Shipwreck (v Flickr commons)
Type
Article
Category
Politics
Refugees

The limits of kindness

Yesterday afternoon my Twitter feed was flooded with the images of the body of a three-year-old boy. His small frame, face down on the sand of a beach on the Turkish coast, in a red t-shirt and blue shorts and little shoes. His name was Ailan Kurdi. He came from Kobani in Syria and drowned together with his brother and his mother in the waters of the Mediterranean fleeing from the hell on earth Syria has become.

It’s easy to become despondent about the ‘worst humanitarian crisis of our time’. You become numb to the brutality, to the various daily atrocities, to the enormous figures dead, internally displaced or made into refugees. And that’s just in Syria. In Yemen, Iraq, Sudan and Afghanistan, the trauma of millions continues, unrelenting, day in and day out. It often feels like some kind of Kafkaesque dream: our own government seemingly gleeful in constructing and reinforcing a twisted narrative of ‘death cults’ and ‘unlawful entry, championing the use of hard power as a way to bring peace and stability to countries in turmoil.

In the face of the human tragedy of epic proportions that is currently engulfing the world, is it too much to hope that one boy’s dead body could be the catalyst for some humanity?

Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that our government will find it so – after all, we already have drawings depicting the trauma of children around the same age kept in offshore detention by our own hand. We treat these children and their families in a way that almost beggars belief because of their desire for a new life that involves a modicum of security. This at the same time as our foreign aid budget continues to substantially decrease. In truth, our refugee intake is minimal compared with our population and wealth, and now we have the paradox of approving more airstrikes against ISIS in Syria on ‘humanitarian grounds’, even as the government talks up the terrorist threat at home. As one wry commentator put it, we’ll ‘happily bomb the shit out of your country for humanitarian reasons but don’t come here as a refugee, there’s a limit to kindness’.

Of course, Australia is not alone in the construction of its fortress. Governments of many developed nations, in a position to offer generosity to the millions currently in need, continue to fall well short of their own humanitarian aid targets and refugee resettlement numbers. The list of shame includes countries like the US, Gulf states and the UK. Among the few to recognise and react to the deluge of people leaving the Middle East is Germany, which has raised its intake with the expectation that the number requesting asylum will reach 800,000 by the end of the year. It is also urging a more concerted effort by other European countries in acknowledgement of the size and extent of the catastrophe.

Despite the recalcitrance of so many politicians, there are citizens around the world also searching for new ways to help those in need, and the means to tell their governments that their inhumanity is unacceptable. The recent #BuyPens campaign, started on Indiegogo to raise funds for Syrian refugee Abdulrahim who was seen on the streets of Beirut carrying his sleeping daughter Reem on his shoulders, reached it’s US$5000 goal in 30 minutes. With six days still remaining, the campaign has now raised in excess of $178,000, all of which will go to the man and his daughter; Australians are the third largest donors to the campaign, just behind Americans and the British.

A few days ago in Iceland, writer Bryndis Bjorgvinsdottir started a Facebook group for people willing to offer their homes to Syrian refugees in a bid to raise that government’s shocking cap of just 50 asylum seekers a year; 11,000 families have already signed up. In the UK, councils and community groups are also preparing to show the government that they are willing to take in thousands more refugees than the meagre places Cameron’s government has allocated, while a petition started by The Independent yesterday demanding the same has almost 250,000 signatures already.

So it seems that it really is not so hard for many people to understand, ‘that no one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land.’

Surely it is not too much to hope that the world’s politicians can understand this too, so that children – who have done nothing other than be born into a war-torn world – will not continue to wash up on the beaches of the Mediterranean, or Australia.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Marika Sosnowski is a Middle East researcher and regular commentator on Melbourne radio station Triple R. She tweets at @mikisosnowski

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