North America had its Aylan Kurdi moment this summer. Europeans will remember Aylan. He was the three-year-old boy who drowned and washed ashore on the Turkish shoreline in 2015. The photo of Aylan lying in the sand shocked the world, but he was just one of five children who died when a smuggler’s boat capsized attempting to take refugees to Greece. History repeated itself this June when Oscar Martinez drowned with his 23-month-old daughter, Valeria, in the river along the U.S.-Mexico border. Oscar and Valeria, fleeing El Salvador, were found clinging to each other along the reedy shore, just shy of American soil. Their final embrace was shown on newspaper covers worldwide.
Photos like these galvanize society for short periods of time. They present stark images that force people to confront the realities of a crisis. By giving real meaning to the expression “A photo is worth a thousand words,” they shock our sensibilities. Unfortunately, these images have not been enough to make much of the world reconsider its policies and perceptions on migration in the twenty-first century. Aylan, Oscar, and Valeria should haunt us and force us to do what leaders and many in our society currently resist: see this issue through human eyes.