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Emotional Landscapes: Love, Gender, and Migration


On September 2, 2015, a photograph of three-year-old Syrian refugee Aylan Kurdi’s lifeless body washed up on the shores of the Mediterranean went viral, spreading through social networks and into the media, accompanied by calls for a more robust humanitarian response to the growing refugee crisis and by ferocious condemnation of the European Union’s (non)actions. After a summer of photographs circulating of the drowned and the desperate, the image of Aylan was the one that sparked a deep emotional response and became a powerful political symbol. Two months later, in the wake of horrific bombings in Paris and calls to close national borders, social media once again invoked Aylan in their cries to stop conflating refugees and migrants with terrorists. The photograph showing Aylan’s body abandoned on the sand took on an iconic power in debates over migration and refugees because of its emotional power: attached to his red shirt and blue shorts was a mother’s love and a father’s grief. Gently carried in the arms of the Turkish police officer, Aylan’s body invoked the western Christian traditions of innocence, sacrifice, and love contained in a pietà. The emotional power of the photograph shifted European public opinion from “being inimical to ‘migrants’ to empathetic to ‘refugees.’” An internet search for “refugee” results in images of men and women holding tight to their children as if their capacity to love as fathers and mothers attests to their humanity and our compassion. If you type “migrant” into an internet search bar, however, the results are significantly different: piled into boats, crowded into camps, migrants appear as an undifferentiated, threatening crowd. A few family photos are scattered amid the images of unattached young men, sparking our deep dread of the violent, unassimilable foreigner, exacerbated by ever-present fears of terrorism. The fear swirling around our understandings of migration is anchored in the same gendered emotional space as the love that underpins the images of refugees. Unattached from wives or children, the mobile man is suspicious. In the western imagination, the absence of tangible proof of a man’s paternal or heterosexual conjugal affection makes it impossible to judge his capacity to love a country. In a world that generally sees the transnational movement of people as inherently disloyal, love attests to an individual’s capacity to be loyal.


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