The Photo of the Drowned Syrian Boy is Social Media at its Most Impactful

Can one horrible photo change refugee policies around the world? It would appear so.

In just two days, the photo of young Aylan al-Kurdi has spread virally via Facebook and Twitter. But unlike so many other social media phenomenon, this one might have staying power.

It is already having a profound political impact in capitols around the world.

In Canada, refugee policy has suddenly become an election issue. The young boy’s family had applied for resettlement in Canada. But when the application went unanswered the family resorted to human smugglers, with tragic consequence.

Canada holds national parliamentary elections in October, and the conservative government of Stephen Harper has come under fire for its stingy, unwelcoming stance toward refugees. The minister in charge of refugee issues has suspended his campaign. Meanwhile, the opposition NDP yesterday released a five point plan yesterday, calling for the immediate resettlement of 10,000 Syrian refugees and, significantly, lifting the cap on so-called “private sponsorships,” — which was the kind of visa denied to the al Kurdi family.

At a campaign stop in Toronto yesterday, NDP candidate for Prime Minister Thomas Muclair described the power of that image to inspire a more humane refugee policy.


In the UK, the image has also had a powerful impact on politics and refugee policy. Earlier in the week, Prime Minister David Cameron defended the UK’s stinginess, saying “I don’t think there is an answer that can be achieved simply by taking more and more refugees.”  But under pressure from social media and–yes, tabloids– the government yesterday said it was working on a plan to accept “thousands” of Syrian refugees, currently living in countries bordering Syria. Here’s how the BBC described it:

The prime minister isn’t changing his argument.

He still thinks opening up Europe’s borders and agreeing quotas will not solve the refugee crisis. In fact, he thinks it would make it worse by increasing pull factors and encouraging people traffickers.

But, as the crisis gets worse and the public and political pressure grows, the prime minister does now accept that Britain has a moral duty to do more.

At this point, it’s hard to say if the photo will have any demonstrable effect on America’s refugee resettlement policies. Of 4 million Syrian refugees around the world, the USA has taken in about 1,500 so far, with about 300 more expected by the end of the year.  That pitiful statistic has so far not been discussed much by the press or leading presidential candidates. But that may change.

Here’s a transcript from yesterday’s State Department briefing

QUESTION: Okay. So I’ve – I went back and took a look at the numbers of people who have been admitted under U.S. RAP, the Refugee Admission Program, regarding Syria since 2011 when the civil war started. Eight hundred fifty-two people have actually been resettled in the U.S.: 29 in 2011; 31 in ’12; 36 in ’13; 105 in ’14; so far in Fiscal Year 2015, which started October 1st, 651. Part of the reason I have been told from people at DHS, which oversees the actual screening, is the background check.


QUESTION: There’s also the political component on Capitol Hill. There’s a very anti-immigrant sentiment on Capitol Hill right now and in this country, and you have had members of Congress, including Congressman McCaul of Texas, who deals with homeland security issues, saying that they are very concerned about members of ISIL, al-Qaida and other terrorist groups using the Refugee Admission Program as a way of trying to gain access to the United States and they want to see, in essence, a slow roll on the admission of any additional Syrian refugees.

When you’re dealing with the fact that there is an annual worldwide cap for 70,000 refugees to come to the United States – not just from Syria, from all other countries – and then you’re dealing with this political sentiment on Capitol Hill, how is it possible for the U.S. to say that it is doing everything possible to try to help the millions of people who have been displaced, who have had to leave Syria? Not the 9 million inside Syria. How can the U.S. argue that it is doing everything possible to help these people when you’re dealing, one, with such a small number of people who can be admitted and a Congress which has to agree to the number of people admitted as refugees to this country? The President can’t just sign an executive order and let people in.

MR TONER: Okay, big question. Let me start with what you correctly said, which is that these individuals, these refugees, asylum seekers who are being considered by DHS have to pass security background checks precisely because of some of the factors that you raise, which is that – the fear from – there’s a lot of terrorist groups operating in that region, in that part of the world, and we need to make sure that – fundamentally, that we protect the national security of the United States of America. So any asylum seeker has to go through a thorough background check. And I spoke to that a little bit about – when I talked about the 18 to 24-month review process.

You said, “How can you say that the United States is doing enough to respond to that?” I would simply say we’ve provided – and the $4.1 billion in humanitarian assistance since the start of the crisis, which is more than any other single donor, to help address the humanitarian crisis by the I guess almost 7.5 or even 8 million displaced people both inside Syria, certainly, but also the 4 million Syrian refugees throughout the region, particularly in Turkey, certainly in Jordan, in Iraq as well as in Egypt, and we are committed to maintaining a robust Refugee Admission Program. And we are certainly aware of the needs of the Syrian refugee population, and as you noted, we have raised our numbers in the past year. We’ve put more resources behind some of these background checks. But the fact of the matter is they do need to be thoroughly vetted. So I’ll stop there.

Today, there have been numerous editorials, Op-eds and other expressions of outrage about the Syrian refugee crisis. I suspect we will know in the next few days if this outrage can be channeled into any productive policy or political debates here in the USA in the same fashion as it has in Canada and the UK.

Still, the political consequence of that photo, just two days after it’s been circulated widely on social media, has been real in at least two countries that have the wherewithal to make a difference. A horrible photo is having a real world impact, just days after it was taken.  This is social media at its most impactful.