Aylan the life-saver... and what comes next

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.