It was a photo that could change the course of history.
Last week, news was dominated by the heartbreaking image of a toddler’s limp body being carried from the shoreline, wrapped in the arms of a Turkish soldier. The dead refugee boy caused parents to hug their kids just that little bit tighter before bed and prompted office water cooler conversations to take place in hushed, mournful tones.
When you saw that picture of Aylan, what was your first thought? Did you wonder about the tragic circumstances he and his family were fleeing? Did you imagine his final awful moments of life? Did you want to bundle him up in your arms and protect him from danger?
Or did you want to know what religion he was?
Because according to our government, faith should be a determining factor in whether or not we provide desperate people with refuge. In whether or not we turn our backs and say “not our problem”.
That image of Aylan Kurdi may yet change the course of history.
His vulnerability and innocence, even in death, tunnelled into the public’s consciousness in a way that countless unnamed, unidentified masses fleeing for their lives never could. Because Aylan Kurdi provided a devastatingly human face for a tragedy happening on the other side of the globe.
Suddenly, we started to care again.
Seemingly overnight, the public’s perception of refugees shifted – slightly but markedly – away from the pragmatic and towards the compassionate.
Right-wing newspaper headlines abandoned their usual migrant demonising rhetoric. Labor and the Greens called on the Government to accept more refugees from Syria, on top of the current humanitarian intake. The Foreign Minister and other frontbenchers began pressuring the Prime Minister. Reports from the Coalition party room meeting was that MPs and Senators felt community attitudes were changing.
And then – just as quickly as they came – fairness and empathy evaporated. The conversation turned from how many people Australia might be able to help, to who we should be helping.
Frontbencher Malcolm Turnbull indicated that he would like to see more Syrian Christians resettled in Australia. The Prime Minister and Foreign Minister’s language emphasised the importance of assisting persecuted “minorities”. Leader of the Government in the Senate, Eric Abetz said outright that if Australia were to resettle more Syrian refugees, those of Christian faith should be prioritised.
“I think the Australian people would see a need for that to be a focus,” Abetz told the media, adding that Christians are “the most persecuted group in the world”. “Given the plight of Christians, I think a very strong case can be made that Christians should be prioritised… it should be based on need,” he said.