Case Study

Alan Kurdi and the boat (EU)

Case study

Alan Kurdi was a toddler from Syria whose family was fleeing the civil war. Their three-year journey ended in late 2015 when their boat capsized in the Aegean Sea, between the Turkish and Greek shorelines. Alan, his brother Galib (5) and his mother Rehanna (35) drowned along with nine other people.

Photos of Alan’s body washed up on a beach on the Greek island of Kos marked a shift in public awareness of the thousands of people dying at sea on the doorstep of Europe. Like Alan, many of those dying are young children.

Case Study image by Defend International (2015).

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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are respectfully advised that this case study may contain images of and references to deceased persons.

All viewers are respectfully advised that this study contains images of and references to the deaths in custody of Indigenous peoples, Black people and refugees that may cause distress.

At the same time, each screen of these case studies testifies to target communities' strength and courage, as they respond to repeated deaths in custody through myriad creative forms, through lines of solidarity and through an unwavering call for justice.

Alan’s life, and his death links the floating deathscapes of overloaded, unseaworthy vessels to the inhumane conditions asylum-seekers face in makeshift border-camps and the detention centres scattered around the borderzones of the United Kingdom and EU member-states.  Increasingly militarized and digitally enhanced border-patrols are now reaching into the Middle East and North African region, moving ever deeper into the African continent.

Who was Alan Kurdi?

Alan (initially referred to in reports as Aylan) was three years old when he died. His family came from Kobani city in the Aleppo district in northern Syria, which is on the Southern Turkish border. According to some sources, Alan’s surname is actually Shenu. The surname Kurdi that became widely used for him and his family refers to their Kurdish origin.

A graffiti depecting Alan Kurdi smiling in Frankfurt, Germany
Alan Kurdi Graffiti, Frankfurt, Germany (2016). Photo by Paul Lenz


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 Lenz, Paul. English: Second Version of Alan Kurdi Graffiti. The first version was smeared with Right-wing slogans, which the artists covered up with this new version, May 7, 2016. Own work.


One particular photo of Alan’s body (taken by Nilüfer Demir), lying on the beach, spread quickly through social media outlets and news networks (Vis and  Goriunova, 2015). It was also widely used in campaigns by international human rights organizations, UN humanitarian aid agencies, artists, and political cartoonists.

The story of Alan and his family – only his father survived the short but treacherous journey – marked a turning point at that time in debates about the rights, and treatment of asylum-seekers crossing the Mediterranean, and their treatment on making landfall. It threw into relief the inadequate response of the EU as a whole to the plight of people like Alan and his family, and those of the 65 million other forcibly displaced persons in the world today (UNHCR, 2018).

Civil war, military conflicts, famine and deprivation are forcing millions of people to undertake risky and life-threatening journeys to safety in the hope that refugee-status will provide them sanctuary under international law.

Vigil for Alan Kurdi. background wall showing a writing on a wall of "Alan is alive" in Catalan
Vigil for Alan Kurdi. Background wall showing a writing on a wall of “Alan is alive” in Catalan (“Aylan viu!!!”). Source: Barcelona En Comú

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Aylan viu!!!” (in Catalan, “Aylan is alive!!!”), source: Ciutats pel bé comú, author: Barcelona En Comú.

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This background image is an art work by El Hadji SY. Le noyé (The Drowned, 2016). Acryl on Jute, documenta 14, documenta Halle, Kassel. Website:

Photo courtesy of J. Jacoby

Retracing the Kurdis’ journey – on land and at sea

The world got to know about Alan through the global circulation of this particular photograph.  Since then this image has multiplied and been adapted as part of a digitally networked iconography of death, suffering, and survival.

When did Alan and his family set out on their journey from Kobane (Syria), passing through Turkey, before embarking on the boat that capsized in sight of the Kos shoreline in Greece three years later.

According to one news article, “the Kurdi family had escaped Damascus and headed to Aleppo before moving to Kobani when fighting broke out”. Mustefa Ebd, a local journalist from Kobani, reports that the family had been repeatedly displaced within Syria, finally ending up in Bodrum, Turkey.

From there, like thousands of others, they attempted the crossing over to Greece, on the EU side of the border, on 2nd September, 2015. The journey ended on the same day with twelve people from this one boat dead, including three out of the four Kurdi family-members.

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These maps show how, once in Turkey, the Kurdi family of four travelled from Izmer and then left to Bodrum. They then left the shores of Bodrum in a five-metre rubber boat heading towards the Greek island of Kos. This three-mile mile journey is popular as it is the shortest route to Europe – see the map below, a route that the Kurdi family, like tens of thousands of others in recent years, undertook in order to reach the shorelines of Europe. The Kurdis wanted to get to Greece as a stepping-stone to Germany or Sweden (Channel 4 News, 2015). Media reports suggest that they were taken to the boat where someone was waiting for them. In an interview with Paris-based Radio Rozana, Mr Kurdi reported that he paid 4000 euros –  to a Turkish and a Syrian man – to be taken at midnight to the departure point, one hour away from where they were living. Bodrum city in Turkey is about this distance away from where they embarked for the Greek Island of Kos is located: See the map below (video interview with Mr Kurdi (Smith, 2015). Images developed by Raed Yacoub.

The first map above shows the Kurdi family’s route in their three-year trip that included Kobane, Damascus, Aleppo and Bodrun in Turkey before their sea crossing to Kos in Greece. The second map plots the trajectory of the one-hour trip from where the Kurdi family were living to the crossing point from Bodrum (Turkey) to Kos (Greece). Images developed by Raed Yacoub.

Alan Kurdi, his mother and his brother, were among the 2,500 people who died at sea in the summer of 2015 alone (Smith, 2015).

The Kurdi family’s journey is characteristic of those taken by many others in recent years. From their starting point in Damascus they covered more than 1000 miles (1609 Km) before reaching the three-mile sea crossing between Bodrum, in Turkey and the island of Kos, Greece.

Personnel from the Irish naval rescuing passengers
Personnel from an Irish naval vessel rescuing passengers on one boat as part of Operation Triton.

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Personnel from an Irish naval vessel rescuing passengers on one boat as part of Operation Triton. Photo by Irish Defence Forces, 2015.

How many others on board?

There are conflicting reports on how many people were on the same boat as Alan and his family. This makes it difficult to confirm the exact number of people who did not survive this journey. UK news media-outlets (BBC, 2015; The Guardian, 2015; the Telegraph; AFP, 2015) reported that the death toll was at least twelve people for allegedly two boats making the crossing that night. Mr Kurdi also confirmed this number in a video interview (BBC, 2015 ), not counting the boat’s skipper.

According to Reuters (2015), however, 16 people boarded the inflatable craft along with the Kurdis. Zinab Abbas and her husband Ahmad Hadi Jawwad from Iraq also lost two of their three children in this crossing, their 11-year-old daughter (Zanab) and 9-year-old son (Haider).

The difficulty in ascertaining exactly how many embarked, how many died, and how many survived, or the identity of those who did not make it, is a common factor in official and media reports on the rising death toll at sea. The international and national waters that map the maritime borders of Fortress Europe – the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas -have become a watery graveyard over the last years. Once safe shorelines, the beaches of favourite tourist destinations like Greece and Italy mark increasingly hostile rather than welcoming points of disembarkation. At sea, Coast Guard vessels on Search and Rescue (SAR) missions from EU member-states or EU agencies like Frontex stand accused of compounding the suffering (as revealed in a recent report entitled Death By Rescue) (Cox, 2016).

UN and EU agencies charged with compiling official statistics, humanitarian organizations, and mainstream-media reporting have their own, often conflicting, stories to tell. with a number of legal and political implications about national, and international responsibilities towards the deceased, and those who do survive.


The sea crossing

Once in Turkey, the Kurdi family travelled from Izmer and then on to Bodrum where they boarded a five-meter-long rubber boat heading towards the Greek island of Kos. This 3-4 mile journey was supposed to take only 30 minutes. (Channel 4 News, 2015).

In an interview with Radio Rozana, a Paris-based radio station, Mr Kurdi (aged 40), Alan’s father, reported that he had paid 4000 euros to the two smugglers, one Turkish and another Syrian, to get them to the boat, moored one hour away from where they were living. Mr Kurdi told another reporter from the Guardian (Smith, 2015) that one smuggler took him and his family to the boat whilst the other was supposed to safely steer them across the closest point between Bodrum, in Turkey, to Kos, in Greece.

A shipwreck of a refugee boat. Picture of artwork by El Hadji SY
A shipwreck of a refugee boat. Artist: Guillermo Galindo. Photo courtesy of J. Jacoby.

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A shipwreck of European-bound refugee boat. Artist: Guillermo Galindo. Taken from installation, Fluchtzieleuropahavarieschallkörper (2017). documenta 14, documenta Halle, Kassel . Website: . Photo courtesy of J. Jacoby.

With at least thirteen people on board the rubber dinghy was soon overloaded. Mr Kurdi went on to say that soon after being seaborne, the skipper abandoned ship. High waves then caused the boat to capsize. Mr Kurdi described how he tried his best to save his wife and the two children, trying to hold on to both of them but having to let go of one in order to save the other, in vain. Their life vests were all fake and so no help at all. Mr Kurdi spoke of how he only wanted to take the bodies of his two sons and wife back to be buried in their hometown of Kobani.

‘My life is over. I am asking the world to have mercy on the Syrian people, because watching what’s happening is nothing compared to going through it … I don’t want anything from the world, I just wanted them to take action and help. May God have mercy on those who died including my children and wife. I will not consider getting married or having children again.’ (Mr Kurdi in  Timmons, 2015).

Rehan Kurdi holds her son Alan
Rehan Kurdi holds her son Alan in this undated photo provided by the Kurdi family on September 3, 2015. Sournce:
RELEVANT KEY TERMS: necrotransport
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This background image shows refugees on a boat crossing the Mediterranean sea, heading from Turkish coast to the northeastern Greek island of Lesbos, 29 January 2016.

The end of one journey, the start of another

In this interview, Mr Kurdi says how he only wanted to take the bodies of his two sons and wife back to Kobani for burial.  “He no longer had any desire to continue on to Europe” (Elgot, 2015).

Responding to a question whether he still wanted to flee to Europe again, Mr Kurdi said:

“Never. Never. I was only going there to secure a better life for my family. I worked in Istanbul for long hours for only 50 Liras a day to provide food for my kids. I had to work very hard so that I didn’t have to end up in the streets begging for food. But God has decided to take it all from me. My life is over. However, I am asking the world to have mercy on the Syrian people, because watching what’s happening is nothing compared to going through it. I mean Syrian workers only get 25% of wages in Turkey and are made to feel like it’s a favor by to let them work, do you understand what that means? I don’t want anything from the world, I just wanted them to take action and help. May Allah have mercy on those who died including my children and wife. I will not consider getting married or having children again. My life is over.” (Heather Timmons, 2015 and Radio Rozana interview, 2015).

Abdullah Kurdi interview with Channel 4 (2015)

A dream: escape Syria to find refuge in Canada

Tima Kurdi, the aunt of Alan and Galip Kurdi, who immigrated to Canada several years ago, reported that she submitted a request to the Canadian Government to host her brother and his family. The application was rejected in June 2015. However, the Canadian authorities claim that the documentsation submitted was incomplete (Smith, 2015).

‘Oh Canada’, this song, written by Missy Higgins in 2016, refers to the Kurdi family’s story as representative of the hopes and dreams of many asylum-seekers to reach countries where their human rights and their rights to asylum will be respected, and their desire to join their family reated in a respectful and humane manner.

Aftermath of Alan Kurdi’s death – actions and reactions

Alan’s father, Abdullah, has denied accusations from some survivors that he was tasked to steer and captained the overcrowded boat (Reuters, 2015).

Since Alan died, a Turkish court has convicted two Syrians for human trafficking and causing the deaths of the five refugees including Alan Kurdi through deliberate negligence (Osborne , 2016]; Aljazeera, 2016; and ABC News, 2016). The court exculpated the father, Abdullah Kurdi, from allegations that suggest his involvement. Around this time, the height of western media attention on deaths at sea, calls by political parties and other groups ‘stop refugee boats’ (Knott, 2015) started to make the headlines.

The Chinese artist and activist, Ai Weiwei, has played a high-profile role since Alan’s death to publicize the inhumane and degrading conditions awaiting those who do make it to shore. His interventions in response to Alan’s image – some of which have been controversial, have included photographs, videos, and most recently a feature-length documentary film, Human Flow (2017).

Other artists’ responses from around the world

The photo of Alan’s body washed up on the beach has become part of a global, online imaginary of the human cost of the Syrian Civil War as this is played out on land and at sea. Political cartoonists have also been active in this regard as have high-profile artists like Ai Weiwei. The selection below provides examples of how artists, from the Muslim and Arab world in particular, responded to Alan’s death and media coverage of his plight.


A letter to Alan Kurdi

Asylum-seekers, in detention centres in other parts of the world, under the jurisdiction of the Australian government in particular, have also expressed their sadness at Alan’s death. These responses underscore the double standards of many governments that are embedded in the official statistics, and political rhetoric about the ‘rise’ and ‘fall’ of refugees entering the EU.

Below are selections from a letter written by Behnam Satah, detained on Manus Island, from the perspective of Reza Barati who witnessed Satah being beaten to death on the island.

“I wish I would had died in ocean, too. Welcome dear Aylan, my name is Reza Berati, I am also a Kurd. Don’t be scared baby we are not alone, Hamid Khazaei is also here. We were asylum seekers as well but there is a difference, we survived to shore and then we died but you couldn’t. At least you suffered less. I know that the only thing you heard in your life was bombs and guns noises all the time, and your ears were full of these harsh noises. You tried to learn to walk and escape from all this. You learnt walking and tried to flee but…?! Was it our fate or policy. Actually I don’t know??!! Mr. Dutton has said yesterday it is a lawful policy?! Was it lawful for me? Can you put yourself in my shoes Mr. Minister?? Do you see it lawful if you were me?? Dear Aylan I survived in ocean, I forced to go to Manus and I asked for freedom after 6 months and I got killed. Believe me drowning in ocean is far far better than suffering and dying gradually. It’s OK baby Aylan, it’s OK. Maybe the ocean wanted to tell you there is no one expecting you on shore…”

Life and Death – the complicity of colonial powers

Since Alan Kurdi’s image went viral, activist campaigns and petitions have increased as citizens mobilize around the treatment of migrants and refugees along the volatile, deadly  borderzones of the UK and the EU. For example in the UK:

  • A petition (2015) with more than 450,000 signatures requested that the UK government accept more refugees from Syria: the “UK is not offering proportional asylum in comparison with European counterparts… We must help.”
  • An online petition from The Independent newspaper in 2015 aimed at supporting refugees to settle raised more than 380,000 signatures.
  • Even the Sun tabloid, whose columnist Susie Hopkins once described migrants as “cockroaches (Jones, 2015) launched a campaign to raise cash for refugee children (Wells, 2015).
  • Journalists and film-makers have also mobilized around this issue, particularly the deplorable conditions that minors live under in the former “jungle” in Calais for instance, or in camps and detention centres (Calais Children: A Case to Answer, Sue Clayton, 2017).
  • The poor record of the UK government towards reception and settlement of asylum seekers under international refugee law came under pressure to “fulfill Britain’s moral obligation to provide safe haven for tens of thousands of desperate refugees struggling to reach safety in Europe” (Wright et al., 2015).
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A shipwreck of a refugee boat. Picture of artwork by El Hadji SY






Images of death online (1)

As a photo-journalistic image becomes a meme online, the body of this one child, Alan Kurdi, has come to represent the suffering of thousands.

The global circulation of Alan’s body became a grim symbol of the refugee crisis resulting from the Syrian civil war, and armed conflict in neighbouring countries such as Iraq. The photograph of him face-down in the sand,arguably played a role at the time in softening public attitudes and media coverage around the EU, in the UK particularly.

a chart shows the number of tweets by day mentioning Migrants versus Refugees after the Kurdis incident
Source: Vis, F., & Goriunova, O. (Eds.). (2015). The Iconic Image on Social Media: A Rapid Research Response to the Death of Aylan Kurdi. The Visual Social Media Lab, Goldsmiths (University of London).

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Researchers have been studying the online trajectory and influence of this photo, and different versions of the image. For example, in the infographic above, researchers at the Visual Social Media Lab at Goldsmiths show how digitally networked images of the little boy appeared to raise public awareness on the plight of Syrian refugees in light of the ongoing policy-paralysis in Brussels and in EU member-states about how to respond to the rising death-toll at sea.

Using a range of social media, and web-monitoring tools (e.g. Twitter, Pulsar), findings in this study show a shift in perception, online at least, towards populations fleeing the war in Syria. They appear to show awareness that this is a humanitarian, rather than an ‘immigration’ crisis. Other studies from news organizations (e.g. BBC Trending 2015) corroborate these findings


Images of death online (2)

The Goldsmiths study above studied Twitter feeds for two terms that feature prominently in online discussions about immigration over the last few years, focusing on those about Alan Kurdi’s death. In the period in which he, and hundreds of others drowned, discourses of refugee crisis, the outcome of the 2016 UK EU referendum, and divisions within the EU about a common asylum-policy started to gain momentum.

We used Google Trends (Google, 2018) to see if there was evidence of a similar shift in search-engine use with respect to reports about Alan Kurdi’s as a refugee. Changes in search-term frequencies for online search engines, like Google – the global market leader, can indicate shifts in how people perceive an issue as they search the web; particularly when terms like ‘migrant’ or ‘immigrant’, ‘refugee’ or ‘asylum-seeker’ become politicized.

This infographic shows how three search-terms at this time – ‘refugee’, immigrant’, and asylum-seeker left their own digital footprint as popular search-terms since then.

The number of Google searches worldwide for the key term ‘migrant’ was almost equal to the number of searches for ‘refugee’ as a key term, between January 2013 and August/September 2015. However, as Alan’s image hit the headlines, went ‘viral’ online on 2nd of September 2015, we can see that searches for ‘refugee’ doubled several times over. It has continued to outnumber the searches for the term ‘immigrants’ or ‘migrants’ since then.

What these sorts of shifts in the online contours of search-term uses suggest (e.g. about the framing role that news reports and social media discussions play in directing searches for one term or another) are questions for further research. Three years later as Alan’s father and extended family pick up their lives after Alan, Galib, and Rehanna drowned, an online iconography, based on photographic and other sorts of visual representations of his body, has emerged. These images, how they are recirculated through digital networks, are now part of public imaginaries about where the human rights of refugees and ‘migrants’ begin, and end.

Google Trends analysis chart
Google Trends analysis shows interest over time as in number of google searches for the keywords ‘migrant’. ‘refugee’ and ‘immigrant’ between January 2015 and December 2017.








Politicians respond

In this emotional mediatized context, on 8th September 2015 a few days after Alan Kurdi ‘s boat capsized, the former British PM, David Cameron, told the House of Commons that Britain would take 20,000 Syrian refugees from refugee camps in Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Egypt and Jordan between 2015 and 2020 (House of Commons, 2015). This promise from the UK government translates into settling 4,000 Syrian refugees a year, quite a different commitment to other countries like Germany, or Italy, who have received hundreds of thousands of refugees since 2015. In February 2018, the UK Home Secretary claimed that the Government is “slightly ahead of schedule” in meeting this target to resettle 20,000 Syrian refugees by 2020, as just over 10,000 refugee have come to the UK via a government scheme from September 2015 to December 2017.

‘As ordinary Britons and politicians of all parties came forward to demand the Government adopt a more humane response to the migrant crisis, Downing Street indicated that some kind of climb-down was imminent.’ (Wright et al., 2015)

These gestures point to political sensitivities towards the groundswell of public opinion and media reports at the time condemning the lack of adequate humanitarian action at the EU level, and nationally.

This Figure shows first-time applicants registered in 2016 – top 6 host EU countries. Total number of applicants is 1,047,600 (Eurostat, 2017).

The figure shows first-time applicants registered in 2016 in top 6 host EU countries.
Figure shows first time applicants registered in 2016 in top 6 host EU countries (Eurostat, 2017).

These sensitivities are short-lived however. Teresa May, the current UK Prime Minister has been ‘criticised for describing refugees coming to the UK as a “swarm”. She later said she would not “allow people to break into our country’; Philip Hammond echoed this rhetoric by accusing refugees of ‘marauding” around Calais’ (Danthan and Saul, 2015).

There is accumulating evidence that policies of non-intervention, along with the ‘push-back’ policies now being even more vigorously enforced at key EU border-entry points actually contribute to the loss of life and suffering of those fleeing war-torn countries.

A YouTube video: Why Refugees Don't Fly by Professor Hans Rosling

‘Human dignity shall be inviolable…These principles mean we will give asylum to those who are politically persecuted and we will give protection to those who flee war and expulsion according to the Geneva Refugee Convention.’

Chancellor Angela Merkel


‘The European nations that have turned the Mediterranean into a grave for immigrants share the sin for each immigrant’s death,’ and that ‘[i]t is not only immigrants who are drowning in the Mediterranean, it is also humanity’

President Erdogan of Turkey


‘Illegal push-backs or forced returns at EU borders represent a flagrant violation of fundamental human rights and refugee laws … This practice of unlawful and often brutal push-backs has now become a model for border protection along the EU’s outer limits as well as in neighbouring and transit states.’

The European Centre for Constitutional And Human Rights (ECCHR, 2017)


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Artwork by amykins (2016).

Our right to live, hope, and dream

Some commentators (e.g. Delingpole, 2015) have cast doubt on the veracity of the Kurdi family’s story, suggesting that Mr Kurdi had received financial support from his sister in Canada (Tima Kurdi) while living in Turkey for three years. This version implies that “they were in no immediate danger”. Other pundits have claimed that the family left Syria for Abdullah Kurdi to get dental treatment in Canada (Delingpole, 2015).

These speculations raise an important question about how we – as onlookers via media reports, even spectators of video images of these ‘dramas’ – respond to the “suffering of others” (Susan Sontag, 2004). To draw this case-study to a close, we ask, therefore: why should a refugee not have ambitions or dreams? Surely, all human beings should be allowed to make plans for the future. Doing so creates hope. Reports, such as those above, imply that refugees have ‘no right’ to want more out of life beyond mere survival. Such tropes contribute to the de-humanizing and, thereby, delegitimizing of not only the rights of refugees, but of the human rights of us all. Asylum-seekers and the displaced through civil war and other armed conflicts, along with the dispossessed – of land and cultural heritage, or those who become homeless through natural or human-made disasters should be enabled to pursue their hopes, dreams, and ambitions.

“We’ve learned of refugees’ incredible resilience and sense of hope against all odds”

“Despite suffering sometimes unimaginable trauma, refugees are picking their way into the future. We need to learn from them”

Laila Soudi, Hana Abu-Hassan (The Guardian, 2016)



This case study was collectively authored by the EU/UK Hub of the Deathscapes project: Marianne Franklin and Raed Yacoub

To cite this research: Franklin M.I. and Yacoub, Raed, 2017, “Alan Kurdi and the Boat”: Deathscapes: Mapping Race and Violence in Settler Societies;

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Aylan Kurdiand his older brother, Ghalib, died when their dinghy sank off the coast of Turkey. Source: Qattouby/Twitter


Please Read

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are respectfully advised that this website contains images of and references to deceased persons.

All viewers are respectfully advised that the site contains images of and references to the deaths in custody of Indigenous peoples, Black people and refugees that may cause distress.