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What have we done?

It took me a few days for the impact of the photo to hit me. I’ve never seen a dead child before. Photos of children at the beach are usually accompanied by sandcastles, sun and smiles. What was I looking at? Tears welled up and despair came like a fist in the guts. What is wrong with us? The little two year old boy, dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, wearing small shoes with velcro straps because he’s too young to tie his shoelaces. What has become of this world?

Another image appeared in my memory as if to answer my question. It occurred to me that this other image, as banal as it seems, sums up what is wrong with this earth. Two middle aged, privileged, powerful white men, in charge of the treasury in one of the world’s richest countries, lounging on a balcony outside their offices, smoking presumably expensive cigars. I don’t want to make this about Hockey and Cormann personally; that would be unfair. The thing is, it occurred to me, that if little Aylan Kurdi represents the tragic problem of displaced people, fleeing war and poverty, following the human instinct to hope for a better life, a safer life, a life, and having that hope extinguished, then of course a photo of Hockey and Cormann, smoking cigars, celebrating their use of power to strip funding to a rich country’s health, education and welfare programs and their rich country’s foreign aid budget, is surely representative of the problem. It’s not like these men are oppressive tyrants imposed through feudalistic birth-right. They’re democratically elected oppressive tyrants imposed through feudalistic birth-right. And Australians, amongst other rich nations, keep choosing them to make really bad decisions for all of us.

Putting it in I think necessarily simplistic terms, the priority of any species capable of survival should be to a) ensure the health and safety of its population, b) support that population to successfully reproduce and c) to maintain a safe environment for these populations to continue the species. Sorry to sound all Darwinian about this, but let’s call a spade a spade. A world that cares more about the short-term maintenance and growth of the wealth and lifestyle of the richest few at the expense of the health and safety of everyone else is never going to endure.

When those who support the Hockeys and Cormanns are more worried about their electricity bills than worrying about how their offspring will survive in a post-climate change heatwave, drought, fire, cyclone or flood, we’re not prioritising very well. When there are two year olds washing up on the beach, and the Prime Ministers of rich countries are cutting foreign aid and reducing their refugee intakes, and instead planning to spend money bombing the country the two year old has fled from, to save their own job and their own rich lifestyle, something has gone drastically wrong.

We are in the midst of a crisis of displaced people, that of which the world hasn’t seen since World War II. The world is increasingly being divided into the haves and the have nots. This is not about those who can afford the new iPhone and those who can’t. This is about those who have safe lives, where they can house, feed and clothe their families and those who do not. War is making the divide larger. Climate change will make it wider still. We, as a collective species, need to understand that we are at a fork-in-the-road; do something positive about this situation, or expect World War III.

Australia might be an island, where people think they can insulate themselves from the world’s problems, with permission from their government to be selfish and mean. But looking at these two images it’s clear we are not isolated from this problem. No one on earth is. We’ve all seen Aylan Kurdi. It’s shocked us for a moment to forget about footy finals, to put down the remote control, to look at our own children and imagine them lying wet, lifeless and alone. So what do we do about it? The first thing we need to do is to know it is our problem. And the longer we ignore it, the worse it’s going to get.


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  1. stephentardrew

    I must say I see the depths of the tragedy however some post pictures of children severely dismembered by war and I personally cannot bring myself to look at them. Point is a compete yet inert child seems to trigger our sympathy while mutilation triggers revulsion. Why is a drowned child any less deserving than those currently being dismembered in war zones.

    We the US and allies have a lot to answer for yet our vision of the truth of war is sanitised as people scream if horrific images are posted on-line yet we are complicit in these wars.

    Of course there will be intense arguments both ways however children are dying and innocent women and men killed while we argue the merits of exposure and disclosure.

    What the hell will it take to stop war if we are so inured from the truth of death and destruction.

    Life is so much easier while it is sanitised yet we are complicit in the destruction of life.

  2. Pennapa

    I could not agree more with the excellent article and reply. We all can collectively encourage one another wherever we can whatever the place or the circumstances from neighbours to workplace as most of us live in some sort of community. The choice to act with compassion and do something anything to promote a better world is not utopian it should be second nature. Every kind act however small will have an impact. Everyday. Starting now.

  3. Terry2

    When the ABC announced this (Sunday ) afternoon that they were crossing to Canberra for an announcement from the Prime Minister, I suggested to my wife that he was probably going tell us that he had tendered his resignation to the Governor General thus bringing this two year charade to a close : but no !

    Instead he made a most unusual announcement in his typically confrontational fashion telling us that, despite calls from colleagues and many throughout the nation to increase the refugee intake from Syria, he would not be increasing the overall refugee intake but would send the hapless Dutton to Geneva to discuss with the UNHCR a re-balancing of our humanitarian intake with a few more from Syria at the expense of the huddled masses in need around the world.

    Several times he reminded us that we already take more refugees on a per head of population basis than any other country in the world – is that accurate ?

    In the meantime those asylum seekers under lock and key on Nauru and Manus islands will remain there.

    Go figure !

  4. keerti

    World war 3 has been fought since the end of world war two

  5. brickbob

    Thanks Victoria for a well written article that makes one think about these tragic events and that is always a good thing,and like you the image of little Aylan Kurdi has only now hit me now good and proper.
    My mind went back to the time before this photograph was taken and the circumstances that led up to it and the sheer terror this child and his family went through before their final moments,and yes we are all responsible,and if Abbott bombs Syria we should take to the streets and let the politicians know we do not approve of the way they have botched up every god damm thing they have touched and we are not going to take it any more,not only for our sake but for people like Aylan and other desperate’people like him.”’

    ps I and some members of my family have protested and marched when ever we feel that these stupid Governments are doing the wrong thing and we will keep doing it along withother means of protest as well.

  6. mars08

    @Terry2…. taking into account the comparative wealth of each Australian… we rate 43rd by GDP per capita.

  7. stephen Bowler

    The plain truth is that no one has the answer to the refugees from either murder, torture and war.

    We can, and should, take many many more asylum seekers than we do now.
    We could stop bombing ISIL, but should we?
    We certainly must treat asylum seekers with dignity and proffesionalism to get them settled as quickly as possible.
    We can and must address the issue of Islamic fundamentalists.
    we can and must address the free market fundamentalists.

    And I am sorry but WWIII has already begun and unless we find answers to the free market fundamentalists control over devestating economic systems thst favour the rich over the poor, none of the above will prevent an escalation of the current middle east war from becoming all out conflict and possibly ending in nuclear armeggedon.

  8. Choppa

    Perhaps you should visit one of the many websites documenting the atrocities of Islam. You might wake up out of your obvious slumber that forbids you from seeing the real world victoria. You might also want to watch the many documentaries about immigration in the EU and the UK. Once again – you might actually start contributing to society instead of bitching about your free money being taken from you.

    “Putting it in I think necessarily simplistic terms, the priority of any species capable of survival should be to a) ensure the health and safety of its population, b) support that population to successfully reproduce and c) to maintain a safe environment for these populations to continue the species.”

    Precisely what stopping the boats is achieving.

  9. Chappie

    Ahh Choppa – you so miss the point…
    Yes atrocities are committed in the name of Islam, but that’s not what this article is about. Your blinkered sight blinds you to the lack of compassion that Abbott & Co have in their dealings with others supposedly on behalf of Australian citizens. Stopping the boats is achieving what Abbott wants – it’s called N.I.M.B.Y. – Not In My Back Yard. In other words, turn the boats around so they can suffer and die somewhere else, anywhere else except where Abbott might have to see and deal with the inhumane consequences of his actions.
    It is wrong, it has been condemned internationally as illegal and immoral, and it is indicative of Abbott & co and their arrogance and deceit.

  10. Adrianne Haddow

    An excellent article Victoria. You put the whole sorry mess that is our government and our new mindset into perspective.

    The government response to the crisis is too little, too late.

    How can they maintain any credibility about increasing the intake of Syrian refugees while they still have concentration camps full of refugees who have been held for two, three, more years?
    How can they maintain any credibility while trying to join the US in bombing Syria?
    Possibly because they don’t have any credibility to maintain.

    Could you let me know where you get the free money Choppa writes about ? – I’d like some of that.

  11. Terry2


    Good point, the first thing that the UNHCR are going to say to Dutton is empty out your offshore detention centres and resettle those people first.

    They are probably going to be a bit confused at Abbott’ statement that Australia is “ready to step up and do our part” at the same time as he says we will NOT lift our refugee intake : I’m not sure that the UNHCR is as familiar with Abbott’s double-talk as we have become.

  12. Adrianne Haddow

    Yes Terry2. Abbutt was probably a bit overcome by the compassionate sermon given by his parish priest yesterday and forgot himself momentarily in the surge of goodness he felt.

    I’d like to see the meeting between dutton and the UNHCR. How will he contribute when he can’t discuss on water, on street operations?
    He might have to call in sick until the crisis passes.

  13. Colin

    I suppose the question is, do you want a picture with a half told story to represent a potentially major shift in human history?

    While I agree with questions you pose and I agree with the points you are trying to put forward, I do believe we need to be careful with what information we use and where it comes from.

    I am lead to believe this child was not fleeing Syria. Rather his family was living in Turkey for the past 3 years in a relatively normal existence. The father decided to leave Turkey and try to get into a European country illegally. While the death of a child is tragic and I too would hope that we can bring peace to these areas, I still think using an image like this to meet ones own agenda is no better then how those two fat cats try and sell us something that is essentially meeting their own agenda.

  14. Matters Not

    need to be careful with what information we use and where it comes from

    Can only agree. A ‘source’ is very important. You then say:

    I am lead (sic) to believe this child was not fleeing Syria. Rather his family was living in Turkey for the past 3 years in a relatively normal existence.

    Your source is? Because I have a source that says he was in Iran in June. By the way, a Syrian Kurd does not have a ‘normal existence’ in Turkey

    Kobane was the scene of fierce fighting between Kurdish militias and Islamic State (IS) jihadists for control of northern Syria in the country’s civil war.

    Kurdish forces ousted IS from the town after a months-long struggle in January.

    Mr Kurdi’s family was displaced several times inside Syria and had returned to Kobane in June in hopes of settling there.

    But IS fighters re-entered the town, holding hostages in several buildings in a two-day stand-off that left more than 200 civilians dead.

    Yes it’s only a report from the MSM, but it’s all I have. Perhaps you could provide your link?


  15. Matters Not

    When Dutton gets to Geneva, he will presumably ask how Australia can help the plight of asylum seekers, including some children. He could possibly be asked to accept less than 2 000 needy souls stranded on two small islands in the Pacific.

    That would be ironic.

  16. Zathras

    It’s human nature to be protective of children, if only to ensure the survival of the species and compassion and the pain of such loss is the price we pay.

    It’s one thing to turn away from such images and thoughts to avoid such pain but what sort of person uses the image of a dead child as an opportunity to promote the success of a political “boat turn back” agenda?

  17. Matters Not

    It’s human nature to be protective of children

    Not sure about that (or indeed any generalisation about ‘human nature’).

    Visit Auschwitz and see how children were ‘protected’.

    This gives some idea.

    At Auschwitz children were often killed upon arrival. Children born in the camp were generally killed on the spot. Near the end of the war, in order to cut expenses and save gas, cost-accountant considerations led to an order to place living children directly into the ovens or throw them into open burning pits



  18. jim

    Well rabbit has said “god has made Australia for certain people to live here and it is made for us and only us” or words to that effect, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f0N4SQ4R5K4 What is interesting is that Australia has NO established religion with only around 20% of the population Roman catholics as is rabbit, Laywoman, repeat laywoman Caroline Chisholm was discouraged by the RC church from joining the RC church because she wanted to establish a womens shelter,the 1st catholic Cardinal Pat Moran 1909 was criticised by the RC church because he was against the racist immigration laws and Pat Moran alarmed Catholics by supporting trade unions, and the ALP. all this way back in the 1900s , Mass attendance has declined from 74% in the mid 1950s to just 14% by 2006, This I just learnt, did you know that the RC church once decreed Ice Cream the work of the devil ice cream FFS….religion who needs it not me.

  19. Steve Laing

    Sadly those on the right are building their excuses. Already I’ve heard “ISIS looking to smuggle operatives into western communities amongst the refugees”, and “economic migrants from countries such as Pakistan are dumping their papers and pretending to be Syrian refugees to get quickly resettled”. Expect more reasons for why we shouldn’t accept more refugees because security over the coming days and weeks, whilst bombing Syria, or better still invading with ground forces, will be the way to go.

  20. David Bruce

    When countries have the best politicians money can buy, why are we so surprised at the way they perform? Now we are being prepared for another bankers’ war, ethics, logic and fair play have taken a sabbatical!

  21. lizzieconnor

    For me the power was actually in the video-clip of the rescuer carrying the child’s body up the beach. I seemed to feel the body bumping up and down in my own arms.

    Apparently that’s because the mirror neurones in my brain fired. You know, those ones that fire ‘both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another. Thus, the neuron “mirrors” the behavior of the other, as though the observer were itself acting.’ [wikipedia]

    He was helping to bring the child’s body where it could be returned to his father. And so I, automatically as it were, felt that I had to help too.

    After all I see similar images of dead children every day, thanks to online news feeds, and usually feel helpless. It was watching the act of helping that stirred me to direct action.

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