Bodies In Water: Humanizing Refugees


Earlier last week, a single photo reminded the world of the real people affected by extreme and inhumane border policies. In what has horrifically been labelled as “America’s own Alan Kurdi moment”, Julia Le Duc’s photo captures the lifeless bodies of a Salvadorian migrant father and daughter.

Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his toddler daughter, Valeria, were found washed up on the Rio Grande River – located on the US-Mexico border – with the young daughter’s face hidden under his black shirt and her limp hand, still clasping onto her dead father’s neck.

According to a relative of the deceased,  the choice to depart their home of San Martín was prompted by the pressures migrants currently face under Trump’s administration. The late Ramírez, his wife and young daughter waited for two months in Tapachula – a city in southern Mexico – and after facing increased hostilities by Mexican authorities, the family chose to continue their journey to the US. “That’s  why they decided to cross the river. Their plan was to hand themselves into US migration.” Ramírez’s sister commented. “He crossed first with the little girl and left her on the American side” Le Duc reported. After leaving his daughter on the US side to go help his wife, “[…] the girl went into the water after him. When he went to save her, the current took them both.”

It is important to remember that this photo in in itself is not an anomaly, but a frequent representative of the refugee experience.  For instance, days before Le Duc’s image was published, a mother, her two infants and toddler were, found dead in Anzalduas Park due to heat exhaustion. More noticeably, the photo’s distinctive qualities draw immediate comparisons to the widely circulated 2015 image of Alan Kurdi. The three-year-old Syrian refugee drowned in the Mediterranean near Turkey, after his family had tried to seek safe passage in Europe. It would be only a year later that a presumptive presidential nominee would go on to state that “we don’t want them here” when campaigning against Muslim migration to the US.

From the resignation of the newly appointed US Customs and Border Protection director, to the widespread outrage of the administration’s enforcement of forcible separation of migrant infants from their custodians, there exists a catalogue of humanitarian and civil violations refugees endure in their hopes of safe passage.  However, President Trump has consistently chosen to deflect responsibility for his enactments. Instead, when pressed about the issue, Trump responded at a press conference that “…we’re trying to get the Democrats to give us humanitarian aid, some humanitarian money”. He has chosen to refashion his rhetoric which problematizes the crisis as one dependent on the Democratic party’s negotiations, thus serving his political agenda and furthering his re-election campaign.

In the days of writing this article, ProPublica published a series of screenshots obtained from a secret social media group made for current and former US Border Patrol agents. Within these leaked posts – which almost half of the total Customs and Border Patrol agents subscribe to – members joked about the deaths of migrants as “floaters”, “subhumans” and “sh*tbags”; edited a congresswoman into a sexually vulgar position; and toyed with the idea of starting a GoFundMe campaign to inflict bodily harm on those female, Democratic politicians who visit the detention centres.

There should be no illusions held: there exists a systemic culture of racism and violence which denigrates refugee bodies.

Silent Horror

The two photos that record the different migrant journeys are instantly recognised for its silent horror. They personalise an experience that we are removed from. This is not to say that we cannot choose to educate ourselves about the plight of refugees through various modes of active engagement. But we are, however, ultimately sheltered from this foreign experience given the privileges associated with our citizenry. Kurdi’s small, exhausted body washed up on the shore, and a father and daughter’s final embrace, are images that are forever etched into popular conscious: they challenge us to reconsider the ways that we think about current atrocities.