In 2012 the world witnessed a series of tragic incidents of asylum seekers drowning after their unseaworthy boats capsized off the coast of Australia. Following these events, Australia’s parliamentarians spent six long hours debating a bill about asylum in the Federal Parliament. Having seen 90 people die and a further 130 people rescued on the high seas off the coast of Christmas Island, the debates were filled with emotion, concern for humanity and demands for human rights protections. I personally watched for several hours as politician after politician expressed heartfelt grief for the plight of asylum seekers who were trying to reach Australia by boat.

Fast forward to 2015 and the world reacted with shame and grief following the death by drowning of a young Syrian boy, Aylan Kurdi, on the Turkish coast as he and his family attempted to reach Europe by boat. Once again there were demands for a more humane approach to refugees and the image of the young Aylan’s body washed up on the beach was claimed to be one of the most striking images of 2015. Countries like Canada pledged more resettlement places for Syrian refugees. Refugee advocates thought this might be a watershed moment for both the conflict in Syria and Europe’s migrant and refugee crisis.

Yet here we find ourselves again in 2017 expressing outrage, shock and grief over the revelation of migrants being subject to slave auctions in Libya. EU leaders are calling for action, others demanding a military force and an emergency evacuation operation has been agreed to.

Across these three very different contexts we have witnessed very similar reactions of outrage. In the case of Australia where just over five years ago the plight of people dying at sea moved some politicians to tears, it currently has one of the most draconian systems of offshore detention for asylum seekers. In Europe, tens of thousands of refugees who made the boat trip from Turkey over two years ago remain stranded in Greece and a planned relocation scheme for refugees remains stalled. At present a multitude of plans are being formulated to assist migrants and refugees stranded in Libya with protests against these conditions being held in many capital cities. But there are cautionary tales to be learnt from these earlier events.

Firstly, outrage, hand-wringing and expressions of shock and awe do not always lead to positive change. This could be because the news cycle moves on, but also that policies require time and good monitoring to be developed and implemented. Secondly, outrage can be distracting. There are copious words written about the current conditions for migrants and refugees in Libya but less attention on solutions. Finally, shifting the narrative after catalytic moments requires public support and dedication from advocates. Otherwise the world may unfortunately look back on Libya 2017 as yet another ‘never again’ moment.


* with apologies to Patty Smyth