In 2015, when a photograph surfaced of three year old Alan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish shore, it sent shockwaves through our country. This was not a black and white image from a time that did not belong to us. It was a crystal clear image of a child dressed just like any child we might pass laughing in the street and it cast the plight of the refugee crisis into broad daylight. We could no longer turn a blind eye. That was, until the next day when this confronting image slipped straight back into the forgotten archives of our memory.
As we pause to observe World Refugee Day 2016, we face a global crisis with the greatest displacement of people since WW2. These events will be written into the history books of generations to come and yet we continue to ignore, worse, criticise the millions of people begging for our aid right now.
The negative attitudes that are prolific throughout Australia were further highlighted to me a few weeks ago whilst working in my local cafe. I was completely disturbed by a comment made by an elderly gentleman as he scanned through the newspaper whilst waiting for his coffee. Shaking his head, he murmured “ahh these bloody refugees”.
To say I was shocked is an understatement. Have we become that desensitised to refugees that we have lost our perspective of what these numbers represent? When we see figures of hundreds of thousands, millions of people forced to flee their country, has our ability to sympathise become so tainted that we no longer comprehend these numbers as humans just like ourselves?
It would be ignorant for me presume this man may not have his own reasons that have built up over time resulting in a resistance to foreign entities. Perhaps he has lived through wars that impacted him in a way I can only imagine.
However it is these negative stigmas associated with refugees that need to be broken down, and soon.
March 15 marked five years of war in Syria. Since 2011, over four million people have fled Syria, more than half of those children. The conflict has resulted in the deaths of up to 470,000 human beings just like you and I. As Filippo Grandi UNHCR High Commissioner states “Syria is the biggest humanitarian and refugee crisis of our time, a continuing cause of suffering for millions which should be garnering a groundswell of support around the world”.
These refugees are the definition of desperation. Try to imagine travelling across the waters of the Aegean Sea, piled into a rubber boat with 50 other people. A boat with a safety capacity of 15. Sandwiched on top of one another, young, unaccompanied children surround you and the air temperature plummets to freezing with no land in sight. What dire circumstances must these people be fleeing for this to be their best option?
Let’s not forget these journeys of life or death to new countries follow loss of belongings, homes and family members. These people have essentially been stripped of their identity to date. This is just one picture of the millions of unimaginable circumstances people are being faced with.
If it takes is a confronting A4 photograph sprawled across the front of the newspaper to humanise these numbers, then that is what we should be doing every day. Because there are over four million of those photographs waiting to be taken and more importantly, stories to be told.
Let’s learn from the injustices that have come before us and refuse complacency at the very time we have the greatest responsibility to act. I have faith that older gentleman in my café can shed the negative stigma he holds and one day, when he hears the word refugees and sees those numbers, remember they are human beings with the same human rights as himself.