missing Migrants project has recorded at least 597 people dying crossing the Mediterranean. Alan’s death was not, as some seemed to think, an accident or the product of neglect, it was the outcome of bordering practices in their many forms.
The same goes in the US. It has been reported that Ramírez was planning to claim asylum in the US with his wife, Vanessa Ávalos. But under the Trump administration, people seeking asylum are forced to wait in Mexico while their claims are considered – which can take years. Years of being in limbo; years of peoples’ lives lost waiting for an outcome. And so Ramírez decided they should swim. Just like in Europe, harsher policy doesn’t stop people from trying to come, it merely forces them to take more risks. Appalling, unnecessary and wrong as they are, the deaths of Ramírez and his daughter are, unfortunately, not exceptional.
The Muslim ban, the huge reduction in the number of refugees admitted to the US, cancelling Daca, detaining people (including children) in abhorrent conditions – the Trump administration’s immigration policies are restrictive, violent and cruel. His reaction to this very picture suggests that he won’t be changing his policies. But repressive immigration policies existed before he took office: how they have changed for the worse, intensified and the impact this is having on people matters a lot – but so, too, does recognising the ways anti-immigration politics is embedded in the mainstream.
On both sides of the Atlantic, the logic at the heart of the “debate” on immigration has been variations on the same theme for decades: certain refugees and migrants are, in all kinds of ways, treated as a threat to Europe or the US. Widely disseminated and deeply normalised by people across the political spectrum, the very notion that migration is a “problem” to be dealt with helps legitimise increasingly exclusionary, racist immigration policies. Think about it: more likely to be brown and black than white (and even then, they might be depicted as being not-quite-white), and more likely to be poor than rich, people who are treated as unwanted “others” in the “debate” about immigration might only have their humanity recognised in death or extreme suffering.
It shouldn’t take pictures of the dead to prompt it, but if these moments are going to mean a paradigm shift, we have to challenge the way certain migrants are problematised, “othered” and constructed as a threat. We need a radical shift in how people are seen. Otherwise these pictures will just be folded into the normal narrative: forgotten (aside from brief moments of lamentation), justified or explained away. And deaths will continue.
There has been far more discussion about immigration and the supposed threats that certain people crossing political boundaries pose to the “nation state” than there has ever been about the problems and logic of borders: the ways they’re policed, the risks they compel often desperate people to take, the death and the destruction they produce and if they are really necessary at all. But it is exactly these responses that are the appropriate ones when people are dying, and will continue to die, trying to cross borders.
• Maya Goodfellow is a writer and academic. Her book Hostile Environment: How Immigrants Became Scapegoats is out with Verso in the autumn