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refugees‘Humanity washed ashore’ wrote a cartoonist as his brush strokes re-created the heart-stopping photo of three-year-old   Aylan Kurdi.

Along with his mother and five-year-old brother, Aylan was drowned in a the family’s bid to escape Syria. That single  heart-wrenching photo of his limp little body on the shore at a Turkish beach resort, had a profound effect on the debate over those desperately seeking asylum from civil wars and sectarian fighting.

Now, that distancing term refugee – imbued as it always has been with a sense of desperation and flight – can never be the same. People were/are shocked, not just by the portrait of a lifeless child refugee, but by the horrors inflicted on vulnerable refugees by people smugglers and authorities alike.

It may seem as if humanity was washed ashore, but look at how people rallied,  offering refugees that simple gift so long denied them – kindness.

  • Former Newstalk journalist Sophia Duckor-Jones arrived at Hungary’s now infamous Keleti station as part of her OE. Here’s what she wrote for the NZ Herald: ‘I stepped out on the to the platform… and gasped. I wanted to cry…. Tired sleeping bodies became the makeshift carpet. Mothers held their crying babies. Fathers sat, angry. I had to help, but I didn’t know how. I can’t give these families a home. I can’t change policy’. But she went to a store and bought bottled water, bananas and bread, then gave them to three families, clearing out her wallet. ‘I’m nowhere near rich, travelling on the tightest budget. … I am in Hungary until Sunday, and every morning I am going to bring food and water to as many people as I can on my budget.’
  • A petition calling on the UK to accept more refugees has gained more than 400,000 signatures – four times the amount it needs to be considered by Parliament.
  • Volunteers have taken medicines and clothing to help thousands of migrants camped in Calais, waiting to get to Britain. (In July PM David Cameron described them as a ‘swarm of people’ trying to get to the UK. He was roundly criticised).
  • Iceland with a population of just over 300,000, has capped the number of refugees it accepts – at 50 – according to the Guardian. The paper reported that author and Professor Bryndis Bjorgvinsdottir put out a call on Facebook last week, asking for Icelanders to speak out if they wanted the government to do more to help those fleeing Syria. More than 12,000 people responded, offering homes, clothes, food and toys.
  • Here, people in their hundreds have pledged homes and accommodation, and pushed the Government to double the paltry refugee intake figure of 750 a year.

They also protested spontaneously outside Parliament, their calls to increase the quota being joined by Bishops and Mayors.

In the first week of all this PM John Key, like his English counterpart Cameron, remained steadfastly against making any changes. It was a case of two Conservative leaders discovering to their discomfort, that they were on the wrong side of history.

National was clearly pressured into taking more refugees but is now accused of doing too little too late. It will take 750 more Syrian refugees – over the next two and a half years and 100 more this year. But debate over this meagre response is being framed by the Government over allegedly limited resources.

We have only the Mangere Re-settlement Centre – that’s what we’re told over and over by Ministers. What we don’t see is imagination and a more urgent sense of obligation which could see church groups and marae offers helping temporarily. And if there is only Mangere, why doesn’t this Government shame previous ones by building more re-settlement centres throughout the country to increase capacity?

The whole issue wasn’t one of John Key’s Moments. He didn’t help himself either by saying that each refugee came at a cost of about $80,000. The groundswell of opinion last week represented much more than dry cost estimates of our aid.

Kindness, altruism, compassion – call it what you will, but armed with it, people led their so-called leaders to this point.   Why did they have to?

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Paul Smith

Paul is a veteran journalist, non-fiction author and writing mentor. He has also served on boards ranging from TVNZ to UNESCO.