A Candle Lit Too Late?

Photograph: Simon Tubey
Photograph: Simon Tubey

On Monday night I, along with hundreds of others, gathered in Perth’s Cultural Centre and lit a candle in support of refugees on their perilous journey to safety and in remembrance of those who didn’t make it. It was a touching scene, and as I write this I want to say how beautiful the vigil was, how it was wonderful to see such a diverse cross section of the community there in support. But frankly, what resonated with me the most was the fact that it took the image of a drowned child for the community to shift its stance from mild disinterest to absolute horror.

“We cannot use the same thinly veiled xenophobia to excuse ourselves from being part of the world we live in.”

This is despite the fact that we have been seeing reports on this for months. The faces of desperate men, women and children fleeing the absolute, for lack of a better word, clusterfuck of a situation that is Syria, have been splashed across the news all year. Europe has been dealing with this crisis with an influx of refugees not only from Syria, but from North Africa as well, for at least a year and at worst a decade. Last year we saw the largest amount of displaced peoples since World War II. Think of the hundreds, if not thousands of children who drowned at sea making the same harrowing journey as Aylan Kurdi attempted. Yet where were the candlelit vigils then? It’s as if the image of his lifeless corpse has made Australia wake up, despite almost every other country slapping us and blowing air horns in our ears in attempts to for years. Is the image of a lone, dead child really what it takes for us to act?

Don’t get me wrong. I am so grateful that as a nation, we are finally realising that this can’t go on. Today’s announcement by the Australian Government to accept 12,000 Syrians, is a massive relief. It shows we are finally realising we cannot use the same thinly veiled xenophobia to excuse ourselves from being part of the world we live in; that despite the Prime Minister’s umming and ahhing, Liberal Premiers and MPs are wanting to do more, demonstrating that this isn’t some bleeding heart sob story from the left. The candlelit vigil was a testament to all of this, I just wished it hadn’t taken the image of drowned child to do it.

Trying to put what we have been seeing into a cohesive five-hundred word train of thought is like trying to dictate for twenty people who all have megaphones. The word ‘refugee’ has become toxified to the point where you can’t say it in a conversation without someone chipping in saying “oh they’re economic migrants, not refugees”, “they’re mostly young men, they could be dangerous!”, “Why don’t they try and help their own country, rather than running away?” “They’ve made it to Turkey, why can’t they just stay there?”

One way to cut through it all was put quite aptly by Human Rights Lawyer, Geoffrey Robertson, who outlined the philosophical underpinnings for humanity’s right to dignity. The first was the parable of the Good Samaritan, we don’t pass by when someone is bleeding to death. Second was a quote from Portia’s speech in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, about the quality of mercy:

“The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven.Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes”

And thirdly the German philosopher Kant, on the categorical imperative, treat others as you would have them treat you.

I’m trying to be positive here, and what we have seen is a step in the right direction. However, I would hope that if Australia descended into chaos, other countries would act unilaterally and decisively, long before someone photographed a drowned Australian child washed up on some distant beach.

If you would like to donate to the refugee crisis in Europe, please consider the following organistations. 

Australia Red Cross Syrian Appeal

UNHCR

UNICEF

Mark Tilly

Mark probably acquired his sense of adventure from watching Lord of the Rings too many times. He got his travel kicks in Southeast Asia, and America and has somehow ended up working for a daily newspaper in Cambodia. He hopes you enjoy getting lost in the realms of nerdom and adventure as much as he does. You can follow him on Twitter @mark_tilly1

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