Why do we talk about child refugees?

We’re currently seeing large discussions in Australia and internationally about refugee, asylum-seeking, and migrant children. With focus being placed on the removal of children from their parents (or, to put it another way, removal of parents from their children) at the border in the US, and on the Thai children trapped in a cave and their heroic rescue, numerous Australian voices have asked why the attention in Australia is on them, and not on the refugee and asylum-seeking children who remain in detention in Australia, Nauru and Manus Island. Where, many have asked, are the rescuers for them? Where is the mass movement?

I want to think through the history behind this conversational turn taken in Australia towards making this argument. Why does the question become, ‘what about these children?,’ rather than ‘what about all these people who seek to come to Australia and are then imprisoned?’ Or, to put it another way, when and why have refugee and asylum-seeking children become visible as a separate group? What work has this discourse of asylum-seeking and refugee children as a different, particularly vulnerable, group done in Australian political life?

There are a few ways we could answer this, and they would all necessarily rest on the Australian settler-colonial history of the stealing of Aboriginal children. There is a long tradition within Australian white supremacy of imagining that non-white peoples are incapable of parenting and that the state knows best how to look after the children. This focus on children, as the producers of an imagined white future for the Australian nation, has been displaced onto other targeted groups in different ways over time.

If we examine the post-Second World War on, we can see that refugee children have been understood in vastly different ways by various Immigration Ministers over time. In Parliament on November 18 1948, discussions were held regarding amendments to the Immigration (Guardianship of  Children) Act 1946, which makes the Immigration Minister guardian for unaccompanied migrant children (and which continues to operate to today). During the debate, Arthur Calwell described himself as the ‘legal father’ of unaccompanied migrant and refugee children. This was a sentiment shared by many others at the time: the Minister is a father-figure, and knows what’s best.

This was the publicly voiced sentiment in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and Immigration Ministers were keenly aware of the responsibilities for guardianship that they had granted themselves. Skipping forward to the late 1970s, we find that Ministers did not see guardianship as being as central to their role for Ministers, and the public policy discourses became less prominent. In an interview I conducted with Ian MacPhee, who was Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs from 8 December 1979 to 7 May 1982, he told me that he hadn’t really been aware of this guardianship role. It simply had not been a major issue during his time in the position. This was confirmed in an interview with John Menadue, who was Secretary of the Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs for a period while MacPhee was Minister, as well as in interviews with other public servants working at the time. Refugee and asylum-seeking children were simply part of the refugee and asylum-seeker cohort, broadly conceived. They were not separated out in political and policy-making processes. This does not mean, of course, that children were treated the same as adults. The archives of Australian bureaucracy are replete with discussions of the lives of these children and the governmental practices directed towards them.

If we jump forward again, we find children becoming visible in public political discourse once more. With the advent of the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1989 (adopted by Australia in December 1990), and the spread of its sentiments around the world, children were differently visible. In particular, the notion of the ‘best interests of the child’ as a key determinant for how children should be treated was placed at the forefront. While adopted in Australia, this sentiment has proved to be of little concern to politicians in recent times when making policy and legislation to ‘manage’ child refugees and asylum seekers. Indeed, this is something which they make explicit.

In the Explanatory Memorandum for the 2014 amendments to the Migration Act, it was stated that :

[I]n developing the policies reflected in this Bill, the government has treated the best interests of the child as a primary consideration. However, it is Government policy to discourage unauthorised arrivals from taking potentially life threatening avenues to achieve resettlement for their families in Australia and this, as well as the integrity of the onshore protection programme, are also primary considerations which may outweigh the best interests of the child in relation to a particular measure. (emphasis added)

In a similar vein, Senator Chris Evans, the then Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, commenting in Parliament in 2011 on the proposed amendments which would ‘assert the primacy of the Migration Act over the Immigration (Guardianship of Children) Act’ in order to enable offshore processing, told the Senate that the:

Government believes that its overriding obligation is to stop unaccompanied minors risking their lives by taking the dangerous boat journey to Australia. We believe our overriding obligation is to say to parents, ‘do not risk the lives of your children on the prospect of being granted an Australian visa’.

This is a narrative which has become well-worn: that people coming on boats need to be stopped so that people in general, and children in particular, do not drown at sea. It has become a hegemonic discourse in Australian political life, both incredibly difficult to dislodge and naturalised in its imagined importance and effect. But it is also a historical narrative: it came from somewhere, it didn’t naturally occur. There are many explanations for its eruption, but as a first step, it’s useful to trace its origins. It appears that one of the first iterations of this story in Australian political discourse came in 2001, in a letter to the editor published in The Canberra Times on September 10 (p. 8), Stewart Homan, of Kambah, wrote that ‘Howard’s masterstroke has successfully forced international attention onto the desperate refugees who push off from Indonesia in unseaworthy boats. His strategies show definite leadership and will no doubt save many parents and children from watery graves.’

A month later, on October 10, 2001, the Sydney Morning Herald editorialised, in response to the ‘Children Overboard’ claim, that ‘There is no doubt that the pitching of children into the sea, even wearing life jackets, is distressing,’ putting forward a stance which echoed around the nation. Children Overboard was a key moment in this history of making refugee and asylum-seeking children visible as a particular group to be managed.

The discourse would bubble along, springing up at various moments in 2002, 2003, and 2006, before being embraced again in earnest in 2009 – as more people began to seek to arrive in Australia by boat – and reaching its climax in 2010 with the disastrous crash of the boat at Christmas Island. It has not slowed down. Additionally, during this time the Coalition government routinely talked about child refugees and asylum-seekers. They first placed them into detention and then removed them, with Amanda Vanstone (the then Minister for Immigration, Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs) arguing at one stage that

‘no-one wants to see children in detention centres. The easiest solution to this problem of course would be for people not to come in unlawfully with children, putting them at risk of being in detention centres… One of the difficult situations you face in government is that you cannot always have both things that you want. You have to choose the lesser of two evils.’

As this messaging makes clear, Ministers like to position themselves as caring about ‘the children.’ These children are made visible as a group to vouch for what we could call the ‘caring credentials’ of those in power. There is also, we need to recognize, not a disinterest in children, but rather a utilization of – or, more precisely, an exploitation of – discourses of caring about children to further a vision of Australia.  For instance, Anthony Albanese noted in 2015 that ‘like everyone in this House, the member for Corio [Richard Marles, the then Shadow Minister for Immigration and Border Protection] understands that no society can consider itself civilised if it does not do everything in its power to protect children… when it comes to protecting children there should be no differences of opinion.’ In 2015, Peter Dutton, responding to a petition from Grandmothers Against Detention of Refugee Children, claimed that ‘The government takes the welfare of children seriously and moving children out of detention and into the community is a priority. The number of children in detention has decreased by over 90 per cent since July 2013.’ Everyone in detention, Dutton further asserted, is ‘treated with dignity and respect.’

In response to the ‘Protecting the Lonely Children’ report from the Australian Churches Refugee Taskforce, Dutton similarly ‘reiterate[d] that I take protection of children very seriously and am committed, as is the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, to ensuring that children are protected from abuse and exploitation.’ These words work in the service of producing an idea of the government, and hence of the nation, as one which cares. In doing so, they work towards obfuscating, or covering over, the punitive, violent, and colonial entrenchment of national borders.

This then is the potted history into which the current focus on children sits, and which all who treat children as a separate category shaped primarily by their vulnerability need to be aware of. When children have been made visible by government officials and policy-makers, it has been in order to govern and control them; to further racist narratives of irresponsible migrant and refugee parenthood; to make a claim for the ‘good’ status of the Australian nation. The mobilisation of discourses of ‘caring’ about children has never, it is clear, been an unqualified good.

r Jordy Silverstein is a postdoctoral research associate in History at the University of Melbourne, working as part of the ARC Laureate Research Project 'Child Refugees and Australian Internationalism, 1920 to the Present.' She is the author of Anxious Histories: Narrating the Holocaust in Jewish Communities at the Beginning of the Twenty-First Century (Berghahn, 2015).

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