In Alan’s Tiny Shoes

Aylan's shoesIt is right that we are moved by the picture of little Alan Kurdi’s  lifeless body washed up on a beach in Turkey. It is right that we mourn for his tiny life. It is right that we see him as a symbol of the suffering of all those who have been forced to flee Syria. It is right that our hearts ache and our tears fall.

But we need to be equally moved by the confirmed reports of little children in immigration detention in Nauru who have been sexually assaulted by those employed to protect them. We need to be equally moved by the six-year-old girl, kept captive there by our government, who has been overcome with such hopelessness that she attempted to take her own life.

We need to be equally moved by the almost three-year-old boy who cannot remember his father because Australia imprisoned his Baba on Manus Island when he was just a baby. They may never see each other again.

We need to be equally moved by the little siblings of Mohammad Nasim Najafi.  Their big brother died a few weeks ago, in a Western Australian detention centre, of a heart attack. He was 27 years of age.

And we need to be equally moved by the children who are left indefinitely in situations of persecution and danger, unable to be reunited with their refugee fathers in Australia, because of the government’s policy of Temporary Protection Visas for those who arrived by boat.

I welcome the Australian Government’s announcement that our refugee intake will be increased by 12,000 in order to provide refuge for people from Syria. Those 12,000 people will be spared from risking Aylan’s fate and will be brought to safety.   However, this is not enough to ease the heartache I constantly carry with me.

If little Alan had made it safely to the shores of Europe in his boat, he might have travelled with his family across Europe to Sweden or Germany; both countries which have announced that any Syrians who make their way there, will be welcomed as refugees. Sweden has received 64,700 Syrian requests for asylum already, and that number is expected to rise significantly. “We accept that every person has a right to seek asylum,” Swedish Foreign Affairs Minister Margot Wallstrom has said. “This also puts the European solidarity to a test. I think it’s important that we signal being a community that rests on common values of democracy and defence of human rights.” [1]

Germany is preparing to accept 800,000 people. When asked how many Germany would accept in total, Chancellor Angela Merkel replied, “The fundamental right to asylum for the politically persecuted knows no upper limit; that also goes for refugees who come to us from the hell of a civil war.” [2]

While immeasurably significant for the 12,000 individuals to whom Australia will give new lives, Australia’s contribution to solving this global humanitarian crisis pales into insignificance against these figures. But there is something even more important that is adding to my grief.

If little Alan’s boat had attempted to arrive in Australia, it would have been intercepted so that he could be returned, potentially to Syria.

In stark contrast to the announcements of the German and Swedish governments, these are some of the Australian Government’s and Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s announcements regarding people fleeing in boats to seek asylum:

“No way. You will not make Australia home. If you get on a boat without a visa,  you will not end up in Australia. Any vessel seeking to illegally enter Australia will be intercepted and safely removed beyond Australian waters. The rules apply to everyone: families, children, unaccompanied children, educated and skilled. There are no exceptions.” [3]

“We are defending our national sovereignty, we are protecting our country from the evil trade of people smuggling and by hook or by crook we will do what is necessary to keep our country safe…” [4]

“It does not matter which country people are from, which route they take, or which country they depart from, there are two outcomes for people who travel illegally by boat to Australia:

               –  They will be intercepted and safely removed from Australian waters; or

–   They will be sent to another country for regional processing.” [5]

If little Alan’s boat had somehow managed to avoid interception and arrive on Australian shores, he would have been sent to offshore detention in Nauru as punishment for arriving here safely.

The following painfully beautiful letter was written by a young man detained on Manus Island.  He wrote it so that  I could share it in order for his voice to be heard.

 Dear Alan,

I know that the only sounds you heard in your life were bombs and guns. Your tiny ears were full of these harsh noises. You tried to walk and escape from this. You learnt to walk and tried to flee.

I am an asylum seeker as well but there is a difference.  I survived the ocean, then I was forced to go to Manus Island.  I asked for freedom, just like you. Believe me when I tell you, drowning would have been a far, far better option for me than suffering a slow and gradual death here in this hell. 

It is OK baby Alan, it’s OK.  Maybe the ocean wanted to tell you that there is no one waiting for you and wanting to help you on your safe arrival at the shore.  Could it be better that you drowned at sea than suffer at the hands of cruel Nauru?  Where you mother could be sexually assaulted, separated from your family and treated like an animal.  Losing your childhood.  Dying slowly in a concentration camp run by the Australian Government. 

Our freedom is in the hands of Australia.  I beg you, everyone reading this.  Please write immediately to your local Minister or to Mr Dutton, requesting that Manus and Nauru detention camps be closed immediately.  We are all human, just like Alan, fleeing war and persecution. Just as you would do if you were in our shoes. In Alan’s tiny shoes. 

The UN Refugee Convention, which Australia has signed, and which our politicians keep saying they strongly support and adhere to, states that asylum seekers should not be punished or discriminated against for arriving without passports or visas.  Yet Australia’s refugee policies do exactly that.

There are no interception and turn-back operations in Greek and Italian waters.  Instead, there are rescue operations.  Asylum seekers making their way to Sweden and Germany are not greeted with guards, wire-fenced detention centres and deterrence strategies.  Instead they are greeted with welcome.

We need to harness the outpouring of grief and compassion in Australia, evoked by the tragic image of little Alan, and use it to demand that ALL asylum seekers be greeted with welcome instead of deterrence, and treated with compassion instead of contempt.

As my dear young friend on Manus Island has pointed out, our circumstances differ only because of which patch of the globe we happened to be born on. It could be any one of us, or any one of our children, in Alan’s tiny shoes.

Please take The Pledge to Asylum Seekers, written by L. Clancy and L. Mariah.  Then please print it out and display it in your home and in your workplace.  But don’t stop there.  

Write to your local MP and the Minister for Immigration, include a copy of The Pledge and tell them that you want all asylum seekers to receive this kind of welcome. 

[1] http://edition.cnn.com/2015/09/09/world/welcome-syrian-refugees-countries/

[2] http://news.yahoo.com/latest-more-3-000-migrants-cross-austria-080408422

[3] https://www.border.gov.au/about/operation-sovereign-borders/counter-people-smuggling-communication

[4] http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-06-12/burnside-paying-off-the-people-smugglers/6541888

[5] http://www.border.gov.au/OperationSovereignBorders/Documents/fact-sheet-English.pdf