There was a lot of debate last week on the ethics of distributing the photo of Aylan Kurdi’s tiny body washed up on a Turkish beach, and there’s definitely valid arguments on both sides. Given that his family have asked that it not be shared anymore that should be the end of it, but the effect that photo had on the entire world is undeniable.
In Australia, after nearly a decade of rhetoric that conflated asylum seekers with border protection and told us we were endangered by innocents, it has become part of the national lexicon that we need to defend ourselves from immigration. As if a nation built on the endeavours of people searching for freedom has something to fear from the victims of oppression.
That every Prime Minister since Howard has been too afraid of wedge politics to even attempt a change in the national conversation is a reflection on us all. We are complicit in paving the road to Manus and Nauru, where our government deliberately sets out to make arrival in Australia more terrifying than the torturous regimes of the Middle East or the refugee camps where millions suffer and die. And the most searing indictment of that policy is that it works. People who have known horrors beyond our imagining are so traumatised by what our government does to them, with our implicit permission, that 5 year old girls are attempting suicide. Think of any 5 year old you know, could you imagine that child to driven to suicide? Could you imagine if it was your child and you could do nothing to help her?
For the first time since Pauline Hanson drove Howard to the right on immigration, Australia is having a national conversation about compassion. For the first time we are recognising that the people who take their children aboard flimsy boats and cross dangerous waters are real people, like us, no different or more dangerous than the people we sit next to on trains or buy apples from at the greengrocer. They are people; terrified, grieving, broken people, and they need our help.
Mike Baird, Daniel Andrews Will Hodgman, Jay Weatherill and Josh Frydenberg (as reported by the Murdoch press no less!) have all stepped up and offered that help. Even Bill Shorten has dared to step away from Abbott’s party line and demanded that Australia do more.
Tens of thousands of people rallied in cities all over the country to share grief for other’s tragedy and to tell governments that change has come. Demonization of the world’s most vulnerable people won’t work in Australia any more, that one photo of a drowned three year old boy made all those people real to us. It was a tragic, heartrending powerful image of reality, and it was impossible to ignore.
But this may be only a small window of opportunity before we sink back into the comfortable complacency of knowing the terrors refugees are fleeing will never happen to us; before we become afraid, once again, that sharing our wealth and freedom will somehow diminish us. So this is the time to attend all those rallies, sign all the petitions, talk to local members, write to the Prime Minister, tell the people who decide how Australia responds to crisis that we do it by sharing the country we created through immigration. We do it by remembering that every time (apart from the first time) Australia opened our borders we’ve made a greater nation for everyone who lives here. And we can do that again.