Murdoch Stephens: A year ago today, an image shocked the world. What have we done since?

A year on, 3-year-old Alan Kurdi's death still resonates. Photo / Getty Images
A year on, 3-year-old Alan Kurdi's death still resonates. Photo / Getty Images

Much of the world woke up one year ago tomorrow to the idea that a refugee crisis was sweeping the planet and we could no longer just stare in awe. The body of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi had washed up on a beach in Turkey.

For much of last European summer the numbers of displaced people taking their futures into their own hands was on the rise. Into the fifth year of the Syrian Civil War, few Syrians believed that the war would soon end or that the rest of the world would offer them protection. Many took their fate into their own hands and made that overland journey to Europe.

The New Zealand Government, after a week of refusals, offered 250 places a year to Syrians for three years. Canada and Australia committed to much more with 25,000 and 12,000 this year, respectively.

What has happened in the year since that fateful September day? Have countries honoured their pledges? And why haven't we seen the same movement of people this European summer?

The Aussies have been slack at fulfilling their intake, while Canada fulfilled their commitment by February and are half way through helping 10,000 more.

Readers might remember a deal from early this year where one person sent back from Greece to Turkey would mean one pre-screened Syrian refugee would get sent to Europe. The deal barely got off the ground in the first half of this year and resettlements have practically stopped.

But the collapse of the deal doesn't mean we're likely to see a repeat of last year. The border from Greece onwards to Europe is almost impassable while the Turkish coast guards have also stepped up their patrols and very few boats are getting through.

Closer to home, New Zealanders campaigned and succeeded in setting up the first increase in the refugee quota for 30 years. The increase to 1000 in 2018 was less than the campaign to double the quota from 750 places to 1500 a year.

The increase was announced in the same week as the opening of the refurbished Mangere Resettlement Reception Centre. The centre could host up to 1300 people a year without any further changes. The Government noted this capacity in their June review of the quota but preferred to leave space unused in case of a further emergency.

People hold candles during the quiet vigil in rememberance of Aylan Kurdi in Melbourne, Australia in September last year. Photo / Getty Images
People hold candles during the quiet vigil in rememberance of Aylan Kurdi in Melbourne, Australia in September last year. Photo / Getty Images

It must be very eerie for new refugees to walk past all those empty new rooms, wondering what could have been for those not lucky enough to be offered a second chance at life.

The task of finding a new resettlement city for some of the Syrian intake was simple given that half of New Zealand's population live in a region where no refugees are resettled. Dunedin was chosen over Tauranga, New Plymouth, Napier, and Invercargill as a new resettlement centre.

In March the Red Cross noted that where they had needed 40 volunteers, they'd received over 400. I wonder at all the squandered goodwill in regions where no refugees are resettled. Our system relies a lot on volunteers but the Government is not letting New Zealanders help out by restricting resettlement to six areas. The goodwill of churches that said they would look after 1200 refugees has barely been tapped.

If funding had been the problem for the Government in increasing the quota why they are so cautious about taking up offers of community sponsorship?

Early Government considerations of the quota had proposed a scheme of up to 200 community places in addition to the quota. A scheme will be trailed from July 2017 but the number has been scaled back to just 25.

The reluctance of this Government to let New Zealanders help resettle refugees, even when it would draw from our own pockets, is an astonishing waste of goodwill. As time passes, the refugee crisis, like the Syrian Civil War, will no longer be news. The impetus for our communities to help out will pass.

But not all is lost. Later this month President Obama will host his last major international forum to push governments to make fresh commitments to refugees. Unlike other events, countries get an invitation to this one only if they offer new commitments to refugees. At this stage New Zealand is unlikely to get an invite. We have the capacity right now to offer 300 extra places.

A year on from Alan Kurdi's death, a fresh emergency refugee quota that would take up our unused capacity would be a fitting tribute.

• Murdoch Stephens leads the Doing Our Bit campaign to double New Zealand's refugee quota.

- NZ Herald

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