Foon Rhee

A little boy and the refugee crisis

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio displays a photo of a paramilitary officer carrying Aylan Kurdi, a Syrian boy who drowned, at a Nov. 18 news conference where de Blasio criticized New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie for refusing to accept Syrian refugees.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio displays a photo of a paramilitary officer carrying Aylan Kurdi, a Syrian boy who drowned, at a Nov. 18 news conference where de Blasio criticized New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie for refusing to accept Syrian refugees. The Associated Press

It was one of this year’s most heartbreaking photos, rocketing around the globe and putting a little boy’s face on Europe’s worst refugee crisis since World War II.

What is fascinating, and frankly depressing, is how the image – the 3-year-old wearing blue shorts and a red shirt, washed up on a Turkish beach – has been used and abused since it first appeared online Sept. 2.

Humanitarian relief groups used the image to press for more action and saw a surge in donations – all for a good cause, but still. A conservative website raised questions about the boy and his family and whether they were true refugees.

Most sickening, the Islamic State put the photo in its propaganda machine to warn Syrians and other Muslims against leaving the caliphate that the bloodthirsty terrorist group is carving out across the Middle East. Its magazine said that fleeing for Europe is a “dangerous major sin” and would turn children into “infidels” who are “under the constant threat of fornication, sodomy, drugs, and alcohol.”

That groups on all sides of the issue tried to use the photo demonstrates its power. (The Sacramento Bee and some other media outlets didn’t publish the most graphic picture – the one of Aylan Kurdi face-down in the surf. When we ran an editorial cartoon based on that image, some readers went ballistic.)

Many thought European politicians would be so ashamed by the images that they would finally act on the tide of migrants, which reached 1 million this year.

They weren’t that ashamed, it turned out.

European leaders haven’t resolved the issue, even as many more children drowned and the refugee crisis worsened into a humanitarian catastrophe.

Then, the Paris terror attacks happened.

Because one of the terrorists may have slipped into Europe among Syrian refugees, the politics became much more difficult. Right-wing politicians found another excuse to close the door. Last week, European leaders failed yet again to agree on any concrete steps to ease the crisis. Since Paris, their biggest move was to pay Turkey to cut the flow of migrants, though it may not be working.

In America, Republican governors and members of Congress want to halt the resettlement of Iraqi and Syrian refugees until there’s a guarantee that not a single terrorist will get through screening. Now, because one of the San Bernardino killers came here on a fiancée visa, fear and hysteria have spiraled out of control – all the way to Donald Trump’s horrendous idea of banning all Muslims.

President Barack Obama and others are right to warn that we risk repeating history – turning away Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis, putting Japanese Americans in internment camps – we now deeply regret. If opponents block Obama’s plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next year, we would turn away many more children than anyone who might – might – be a jihadist.

How many refugees might have been rescued if Europe had stepped up right after the photo appeared? How many innocent children won’t find shelter in America because of irrational fear?

For those who cried over little Aylan, it’s another reason to weep.

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