In the unlikely event that they’re needed during your flight, oxygen masks will drop from above. It is important that you secure your own mask, before helping others.

On a plane during an emergency, this makes complete sense. You have a limited amount of time to ensure your own safety and only when you’re safe can you take care of your children or the people around you. This message is stressed every time we fly, because we are hard-wired to help our children and to help people we see immediately before us in need.

A recent survey conducted by Plan International and IPSOS suggests the majority of Australians believe that we always pitch in when someone is in need. Yet just as many people agree than disagree with the statement that developing countries should sort out their own problems.

At Plan International we work predominantly with children overseas. We’re very familiar with the argument that we need to help ourselves before we can help others. A common analogy is the one above. If you’re on a plane, you make sure your own mask is secure, before helping others. In Australia we aren’t immune to deep-seeded issues of poverty, violence, abuse and discrimination. We absolutely must address these for a fair, just and thriving society.

But we want a fair, just and thriving world. There are plenty of rational arguments as to why it’s feasible, in the interests of Australia’s national security and makes economic sense to uphold our commitment to refugees and invest in foreign aid. It is in our best interests, but is that any more compelling than the fact that it is the right thing to do? That there are children and adults who have been through more than we could ever imagine, who have no choice or control over their futures, who feel unsafe, who could use our support and our sanctuary, who we have the ability to help but we actively choose not to?

Refugees board a train at Tovarnik railway station in Croatia
Refugees primarily from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan board train at Tovarnik railway station in Croatia for transportation to Hungary on their way towards Germany and other Western European countries.

Every single child, regardless of where they were born and where they are now, has the right to feel safe.

We work with the world’s most vulnerable children, children living in poverty, children at risk of abuse, children who are being excluded and discriminated against, children affected by disasters, children who have been displaced by war.

Most of the vulnerable children on the planet don’t live here in Australia. The most vulnerable children in the world are largely invisible.
It’s very hard to empathise with what we cannot see. It makes it easier for us to make the seemingly rational choice to help ourselves before we help them. To close our borders, to tighten our purse-strings. To feel threatened instead of compassionate.

By the nature of Plan International’s work, we know these children. We meet them, we are inspired by them and we see that our own oxygen masks are firmly in place and theirs are not, purely because they are children and the masks are out of their reach.

It is our job to make those invisible children visible, and right now we’re failing. Because the issue of refugees and children living in poverty is emotional, it’s wretched, it’s utterly devastating, yet we can’t get it to translate across borders.

A Syrian girl from Homs city in Syria
Hanin, 14, a Syrian girl from Homs city in Syria. She came to Egypt four years ago with her parents and three sisters, and her older brother and his wife. Hanin says: “Everything changed in my life after I left Syria. I miss my brother and sister, my home and my friends.”

We want to challenge the notion that we must help ourselves before we help others. We can absolutely do both, and we should.  And we need to challenge ourselves to ensure more people see and more people care. There is no ‘us versus them.’ There is only us, and us and us.

The Australian public has the ability to demand incredible change. We have the ability to be leaders. We have the ability to care for our own and expand our definition of what ‘our own’ means outside of our borders.

President Barack Obama said it best in his final address to the UN General Assembly: "This crisis is a test of our common humanity - whether we give in to suspicion and fear and build walls, or whether we see ourselves in another."

Let’s take care of each other. It’s what we’re hard-wired to do.

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