The Australian philosopher, Peter Singer, is known for conducting a thought experiment with his students known as “The Drowning Child”. In this experiment, Singer asks his students to consider if there are any circumstances in which they would not rush into a shallow pond to save a drowning child. Invariably the students respond that there are no such circumstances; that they would risk ruining their best shoes, even losing their jobs, to save the life of a child.
Singer then challenges his students to consider why they do not act with similar compulsion to save the lives of children we know to be dying in other parts of the world, but cannot actually see.
With the power of all the wealth and privilege we enjoy in the West, why do we not do more to ease the burden of poverty, disease and malnutrition that is taking the lives of millions of children beyond our immediate reach and vision? Why, I would add, do we not do more to save the lives of the children who are now actually drowning as they flee with their families from violence and instability in countries like Syria?
A few weeks ago that drowning child washed up on European shores.
The image of Aylan Kurdi’s tiny drowned body moved many people—political leaders and regular people alike—to confront the fact that they had in fact ignored the drowning child.
We cannot pretend that we did not see the child in the pond; his images have filled our newspapers and news feeds for years now. We cannot pretend that we did not know that he would die; we have in fact seen images of many children like Aylan, lost to bombs and poison gas, carried in the arms of their wailing families.
But somehow these images of violence and chaos were easy for us to ignore. Those children are not our children, not our responsibility. They are far away and not our concern. It took the more familiar image of a child on a beach, in familiar clothes and little brown shoes, to help us see our responsibility to the drowning children of the world.
In Australia, the response to Aylan Kurdi’s death was immediate and intense. The Greens and a coalition of civil society organisations launched a campaign to have the federal government take an additional 20,000 refugees from Syria, with the slogan “Strong Enough to Protect” reminding many that, as a nation, we had more to offer.
Tens of thousands of people took to the streets to “Light the Dark” in a vigil honouring the deaths of many Syrian refugees, and calling on the government to show compassion and leadership. Eventually the government responded, announcing an increase of 12,000 additional Syrian refugees, some of whom will be settled in Australia before the end of the year.
But is that where our responsibility to the drowning child ends? In the weeks since Aylan’s death it has been pointed out that should the rickety boat that was carrying him and his family have made it to Australian shores, we would have locked them behind razor wire, again out of sight and out of mind in our detention camps.
Currently there are 118 children held in immigration detention facilities on the Australian mainland and a further 87 are held in detention in Nauru.
We know from repeated reports, and from the heart wrenching drawings produced by these children, that they too are drowning, overwhelmed by abuse, harsh conditions, and a lack of hope for their future. What is our responsibility to these children?
And of course in the same breath that the government announced that Australia would take more Syrian refugees, it also announced that we would be conducting air strikes aimed at Islamic State targets within Syrian borders; a course of action that will inevitably take the lives of more civilians, including children, as well as increasing the outflow of refugees seeking safety and security. What is our responsibility to these children?
The death of Aylan Kurdi produced a “moment”, that brief window of opportunity where compassion and politics come together and change becomes possible. All of us who protested, donated, or signed a petition demanding action can feel good that, in this moment, we helped to save the drowning child. But our responsibility did not end there. People will always get on boats to save their families. Children will always be at risk of drowning. It is an international responsibility to ensure that they have safe pathways to peace.
There are many more children like Aylan who need our help. Australia is strong enough to do more. The question is whether we will choose to act again or turn away from the pond and leave those other children to drown.
Banner image: Rachel Unkovic/International Rescue Committee