Sunday, September 06, 2015

The boy next door

Like so many others, I was deeply moved by the images of the drowned Syrian toddler, Aylan Kurdi. Except for the colour of his hair, he could be my nephew. Noah looks exactly that way when he sleeps. He dresses like that. They are both just little boys, except that while Noah plays endless games of "fire truck rescue", Aylan can't be rescued any more. But for the simple fact that one was born in a country that is now a warzone and the other in a nation relatively at peace, these two boys could have been friends, neighbours even. Had he been rescued and granted protection in Australia, he could have been the boy next door. But he wasn't and he didn't. Whenever I think of it, I want to cry.

This strong reaction has surprised me. I have been immersed in refugee advocacy, peace work and the aid sector for the past decade, and have had continual exposure to horrifying and distressing images, statistics and stories. I almost thought I had become desensitised. Yet, this image touched a chord. I am sure there is a heap of marketing theory and research that explains why the image of one boy can have such a great impact whereas years of banging on about policy, death rates and our "international obligations" has almost none.

I'm glad that people are starting to act, that a candle-lit vigil will take place Monday night, and that politicians around the world are announcing plans to offer more humanitarian places to Syrian refugees. This is certainly progress in the right direction. Wouldn't it be great if this turned out to be the point at which the world said "we just realised we do care about other human beings and can no longer stand by and let this happen to them". But I am cautious in my gladness.

While other leaders are responding with concern and practical offers to help, Tony Abbott is using this drowning at sea to intensify his "stop the boats" slogan, implying that the boy only died because he boarded a boat. I think this is the point at which we need to zoom out from the picture of a boy on a beach, and look beyond the horizon to Syria itself. Has Tony Abbott thought for even just a minute about why people are fleeing Syria on rickety boats in the first place? Surely he knows that it's because there is a humanitarian crisis in their country, because they fear for their lives. So, by turning back boats, to situations of almost certain harm and danger, he is giving every person a death sentence worse than drowning at sea. Stopping the boats does not equal saving lives. We need to make that perfectly clear - to Tony Abbott and to anyone who believes him. Turning back boats might stop people dying on our shores or the shores of Turkey and Greece, but it won't stop them dying. Let's make no mistake about that.

And if we zoom out a little further, we might consider the role Australia has played on the international stage, alongside other western countries, in creating these tragic circumstances. When we joined the war in Iraq, and offered military and financial support to certain armed groups and not others, and reduced our contribution to overseas aid and diplomacy, I believe we sowed the seeds of injustice and unrest. People don't become terrorists or join political struggles overnight or without reason. They do so because they are disillusioned, because they perceive a great injustice has been done to them, because they feel there is no other way. In order to understand why Syria is in the state it is in, we must take a step back and look at our own contribution to this boy's fate, however uncomfortable that might be.

So, yes, we should take in more refugees. Absolutely. But we should do more than that. Australia should engage in rescue operations at sea, like those that took place in Italy. We should welcome refugees warmly, just as we would offer shelter to a neighbour in the aftermath of a housefire or flood. And more than that, we should work with neighbouring countries on a truly regional solution to the increasing movement of people. It will only be with the cooperation between nations, with everybody doing as much as they are able, that the world can respond to the biggest humanitarian crisis since WW2. And finally, Australia should work continually to undo the causes of war, address injustice and to make peace. Only then will little boys and girls the world over be safe from harm.

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