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World Photo Day: These Images Define the Refugee Crisis

A photo is worth a thousand words. Despite being an old cliché, there is truth in this statement. The right image captured at a crucial moment can transport and change a viewer. Words can create images in a person’s mind but images can change the perception of nations. The current refugee crisis has risen and fallen in global importance based, in part, on the amount of attention photos have harnessed.

Today is World Photo Day, “an international event on August 19th that celebrates the passion for photography in our communities,” according to the organizer’s website.  While the day will include photo essays on a wide range of issues, it’s an important opportunity to look back at some of the most powerful images that have captured one of the defining humanitarian crises of the last five years.


Refugee photo of the year.jpgImage: Warren Richardson, courtesy World Press Photo

At 3 a.m. on August 28, 2015, Australian photographer Warren Richardson photographed a male refugee passing his infant son through a barbed wire fence on the border of Serbia and Hungary. The image titled Hope for a New Life won the 2015 World Press Photo of the year. Its haunting power is an iconic representation of the desperation of refugees trying to find safe harbor in Europe.

Read More: Photo of the Year Shows Refugee Father Passing Son Through Barbed Wire Fence


World-Photo-Day-Refugees-BODY-Aylan Kurdi dead on beach.jpgImage: ASSOCIATED PRESS

On September 2, 2015, the lifeless body of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi was found on a beach near the resort town of Bodrum, Turkey.  The young Syrian boy died trying to cross the Mediterranean. The image became a global rallying cry to support refugees. On March 4, 2016, a court sentenced two Syrian smugglers to four years and two months each for their role in the toddler’s death. The image sparked many protests and re-enactments including Ai Weiwei’s controversial photo below.

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Read More: Ai Weiwei Reflects Journey of Refugees with 14,000 Lifejackets in Berlin


The image of wounded and shell-shocked 5-year-old Omran Daqneesh covered in blood after being rescued from a bombing in Aleppo, Syria, caught the world’s attention this week. The young boy refused to be evacuated with other children and instead chose to wait for his mother who was still trapped in the rubble. The image and video of the young Syrian was a powerful reminder of the human cost of the ongoing violence in Syria.

Read More: Wounded Syrian Boy Is Brutal Reminder of the Refugee Crisis


This image of a Syrian refugee selling pens on the streets of Beirut carrying his sleeping daughter went viral. More than a rallying cry to help all refugees, the photo sparked a crowdfunding campaign.  The effort raised more than $191,000 and enabled this man to start several businesses.

Read More: A Refugee Who Used to Sell Pens to Support his Family is Now Running 4 Businesses


Refugees Welcome banner.jpgImage: Flickr: Rasande Tyskar

While many of the iconic images of the refugee crisis are ones of tragedy, poverty, and hardship, there have been very powerful exceptions. In September 2015, Germans displayed a grassroots acceptance of refugees that belied much of the conservative political rhetoric being spouted across Europe at the time. Welcome banners, marches, and individual acts of kindness swept Germany and inspired similar actions in surrounding nations. The struggle to keep these communities open to refugees continues today.

Read More: #RefugeesWelcome Shows True Spirit of Many Europeans


For the first time ever, the 2016 Rio Olympics featured a team comprised completely of refugees. The 10-person squad represented the more than 65 million displaced people around the world. Their entrance at the Olympic opening ceremonies sent the crowd into raucous cheers that rivaled the eruption that greeted the Brazilian team. Throughout the games the competitive spirit of these refugee athletes has been an inspiration to many across the world.

Read More: Here's How the Refugee Team Is Doing at the Olympics


Tragic and empowering images of refugees will continue to grip the world’s attention until the 65 million displaced people around the world are given the support they need.

Photos can inspire global action and action can enable refugees to return to living normal, productive lives – an image that image may not be as powerful visually, but could change the world for the better.

Read More: The Syrian Refugee Crisis in Photos