We Can Do Better: An Open Letter To The PM From The President Of The Muslim Legal Network

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Dear Mr Abbott,

#WeCanDoBetter

On Thursday morning I woke to a Twitter feed where community campaigner, Mariam Veiszadeh was so distressed at the death of Aylan Kurdi that she attached a hashtag to her post about this poor child’s death, #WeCanDoBetter.

It should have struck a chord with people all over the world following the publication of some of the most horrific pictures to populate social media in our recent past.

For the most part it did. Images of Aylan, the three year old drowned refugee splashed across news brought presenters to tears (The Project’s Carrie Bickmore) and there was an outpouring of emotion across Twitter and Facebook.

On Friday morning, the Sydney Morning Herald published an obituary expressing a view held by many, including me, that we had, as a society failed Aylan. We can do better.

Almost inexplicitly but also unsurprisingly, on the same issue which millions had expressed a collective grief over, you, Mr Prime Minister, took the opportunity to reinforce your draconian turn back the boats policy, which has drawn widespread criticism from across the world and most recently the NYTimes.

You managed to feign some humanity at describing the images of Aylan as “very sad”, but it was instantly undone by your reinforcement of the policy of turning back boats, resulting in the imprisonment of refugees in reportedly terrible conditions, all of which are subject to the Commonwealth Border Force Act 2015, making it illegal to shine a light on any suspect goings on in Australian detention centres.

The disingenuous nature of your assertion that somehow these deaths are as a result of the people smugglers and not a five-year long conflict in Syria smacks of rhetoric and is in line with your protectionist attitude to “securing Australia’s borders” (whatever that means).

The reports of sexual abuse and mental harm from detention centres continue and your government’s hard line isn’t cutting it anymore. We can do better.

In the UK, Prime Minister David Cameron overturned a previous decision to cap the acceptance of asylum seekers as a result of the same harrowing publication of drowning asylum seekers. The question becomes, will you change how your government reacts to those asylum seekers who have fled the same conflicts, the asylum seekers whom you hold in indefinite offshore detention? Or do we first need to see pictures of their condition, physical and mental scars before our collective attitude changes to those desperately in need? We can do better.

Australia may be physically detached from the conflict in the Middle East but we can do better. We can accept refugees fleeing war and avoid more Aylan Kurdis washing up on shores anywhere in the world.

We can tell you, Mr Prime Minister, that the death of people fleeing war zones is not an opportunity for political points scoring. We can use the language deserving of people fleeing war zones and areas of conflict, and not classify them as “illegal immigrants” and “economic migrants”. Instead we can call them what they are: humans.

We can remind the world, and ourselves, that Australia once upon a time helped those fleeing conflict without reservation. We can educate each other on the plight of those less fortunate because in Australia we are very, very fortunate.

We can stop fear mongering… You can stop fear mongering. We can care, as parents care for their children, as Aylan’s father cares for him, his brother and mother even in their death.

Make no mistake, we can do better.

If you chose to, and it is an easy choice, Mr Prime Minster, you too can do better.

* Zaahir Edries is a lawyer, advocate and President of the Muslim Legal Network (NSW). He tweets here.

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