How many more Omrans will it take before we take action?
Most people remember the harrowing image of Aylan, but ultimately did anything change for refugees?
It is unlikely that anyone missed the images on Thursday of five-year-old Syrian boy, Omran, being led into an ambulance, his little face covered in dust and blood.
Social media carried countless messages of outrage and upset at the image of the little boy with his floppy hair hanging over his expressionless face, as he wiped his forehead with the palm of his hand before realizing it was covered in blood which he then smeared on the orange seat.
It’s of course completely right that people should be outraged by these images – this little boy – and others like him – should not be exposed to the atrocities being dished out on a daily basis by all sides of the now five-year war in Syria.
It is also right people should be left speechless, angry – even tearful when they see this small child looking so utterly hopeless – I know I was. But will the concerns last? In September last year the world was confronted with the photograph of the lifeless body of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian refugee washed up on a Turkish beach.
Arguably it was this image that finally pushed the EU to agree on quotas of refugees each country would take in. But months later the European Union was forced to threaten fines for those countries that have since indicated they will not honor the commitment.
Most people remember the harrowing image of Aylan, but ultimately did anything change for refugees? Campaigners in the UK cited concerns over immigration numbers when half the country voted in favor of Brexit.
In Hungary they went a step further, erecting a fence spanning its border – with the clear message – Hungary is closed to refugees. And according to aid representatives there are migrants left deserted across the Balkans and on into Greece.
Throughout modern times there have been images that have become iconic – arguably some, like the image of the Vietnamese girl running naked from a village that had just been hit in a Napalm strike, helped change the course of historyPeter Harrison
Throughout modern times there have been images that have become iconic – arguably some, like the image of the Vietnamese girl running naked from a village that had just been hit in a Napalm strike, that helped change the course of history.
In the case of AP photographer Nick Ut’s powerful image that became known as ‘Napalm girl,’ the reaction was so strong that it sparked the eventual withdrawal of US troops from Vietnam.
On Thursday as the image of Omran went viral, there were demands splashed across Facebook timelines everywhere, for an end to the violence that has left 6 million children impacted by the war inside Syria and a further 2.2 million displaced in other countries – that’s 80 percent of Syria’s children and young people aged 18 and younger according to UNICEF.
But in order for anything to change people need to change their mindset. Ending the war is essential if the Syrian’s have any hope of returning to any sense of normality.
But there also needs to be change in the way people think right around the world. Last week the UN revealed in a global poll that 60 percent of those asked believed Islamic extremists were posing as refugees.
People are scared. So much so that about 40 percent of those polled said they wanted their borders shut to refugees, with support for such a move highest in Turkey, India and Hungary. It’s quite a representative poll, they spoke to more than 16,000 people in 22 countries including Britain, Germany, Italy, Japan and Russia.
In response the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) said while security threats were a concern, people fleeing persecution or conflict needed to be protected.
“Like in any population, there are people who are criminals and the law should be applied to them. Nobody is above the law, whether you are a refugee or not,” Reuters quoted UNHCR spokesman William Spindler.
“But we should not forget that the vast majority of refugees are law-abiding and we should not demonize them or see them all as criminals and terrorists because that's not the case.”
The sad thing is that historically Syrians were not backward in their thinking. The country was rich in history and culture, it was a nation that placed a great deal of importance in education and training. But that seems to have been forgotten. All we see from there now are fighters and barrel bombs, ISIS strongholds and helpless children like Omran standing in the street surrounded by the debris of bombs dropped earlier.
With the event of the Internet, 24 hour rolling news and social media is it possible that we have become desensitized to such imagery? Do we feel we have done our bit when we have posted our tearful emoji next to the video our friend posted of Omran? When you write “this is not okay” on your Facebook friend’s timeline ask yourself are you doing anything about it?
Peter Harrison is a British photojournalist whose career spans three decades, working for print, digital and broadcast media in the UK and the UAE. He's covered a broad spectrum of subjects, from health issues and farming in England, to the refugee crisis in Lebanon and the war in Afghanistan. He is a senior editor with Al Arabiya English.
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