How long has it been since the death of a single child has saved so many other lives? And now that we are paying attention, how do we get the next step right?

When has a single death and a single image saved so many lives? That picture of Aylan Kurdi lying on a Turkish beach has changed everything around the five year refugee crisis started by the Syrian war.

Around 4 million Syrians have fled their war-torn country, with the UNHCR saying another 12 million remain in the country in need of humanitarian aid. Most of those refugees remain in the neighbouring countries – Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan; only around 10 percent have reached Europe. And this has been going on for years.

But that photo. It still makes me cry today, despite my having seen it so many times. I'm the father of a three year-old boy and so that child – in a t-shirt, jeans and sneakers – looks so familiar. And so it breaks my heart every time.

It's not a rational or even especially profound response to the complex geo-political problem. It's all heart, all tears. But those tears shed and that heartbreak felt by millions worldwide is one of the defining and most wonderful characteristics of our species. That common compassion for a single stranger is at the heart of being human.

It raises questions about our own hypocrisy, of course. Thousands of others just as innocent have died fleeing that war. Many others have died fleeing famine or persecution elsewhere, and much nearer to home. We ignore deaths daily. We show no inclination to save children dying in other war zones and from other persecution. We let suffering in our own country wash over us without offering to take a homeless child on the streets of our own cities into our spare room.

But we are an imperfect bunch; what moves us to action may be irrational and random, but at least we are still moved. And we still act. Whatever the motivation, the countries that are now taking more refugees are doing the right thing.

Politicians around the world, including in New Zealand and Britain, have changed their policies as a result of that picture. While I imagine there was pressure building on the ninth floor of the Beehive after days of bad press, I don't think it's a coincidence that John Key "softened" his stance on refugees the day that photo appeared. It was clear to anyone with an antenna for public opinion that Aylan was a game-changer.

I wasn't alive when the Kim Phu photo was published, so maybe as Jane indicated in her post it had such an impact. The man standing before the tanks in Tiananmen Square is perhaps the most memorable news photo of my lifetimes, but I'm not sure how many lives it saved. Poor wee Aylan, however, is saving lives even as I write.

(And a side note. How remarkable has Germany's response been? They were acting before the bandwagon began. Talking about powerful images, it's phenomenal to see people being herded onto trains and having ID numbers written on their hands, and to see the Germans as the heroes coming to the rescue. Merkel I'm sure is fully aware of what she's doing and how she's remaking Germany's image in the pages of history from one of villains into a nation of heroes. These recent days have been PR gold for Germany, redefining its post-WWII image, stripping away its tough Teutonic image and establishing it as Europe's undisputed leader in heart and mind).

But our response to Aylan and his family shouldn't blind us to the next hard questions. Two stand out for me after the weekend, and they both come down to money.

First, the world has failed those refugees in and around Syria for too long. As has been pointed out all year, this is now the biggest refugee crisis since World War II (I'm not sure if we can say 'biggest humanitarian crisis', given the famines in Africa, amongst other tragedies). Yet the world's aid agencies combined appeal to help Syrian refugees in the region this year is only 37 percent funded. And it's September.

Now, UNHCR boss Antonio Guterres is talking about UN agencies being "broke". After the GFC, govenrments have cut aid and development funding, as Helen Clark has pointed out. So now we're reaping what we sowed from our own choices.

Globally, there's clearly a need for more support in the region.

Second, here in New Zealand the NGOs that offer support to refugees are also suffering from a lack of money. Government funds have been frozen and they have been laying off staff and are now dependent on fundraising for as much as 20 percent of their budgets, as The Nation reported over the weekend.

So the quality of what Key has called an "outstanding" service has been slipping. While we do a pretty good job, there are holes. Outside the main centres, there's no specialist trauma support for refugees, for example. And while we do well by refugees for the first 6-12 months, after that they're largely on their own.

Key is right to be careful about how to care for those we take. But the answer is not complicated; it's simply one of resources. Our system is sound, it just needs the money to function better.

So while our broken hearts have prompted the government to take more refugees from this crisis, let's hope cabinet keeps its collective head and backs up that intake with the financial support needed to ensure they get a fair crack at life in New Zealand.

There are other Aylans to save and to help raise. That's the next challenge.

Comments (3)

by Murray Grimwood on September 07, 2015
Murray Grimwood

It's not about money Tim - it's about resources. Seems to be hard for some to grasp, but processed resources, promise thereof in the future, is all that money ever represented.

Psychologically, we couldn't survive as individuals so grouped together. We jointly shared resources in-house but repelled others who wanted them. It was important to be able to identify your own group, hence army uniforms, RAF roundels, flags etc. We then had to disparage 'them', while believing in 'us'. So our ancestors fought at Gallipoli, entirely convinced they were 'right' while the locals had no option but to defend their resource.

Buckminster Fuller called it with his 'in-pirates' and 'out-pirates', Seuss with the Sneetches and with the Butter Battle book.

That child was dressed in 'our' uniform' - so it ticked all the boxes. The death could conveniently be traced - helped by all the propaganda about IS - to being 'their' fault, reinforcing the impression that the child was 'one of us'.

It only did so if you didn't stand back and do the math, dispassionately, work out the big-picture chess-game.

There are too many pieces on the board - I worked out that replacement-only was the maximum entitlement, did so 30 years ago, what does that say about your investigative efforts?This isn't a 'crisis', this is the beginning of a tidal-wave which will increase until a population equllibrium is reached globally.

Crying over a single image is understandable (I still swerve to avoid possums) but - as you rightly point out, it's out of all realistic porportion. Images do that; tell people 'one billion' and they go blank; it's too big (the same way they don't really understand percentages or fractional-reserve banking) whereas one still shot fills their entire screen. The Discovery Channekl does the same thing; a full screen says the species is alive and being monitored, the stats probably say it's endangered. It's a lack of correct weighting, fatal to proper evaluation.

Vietnam was a bit different, though still, ultimately, a scrap over resources. It just happened to be an Empire which hadn't realised it was one yet (Vidal was only just starting to notice, and he was one of the smarter around) and a mental hang-over from repelling the Greater Co-Prosperity Sphere pushing the same way through the same territory not long before.

On a planet that can support perhaps 2 billion long-term, and with he bottleneck starting to constrict now, your comments about 'doing more' are just plain silly. Only by avoiding all the stuff I've given you to peruse - why did you decide to avoid? - can you avoid the question which must first be answered.

It is: How many people (and by association, how much other flora and fauna, because we're part of a web) can NZ support, without unsustainable injection of finite resources - particularly FF?  My guess is 4 million, just, at about a 1920's level of complexity.

Having had that debate and come to an agreed figure, then - and only then - can you ask whether and how many can be invited in. If you sink the lifeboat it ceases to be a lifeboat. Is it so hard to understand? Gwynne Dyer - one of the better around (but he dosen't get EROEI and he doesn't get debt/energy/overshoot) - has a good recent piece pointing out that Climate Change will exascerbate the exodus.Wonder where I've heard that word before.....


by Tim Watkin on September 08, 2015
Tim Watkin

Alright Murray, I'll bite one more time and ask again... You keep saying on each thread that we can't sustain the people we have either in this country or on this planet. Given that you keep insisting that you're right and anyone who thinks differently from you is wrong, I want to know what you want to do about all these excess people.

Are you advocating mass slaughter or just standing by and letting climate change and wars for resources kill them off over time? Who exactly are you pushing off your lifeboat? Are you volunteering to sacrifice yourself or are you one of the 4 million permitted to survive here in NZ?

But otherwise, I've got to ask you to please stop making the same point repeatedly on different threads; I think we get your argument now. Engage with what's being written if you like, but repeating your points about environmental limitations and overshoot is going to become tedious.

by Murray Grimwood on September 10, 2015
Murray Grimwood

No Tim, opinions don't matter, only facts matter. That, and the fact that lack of investigation, coupled with pre-held belief, seems to be a powerful driver of the need to avoid.

Please also disassociate me from 'too many people'. Blame-shift is understandable, but not good form. I chose to replace only, you chose a 50% increase, if I recall correctly.

In proportion, this is me telling you I've sounded the holds, and worked out the Titanic is sinking. I'm suggesting that we are in trouble - but telling me to go away isn't going to remove the trouble, you realise that? Rebut my sounding-figures re depth or time, by all means!

The antidote is easy - even though we're 40 years later than we should have been, and 4 billion more than when the topic surfaced via World3 in '72.

There are 3 things needed for sustainability, none of them fiscal, none of them social, They are:

*Finite resources meed to be 100% recycled, or not used.

*Renewable resources need to be used at no more than the rate at which they can renew.

*Pollution - all kinds - needs to be 100% mitigated/addressed by the polluter real-time.


Under that regime, we can have the discussion about numbers of people (less people means more resources per person, so population de-growth makes us actually 'richer' - the opposite of economic 'wisdom'. ). Indeed, we can do anything at all, as long as we don't break those three rules.

This means that altruism is required; competition (free markets) being a Tragedy of the Commons problem, thus won't meet the 3 requirements.

But we won't go there, is my pick. We will go right on attempting 'growth', and proceed towards the collapse stage, That physical process may slow down if our growth-requiring fiscal systems fall over, but it won't stop. I think we'll have a serious global scrap over what's left, ironically using up some of what's left in the process.....

One way or another, the global population won't still be 7 billion, by 2050. If I was advocating anything, it'd be condoms and education - including teaching useful post-growth skills.

Whether it's inconvenient or not, it's absolutely pointless wailing over a loss of population (that's what your above piece was, when you boil it down) if overpopulation is part of the major problem.

Tedious or not, you can't make the claim your last sentence does, then decide to ban comments about space in the lifeboats. That can only lead to 'false conclusions arrived at through censorship'.

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