Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Light the Dark vigil at O'Donnell Gardens, St Kilda, 7 Sept 2015

The function of the well-intentioned individual, acting in isolation, is to formulate or disseminate theoretical truths. The function of the well-intentioned individuals in association is to live in accordance with those truths, to demonstrate what happens when theory is translated into practice, to create small-scale working models of the better form of society to which the speculative idealist looks forward. -- Aldous Huxley, Ends and Means
It's said we live in an Information Age. But since humankind first made books available in universities and libraries and churches and the marketplace and we've had information at our fingertips.

No, what I believe we live in is an Inhumanity Age. What we have at our instantaneous perusal on expensive gadgets is a world of media depicting the most savage and heinous acts, almost always with delightful arrays of feedback from anonymous, and typically cruel, commentators.

Aylan & Galip
This past week delivered a new but sadly unsurprising image of a 3-year-old Syrian boy named Aylan Kurdi lying dead on a beach. He, his five-year-old brother Galip and their mother, Rehan, died trying to reach the Greek island of Kos from the Turkish resort town of Bodrumget, with the ultimate goal of joining relatives in Canada even though their asylum application had been rejected. The boy's father, Abdullah, survived. (And has since been accused by a soft, bloodless, finely manicured, achingly precious, outspoken Christian conservative Australian MP named Cory Bernardi of endangering and subsequently killing his family for the sake of his dental needs. Another reality of the Inhumanity Age: Every outcry for the dispossessed must be followed by the envious bleatings of a self-absorbed, self-pitying majority.)

Unlike elected trolls like Bernardi, however, most Aussies haven't leapt on this family's tragedy like a jackal on a dying zebra. In fact the plight of millions of Syrian refugees is suddenly front-page news, as is Australia's reaction/non-reaction. The outrage provoked by the photo proves we're not wholly numb -- yet -- but many questioned why nearly five years of war in Syria the horrors inflicted upon civilians had gone almost unnoticed:
The scale of the Syrian tragedy is orders of magnitude greater, and infinitely more variegated, than this one picture, or this one victim’s story, can possibly convey. Over the last four and a half years, an estimated 240,000 people have died in the grinding violence, including nearly 12,000 children. More than half of Syria’s pre-war population—half, the proportional equivalent of nearly 170 million Americans—have been forced to flee their homes, spawning the largest exodus of refugees in a generation. Seven hundred and fifty thousand Syrian children won’t be going back to school this fall.
In Australia, where the Liberal (right-wing) government came to power via a callous 'STOP THE BOATS' campaign, it's shed more unflattering light on a mob who proclaim the glory of coal over the evils of renewable energy, who view marriage equality as a threat to society, and who stand before flowing forests of Australian flags to pronounce new and ever more menacing threats from Islamic terrorists in every nook and cranny of this vast, Christian country. Prime Minister Tony Abbott predictably used what he called the 'tragic' photo to practically stroke his chin and shout 'SEE, I TOLD YOU SO' while piously exhorting the need for countries to adopt 'tough' policies to stop asylum seekers arriving by boat.

This prompted an editorial from the NY Times entitled Australia's Brutal Treatment of Migrants, which offers a better unspooling of Australia's immigration policy than I could offer. Here it is, in its scathing entirety:
Some European officials may be tempted to adopt the hard-line approach Australia has used to stem a similar tide of migrants. That would be unconscionable.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has overseen a ruthlessly effective effort to stop boats packed with migrants, many of them refugees, from reaching Australia’s shores. His policies have been inhumane, of dubious legality and strikingly at odds with the country’s tradition of welcoming people fleeing persecution and war.

Since 2013, Australia has deployed its navy to turn back boats with migrants, including asylum seekers, before they could get close to its shores. Military personnel force vessels carrying people from Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, Eritrea and other conflict-roiled nations toward Indonesia, where most of the journeys begin. A boat captain recently reported that Australian authorities paid him $30,000 to turn back. If true, that account, which the Australian government has not disputed, would represent a violation of international laws designed to prevent human smuggling and protect asylum seekers.

Those who have not been turned back are held at detention centers run by private contractors on nearby islands, including the tiny nation of Nauru. A report this week by an Australian Senate committee portrayed the Nauru center as a purgatory where children are sexually abused, guards give detainees marijuana in exchange for sex and some asylum seekers are so desperate that they stitch their lips shut in an act of protest. Instead of stopping the abuses, the Australian government has sought to hide them from the world.

The Border Force Act, which took effect July 1, makes it a crime punishable by a two-year prison sentence for employees at detention camps to discuss the conditions there publicly. Australia and Nauru, which depends heavily on Australian foreign aid, have gone to great lengths to keep international journalists from gaining access to the detention center, in which more than 2,200 people have been held since 2012. Last year, Nauru raised the fee it charges for journalists’ visas from $200 to roughly $8,000; applicants who are turned down are not given refunds.

Scores of people who have worked at the camp have become whistle-blowers. More than 40, including medical personnel and social workers, wrote a public letter to senior government officials in July saying they would rather risk arrest than stay quiet. "If we witness child abuse in Australia we are legally obliged to report it to child protection authorities," they wrote. "If we witness child abuse in detention centers, we can go to prison for attempting to advocate for them effectively."

European officials have traveled to Australia on fact-finding missions recently. Mr. Abbott, who argues that aggressively intercepting the boats saves lives, has urged European governments to follow his model, and some European leaders seem so inclined.

“The Australian model may seem attractive to politicians,” said Leonard Doyle, a spokesman for the International Organization for Migration. “Politicians love fences, but what fences do is create a market for smugglers and major humanitarian problems.”

The world’s war zones are all but certain to continue to churn out an extraordinary number of refugees and economic migrants in the years ahead. Those people understandably will head to the most prosperous nations, hoping to rebuild their lives. It is inexcusable that some find themselves today in situations that are more hopeless and degrading than the ones that prompted them to flee.
International coverage may be new, but the treatment of foreigners and asylum seekers has been a divisive topic for many years in this faraway land. The Abbott government proclaims humanitarian reasons for STOPPING THE BOATS but it's actually cut by a third the number of refugees it allows into the country since it took office two years ago. It's a clumsy, obvious and disgraceful tilt to those terrified by brown-skinned people. Period.

Because of this politically profitable obsession with tiny numbers of desperate people seeking refuge in a land as prosperous and free as Australia, many Aussies are aware of the journeys attempted by those like Aylan and his family. When the image of his lifeless body became ubiquitous on social media, our handy gadgets and apps made sharing it an act of civil disobedience, a way to provide meaning to such senseless death, and a giant 'fuck you' to the Abbott government.

I'm no genius but a few decades in advertising made me aware of the power of imagery. A beautiful 3-year-old boy lying alone and dead on a beach is inescapably haunting. It hit bone, and across Australia it led to protest:
Tens of thousands of people attended candlelight vigils across Australia in support of refugees on Monday evening, adding their voices to the growing pressure on Australia to accept more people who are fleeing the war in Syria.

Large crowds attended the Light the Dark events in Sydney, Melbourne, Darwin, Adelaide, Perth and Hobart to honour the life of Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy whose body was pictured on a Turkish beach, sparking an outcry over Europe’s response to the humanitarian crisis in Syria.

The call went out on social media under the hashtags #refugeeswelcome and #LightTheDark, with planned gatherings in major cities as well as more spontaneous events elsewhere.
'Elsewhere' included St Kilda's O'Donnell Gardens beside Luna Park. I'd planned to attend a large gathering in Melbourne's Treasury Gardens but was alerted to the St Kilda vigil by a remarkable local named Fatima Baraka, of whom I'll be writing about in the near future. I arrived a little after 6:00 to find a woman named Brigid Arthur from Brigidine Asylum Seekers Project (BASP) addressing a few dozen people holding candles. A banner drooped behind her. A cold, drizzly wind blew up from the south. Rainbow Lorikeets made their nightly racket in nearby palm trees. Trams rumbled along The Esplanade and Acland Street behind us but all eyes were on Brigid as she spoke into a microphone.

It was sublime.

Why? Like the Border Force protest in front of Flinders Street Station a few weeks ago, it was visceral proof of a functioning democracy. A crowd of over 1,000 attended the rally in Treasury Gardens but in St Kilda it was a chance for concerned locals to show their support AND learn how they could turn beliefs into actions. There were no self-aggrandising politicians soaking up klieg lights, no hair-sprayed reporters checking their smartphones. Yes, local members of council and the mayor of St Kilda were there and gave brief, thoughtful speeches but this wasn't a forum for jaded TV types. It was a collection of citizens who give a damn, who want to help, and with like-minded members of their community will act upon those impulses and try to counteract the damage they see their elected government doing to their country.

Brigid spoke of 'lighting a candle for Aylan' and called attention to the year-round work of organisations like the BASP and Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC) who fight against the ignorance and indifference of asshats like Bernardi and the myriad keyboard warriors who interpret compassion for 'others' as a letting down of the guard against religious extremism and murderous groups like ISIS. It's where Murdoch-fueled minions go spiraling into irrelevancy: They see Australia as brittle, easily led astray, ripe for the taking by forces of evil. They can't compute the strength of fellow Aussies standing in solidarity with 'others' seeking better lives for themselves and their families and grieving over an image of a boy they could see playing with his brother on their street, not laying dead on cold sand.

Community compassion is not weakness. It is the antidote to the Inhumanity Age and, hopefully, will burn bright in future generations of Australians. Or, perhaps, just in the young girl shown here. In which last night's Light the Dark vigil in O'Donnell Gardens will have been a rousing success.

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