Pic of Syrian boy not what it seems, but tells a story

Last updated 11:49 19/02/2014
Fairfax Australia

Four-year-old Marwan is found crossing a desert alone. But all was not what it seemed.

Andrew Harper/UNHCR/Twitter
CROSSING JORDAN: This image was tweeted by UN staff with the caption: 'Here 4 year old Marwan, who was temporarily separated from his family, is assisted by UNHCR staff to cross #jordan.

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A misinterpreted picture of a young Syrian boy has led to sympathy and backlash - but that misses the point, United Nations staff say.

A photograph gone viral on Twitter depicts four-year-old Marwan - a name given to the boy by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to protect his identity - apparently alone in the desert at the Hagallat border crossing between Syria and Jordan, separated from his family, holding a plastic bag of possessions.

The image was tweeted by United Nations staff with the caption: "Here 4 year old Marwan, who was temporarily separated from his family …", and then retweeted to a wider audience by a CNN International anchor with the caption "UN staff found 4 year-old Marwan crossing desert alone after being separated from family fleeing #Syria".

Scepticism followed when a second photograph posted by UN staff on Tuesday showed Marwan was not alone, but "20 steps" behind his family and several dozen refugees.

Marwan, seen in the wider shot

WIDER SHOT: Marwan is shown to in fact be close behind a larger group, including his family.

"He is separated - he is not alone," Andrew Harper, head of the refugee agency in Jordan, who took the first picture, said. Marwan had been reunited with his mother within 10 minutes.

A UNHCR media officer who was at the border as Marwan crossed into Jordan said it was wrong to describe the child as alone when his family were 20 steps ahead of him.

"Let me say first, the child was temporarily separated," she told the Guardian.

"He was a tiny bit behind his family. His family were ahead and he was just straggling behind. That's the story. He didn't enter as an unaccompanied minor . . . he was literally 20 steps behind."

However, she said the photo highlighted the plight of the number of child refugees, accompanied or alone, who have been forced from their homes in Syria throughout the past three years.

According to the UN, more than a million children have fled their homes because of the war in Syria, mostly ending up in vast refugee camps in neighbouring Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq. Many more are displaced within Syria itself.

"What's incredible is that these families have come quite a massive distance through Syria to reach safety in very dangerous circumstances," she said.

Most children are part of large family groups, but some – usually teenagers – cross borders alone. Many are traumatised, some are injured, ill or malnourished.

Unicef, the UN's agency for children, estimates that "more than five million are threatened by the brutal conflict, soon entering its fourth year".

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