The Power of a Single Story

The recent photo of a single child’s small and lifeless body on a nameless beach expanded Europe’s moral imagination, perhaps more than months of appalling statistics and rafts of hundreds of desperate refugees ever could. Dressed in his best clothes to be welcomed in his new home, his image cut the essentialised figure of ‘any child’: no Muslim-looking father, no mother in hijab or crying siblings, nothing to locate him culturally or politically; indeed nothing of the racialised, emaciated and naked black child, with swollen belly and flies around her nose and eyes.

And yet we recognized him as unmistakably someone’s child – and most surely as a victim of something.

The powerful effect of this image should cause us to ask whether our social and political discourse has distanced us from our own moral truths? Of course we routinely conflate ‘migrants’ with ‘refugees’, although the latter has been very precisely defined in international law since 1951 as someone who has fled their country ‘due to a well-founded fear of persecution’. And we suffer convenient historical amnesia: when the Soviet Union invaded Hungary in 1956, more than 200,000 Hungarians fled as refugees asking for – and receiving – safe haven in countries across Europe.

And yet this moral distancing is also rooted in stories that we might characterize as ‘reducing’. Some reduce by racialising and dehumanizing him as ‘the other’, variously threatening social cohesion, Christian values or economic resources. Others criminalize: an internationally protected legal person is re-written as illegal. No human being is ever illegal, of course, but this elision enables a cruel re-victimization, whereby the persecuted is further persecuted, beaten, arrested, caged in barbed wire and sprayed with tear gas. Or stories in which a fragile body stands as the embodiment of a natural disaster: a ‘human flood’, a ‘swarm’ moving in ‘waves’ and ‘tides’ as it ‘amasses’ and ‘invades’ – as if nature is preparing an attack of locusts.

An impoverished social imagination tells stories of reduction. But this solitary figure of ‘anyone’s child’ went viral, fleetingly closing the distance between his reality and ours, between his lived experience and ours. It reminded with a brutal clarity that his journey was not the result of a natural disaster, but of moral atrocities in which we are complicit. With his humanity not reduced by racialisation, criminalization or talk of disaster, a small dead child briefly – but belatedly – became a deserving refugee.

Written by Dr. Liliana Riga, Academic Advisor of LIVED