Music

Missy Higgins Has Dropped A Powerful New Song About Alan Kurdi And Asylum Seekers

"Passivity doesn't work at times like these."

In September last year the Syrian refugee crisis received an unprecedented outpouring of global compassion in the wake of the death of three-year-old Alan Kurdi (first reported as Aylan). On their way to seek asylum in Canada, the Kurdi family capsized off the coast of Turkey and a resulting picture of Alan’s body laying lifeless on the beach became symbolic of the larger tragedy — a potent, if not potentially problematic, reminder of the human cost of both foreign conflict and domestic asylum policy.

Now, after strong action from many European nations and familiar obfuscation from the Australian government on the fate of those seeking asylum, Australian songwriter Missy Higgins has written her own ode to Alan titled ‘Oh Canada’.  “We often read about the tragic plight of refugees but I think that picture exposed us to the reality in such a raw way that the truth became inescapable,” Higgins wrote in a statement today for the song’s release. “From where I sat in my comfortable living room nursing my newborn son, the tiny child in that wrenching image could have been my own little boy.”

The video for the track, directed by Australians Natasha Pincus and Nicholas Kallincos, is entirely composed of illustrations drawn by refugee children supported by aid agencies Caritas and World Vision. All net profits will also be donated to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre.

“Obviously, in this song, ‘Canada’ represents anywhere in the world that might be the preferred sanctuary for people like the Kurdis,” Higgins explained. “Amongst other countries, it represents Australia which has such an abhorrent record in dealing with asylum seekers who try to travel to our shores by boat.”

“‘Oh Canada’ simply aims to tell a story. It’s not preaching anything in particular, it’s simply my attempt to make sense out of senselessness … If the song inspires anyone to do something on behalf of refugees — to speak up for their rights and to push back against those who seek to inflame our fears and prejudices — then I think that would be best of all.”

With this coming just a week after Higgins featured in a protest song against Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers, we spoke with the songwriter to hear more of her motivation behind the clip.

Junkee: I know you’ve had strong feelings about Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers for some time now, but it seems to be coming to a head for you with this and the Mums 4 Refugees clip last week. Why are you taking this kind of action now? 

Missy Higgins: To be honest it was the photo of little threee-year-old Alan Kurdi being carried lifeless out of the water that really shocked me into doing something. Like so many people that saw that photo, I’d known how bad the situation was, but until then I hadn’t really felt it in such a raw and inescapably painful way. The crisis in Syria is now reaching the five-year mark and at present over 12 million people are in need, with more than half of those being children. They’re saying it’s the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II. I just feel so incredibly privileged and lucky to have been born in Australia, and to not have to fear for my child’s life every day. Something about becoming a mum just over a year ago changed everything, there are things I can’t turn away from anymore.

What do you think of the recent swell of support in the #LetThemStay movement? Are we on the verge of anything actually changing?

It feels like there is serious momentum gathering all around the country (and the world) on this issue. Even politicians have come out against these particular deportations to Nauru and are pleading with the Prime Minister to see the human beings behind the statistics. People’s sadness is turning into anger, they’re sick of a government who doesn’t seem to reflect the opinions of the people it’s supposed to be representing.

It feels like we’re starting to see the real faces behind these news stories, and that they’re regular people: everyday mothers, fathers and children who all desperately want to find a safe place to live. Just like we would be if we were in their position. So I don’t know, but I have hope that if we keep pushing back against this, something has to change.

A lot of your work has been defined by its connection to Australia; there’s your distinctive voice, broad accent and obviously Oz (the 2014 covers album of classic Australian songs). What do you think of Australia’s current reputation on the world stage?

At the moment I feel as though we’re coming off as having quite a brutal stance against people seeking asylum (especially those coming by boats) because of our screening processes, and policies on turning back the boats, the conditions of our refugee camps and that fact that we’re currently taking a lot less Syrian refugees than other countries. Canada, for example has accepted 800 times more Syrian refugees than Australia has. And the Syrians we have “accepted” are trickling in at a snails pace because of the strict screening procedures we now have.

I think we’re so lucky to have what we have in this country that some of us are a bit insecure about losing it. But the truth is, unless you’re an Indigenous Australian, you’re a descendant of an immigrant. Why should we have that privilege of making this place our home, and not others?

You say it would be great if people “push back against those who seek to inflame our fears and prejudices”. How do you think we should do that?

I think it’s a matter of not standing by while racial prejudice spews out of our neighbours’ mouths, or xenophobia slowly creeps in to the national psyche via the media. The more we push back on all that, the harder it will be for the bigots to gain ground. They have a loud voice. Passivity doesn’t work at times like these. I think if you have a strong opinion it needs to be heard. Because most of us, I believe, want to live in a country that is accepting and kind and empathic to those truly in need.

Missy Higgins-Photographer Cybele Malinowski

Here are the full lyrics to ‘Oh Canada’:

He was carried from the water by a solider
And the picture screams a thousand different words
He was running from the terror with his father
Who once believed that nothing could be worse

So he’d handed a man two thousand precious dollars
The way you’d rest a bird in a lion’s open jaw
And he told his boys that Canada was waiting
There was hope upon her golden shores

But at night he said a quiet prayer to the wind

Oh Canada, if you can hear me now
Won’t you open up your arms towards the sea?
Oh Canada, if you can help me out
All I ever wanted was a safe place for my family

Well the days were long but the nights were even longer
And the babies never left their mothers’ side
But the boat was small and the waves were getting stronger
And they began to fear they’d not survive

So the father said “We gotta hold each other tighter
I’m not losing everyone I love tonight
And we’ve come so far I know that out there somewhere
There’s a place where we’ll not fear for our lives”

But as he held onto the side of the boat he looked up at the sky

Oh Canada, if you can hear me now
Won’t you open up your arms towards the sea
Oh Canada, if you can help me out
The sea is turning and I think we’re going down

Anyone if you can hear me now,
Won’t you open up your heart towards the sea
Anyone, please help us out
All we ever wanted was a safe place for our family

There’s a million ways to justify your fear
There’s a million ways to measure out your words
But the body of Alan being laid upon the sand
Tell me how do you live with that?

You can donate to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre here.