Conservative Australian Senator Cory Bernardi has sparked outrage in a speech delivered Monday night in which he labelled the family of drowned Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi “opportunistic,” and denied that the Kurdi’s family were genuine refugees. He alleged that the Kurdi family were only attempting to travel to Canada in order to get access to better dental treatment. Bernardi, quoted in the Australian Financial Review, dismissed the reaction to Aylan Kurdi’s death as “emotive” and vowed that he would not be drawn into what he saw as a competition to “out-compassion” other countries.
“I find it a bit sanctimonious […] to bring in these emotive arguments, and particularly to characterise this as some sort of humanitarian mission by using the terrible image of that young boy who was picked up from the beach after having drowned at sea.
“The facts remain that that terrible image was not brought about by recent events in Syria or Iraq. That boy and his family had lived in Turkey for three years.
“The money for that boy’s father to pay the people smugglers was sent from Canada. The father sent them on that boat so the father could get dental treatment. They were in no fear, they were in no persecution and they were in no danger in Turkey.”
Bernardi’s comments about the Kurdi family have been condemned by fellow politicians and the media. Opposition frontbencher Anthony Albanese called Bernardi “an embarrassment to this Parliament.” He said that Bernardi’s comments on Aylan Kurdi were thoughtless and should be treated “with the contempt they deserve.”
Bernardi’s speech comes at a time when the Australian government is struggling to keep pace with public opinion. Since Aylan Kurdi’s picture was published around the world, the Australian people have been calling loudly for more to be done. Australian PM Tony Abbott, who has attracted anger and derision both at home and around the world for his border control policies, has already announced that he will up the intake of Syrian refugees within the current quota. In the wake of Aylan Kurdi’s death, many Australian politicians are proposing that the quota be raised from its current level of approximately 13,000, with one MP calling for an increase to as many as 50,000.
The Australian government’s reaction to the refugee crisis in Europe has been dogged by gaffes and public anger. Just last week, PM Tony Abbott controversially used the death of Aylan Kurdi as an endorsement for his own contentious border control strategy, claiming that Aylan’s death would not have occurred under his government’s policies. And at the time of writing, reports are emerging that Australia will actively seek to prioritise Christian refugees. According to the ABC, these reports are being met with mounting anger and concern. They quote an unnamed party room insider as saying that the subtext being delivered at policy meetings is “no more Moslem men.”
[Image via Chris Hopkins, Getty Images]