Aylan Kurdi

Aylan Kurdi is the name the international media gave to the three year old boy washed up drowned on a Turkish beach on 2 September 2015, whose picture went around the world and triggered a wave of sympathy for Syrian refugees and revulsion at the people-traffickers.

It turns out his name was in fact Alan but it seems “Aylan Kurdi” is the name that will forever be associated with that image. Yesterday two Syrians were convicted for their role in trafficking his family, but they were not found liable for his death.

I am writing about Aylan because on Question Time this week (BBC1 3/3/2016) a couple of panel members and a section of the audience seemed to think that his tragic end made an important point for them about migration. That point was (I am paraphrasing) that no father would put his family in small dingy for a perilous sea crossing unless they were fleeing for their lives. This was said in tones implying that that it required no proof, and anyone who could suggest otherwise must be a cold-hearted bastard.

I am not sure the story of Aylan/Alan makes that point very well. I have not been able to find a single comprehensive account of the Kurdi family’s story. But the facts appear to be this. The family (father Abdullah, mother Rehan and brothers Alan (3) and Ghalib (5)) were from the border town of Kobani.

The Kurdi family, who are ethnic Kurds, had moved from town to town to escape Isil before fleeing to Turkey. At first they went to Damascus, where Mr Kurdi worked as a barber, then Aleppo, then Turkey. They returned to Kobane at the start of this year after Isil had been pushed back, but in June Isil re-took the town and the family went back to Turkey.

The family had applied for asylum in Canada, where Abdullah’s sister Fatima lives, but their application was rejected. After their third ill-fated attempt to reach Greece Abdullah returned the bodies of his wife and children to Kobani for burial.

Despite the condolences, though, and despite a flood of offers to give him a new home in the West, Mr Kurdi is no longer interested.  “I was dreaming for my family and they have gone, so the dream has gone as well.”


Article 1 of the 1951 Refugee Convention, as amended by the 1967 Protocol, defines a refugee as:

“A person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”

Economic migrant

Someone who goes to a new country because living conditions or opportunities for jobs are not good in their own country. This word is used by governments to show that a person is not considered a refugee (=someone who has been forced to leave their country for political reasons).

It seems to me the situation of this family does not really fit the definition of a refugee or an economic migrant.

Refugee status includes inability or unwillingness through fear to return to ones own country. Yet the Kurdis returned to Syria and to their home town of Kobani at least once during the war. And immediately after the drownings Abdullah was able to return to Kobani to bury his family.

From September 2014 to January 2015, the city was under siege by Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Most of the city was destroyed and most of the population fled to Turkey. In 2015, many returned and reconstruction began.

By September Kobani was under the control of Syrian Kurds and had running water. However most of the city was still in ruins. This was not a place the Kurdis could not have returned to, though it is easy to understand why they did not want to. On the other hand their motivation for leaving is not entirely captured by describing them as economic migrants.

This was not a family fleeing for its life, but a family fleeing for a better life.

It seems clear to me that Abdullah Kurdi would not have left Kobani with his young family if there had not been a war in Syria. But he would not have put them in a dingy headed for Greece were it not for the prospect of settling permanently in Canada or another rich country. They were physically safe in Turkey. This was not a family fleeing for its life, but a family fleeing for a better life.

That observation is not intended as a criticism of Abdullah. While it is true that thousands of migrants drowned in 2015, these represented less than 1% of those who completed the passage. So what were his choices? Life in a ruined city in a failed state. Or life as displaced persons in Turkey with no knowledge of when they would be able to return to a normal life. Or a 1% risk of drowning, and a 99% chance of a new life in a western democracy. I can understand that a father may have thought it was in the interests of his family to take that risk.

We should beware of drawing a simplistic conclusion from a harrowing image.

What lessons can we learn from this? First, that it is increasingly difficult to draw a clear dividing line between refugees and economic migrants. The categories of 1951 and 1967 are being stretched to breaking point. However much sympathy we may feel for people prepared to risk their lives to reach Europe, it does not follow that we are under any moral or legal obligation to take them all in, and it is far from obvious that European leaders have done any good by holding out that hope.

Second, that we should beware of drawing a simplistic conclusion from a harrowing image.

I hope to return to the issue of migration and its implications for the future of the EU in future posts.


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