Think of the word ‘refugee’. What kind of image surfaces in your mind? Personally, I start thinking about the photographs of refugees scrambling into already-packed trains through the windows, anxious to leave Croatia and get to Western Europe before the borders closed. I think about the countless pictures of refugees packed into tiny, swaying dinghies like sardines in a can, then landing on the islands of Lesbos, Chios, Samos, for example, and being wrapped in gold and silver foil blankets. Those images, like the more recent images of the human caravan travelling through Central America towards the US, depict desperation, despair and chaos, but also the sheer will of humans to survive.
My mind turns to starker images of the current ‘Refugee Crisis’. The image of three-year-old, Aylan Kurdi’s body, washed up on a beach in September 2015 in Turkey. Or the figure of five-year-old Omran, sat expressionless in an orange chair, caked in dust and dried blood, providing a human face to the suffering of Aleppo. These pictures have already come to symbolise the senselessness of war, its horror, the innocence of many victims, and the indiscriminate way in which they are chosen.
And when I think of refugees, I think of the way some pictures that illustrate how we – those of us who are receiving refugees – have come to dehumanise them too. In 2015, a Hungarian journalist was caught tripping over a Syrian man trying to run from the police whilst carrying his child. It caused uproar within the international community. The lines of refugees coiling across a field, waiting to cross the borders into Western Europe was famous too. It was slapped with the words ‘Breaking Point’ and unveiled as a campaign poster for those wanting the United Kingdom to leave the European Union (EU). We will look back on these images one day, and find that they define our times; they speak so profoundly about the condition of our societies.