Child Refugees vs Thai Cave Rescue: Why Responsibility doesn’t Require a Display of Suffering

During the Thai cave rescue, The Conversation published a piece by morality and social psychology researcher Dan Crimston with the following title: ‘How imagery and media coverage influence our empathy for strangers’. In this story, Crimston compared the worldwide interest in the fate of the trapped Thai boys to the relative apathy towards child refugee in offshore detention (in the Australian context). Further, he claimed that this difference in response was because ‘we simply aren’t permitted to view the plight of child refugees, and we’re much less likely to experience an empathic response if we can’t see them.’ While he is right in pointing out that ‘journalists face substantial obstacles’ in visiting detention centres, there is no dearth of images and documentary evidence on what goes on there.

On the other side of the world, several prominent US media outlets attributed the reversal of the controversial Trump proposal to separate migrant children from their families to the power of images. For instance, LA Times wrote: ‘suddenly the nightly news was real and heartbreaking — video of children kept in cages that resembled dog kennels, sleeping on concrete floors under Mylar blankets — changing the destructive cycle of divisive politics as usual.’ While there is no doubt that said images had an affective impact on public attitudes, media discourse, and eventually policy, we should be careful not to over-emphasise the role of momentary attention given to a multi-faceted political issue. Empathy is pivotal for justice, but not when it ebbs and flows, and is largely contingent on a display of suffering.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock (or in a News Limited bubble), you probably know via one of many mediated means that human rights have been grossly abused at the centre in Nauru and the now defunct facility in Manus. You have also probably heard of your children, or your nieces and nephews, or your godchildren study Go Back to Where You Came from as part of their HSC curriculum in the state of New South Wales. You may have seen marches and placards in the middle of the city during the Palm Sunday rally, or the protests against the closure of Manus late last year. Or perhaps you observed your colleagues organise a fundraiser to host a screening of one of a plethora of refugee-themed films that have been produced in Australia since the Tampa fiasco fatally set the precedent for our refugee policies in 2001.

As it happens, I have been studying and writing on the above-mentioned documentaries since the release of Heather Kirkpatrick’s Mary Meets Mohamad in 2013.  As this film focused on a fledgling friendship between a Tasmanian retiree and a Hazara asylum seeker, with the former becoming an ally by the end, I thought it was likely the beginning of a broader shift in Australian public discourse on this issue. The doco was also noteworthy for its emphasis on community screenings, a model that has since been followed by a spate of films centred on asylum seekers. These include Freedom Stories (Steve Thomas, 2015), Chasing Asylum (Eva Orner, 2016), Constance on the Edge (Belinda Mason, 2016), and Cast from the Storm (David Mason, 2016). All of the above films are classified as documentaries, and have links to community screenings (in varied forms) on their official websites.

I have no doubt that even more well-intentioned screen texts on this subject are in the making, and will probably invoke empathic responses in at least some of the people who view them. Two questions, however, remain: 1) Why is this individually-mobilised empathy not changing the direction or our collective conversation?, and 2) What does it take for all of these layers of evidence and testimony to have an impact on law and policy?

For addressing the latter query, I am indebted to the work of cultural theory and legal researcher Maria Giannacopoulos. In an article for Overland in 2016, she wrote about 25-year-old Iranian Ali (who uses the pen name Eaten Fish to create artwork) and noted, ‘Eaten Fish references stories that we know, stories that have been reported on, documented and investigated. And yet the violence has not ceased. In fact, Eaten Fish is subjected to ‘”further violence” as he continues to document the “unspeakable abuses and excesses of the guards and administrators of the camp”.’ She recounted several other instances of first-hand refugee testimony, and secondary evidence collected and cited by the Australia High Court, international NGOs, and media organizations in this piece, and concluded: ‘The evidence is abundant – official and unofficial, textual and graphic. And yet the violence persists. Law and its inherent violence is firmly implicated in practices that demand evidence, as well as laws that allow evidence of violence to be overwritten.’

If the law and the two main political parties are overwriting this evidence, could it be that the citizens of this country are taking their cue from the above institutions. For those of us dissenting from these deliberately erased or obfuscated narratives, there is no choice but to tell and re-tell the stories of the suffering. How effective has this strategy been? While it is not my place to question the activist toolkits of the numerous groups and individuals who have been volunteering their time and resources to fight government obstinance on this issue, I am compelled to ask if a small rethink and revision would serve us better.

There is now significant work on the politics of liberal humanitarianism, and practitioners have responded to this critique by collaborating ethically with refugees and ex-refugees, and spotlighting first-person testimonies where possible. Nevertheless, as Szorenyi observes in her work on refugee-based life writing, ‘the definition of “refugee” is seen to rest not so much on testimony in a legal context but on stereotypes of refugees as destitute, helpless, distraught beggars, usually represented by visual images of women, children and old people awaiting assistance with tears in their eyes.’ She adds that this stereotype is one which is ‘so inextricably associated with passivity, helplessness, and visual paradigms of proof that the act of speech can come to appear intrinsically suspect.’ In other words, we likely receive first-hand narratives in a context that is pre-conditioned to place certain accounts of credibility over others.

What would have happened if Aylan Kurdi, the drowned Syrian toddler, had been discovered alive – an agential, animated, speaking child, perhaps enunciating in a different tongue from us? Would that have elicited the same degree of concern, or perhaps a greater degree of finger pointing at the parents? The point of representing refugees, whether children or adults, Muslim or non-Muslim, momentarily suffering or persistently resilient, teary or smiling, destitute or entrepreneurial, is not to give agency, but to recognize them as always-already agential. Alongside, we need an ethics of recognition for refugees that recognizes that ‘speech cannot be the only means of showing oneself to be human’ (Szorenyi, 2009). Perhaps Kurdish journalist and asylum seeker Behrooz Boochani’s lyricism in the film Chauka Please Tell us the Time is a gesture away from mere documentation in this regard. If we have to tell a tale, let it be a good story. And if there are those who can’t or won’t speak/show, that is a display we have no right to call for. Our re-calibration should set the agenda for responsibility, and not merely respond to the latest incident of cruelty.

Sukhmani Khorana is Senior Lecturer in Media and Culture at the University of Wollongong. Sukhmani has published extensively on transnational film, multi-platform refugee narratives, and the politics of empathy. With Kate Darian-Smith and Sue Turnbull, she holds a current ARC Linkage project (with the Museum of Victoria and The Australian Centre for the Moving Image) examining the role of television in the experience of migration to Australia. She is the author of 'The Tastes and Politics of Inter-Cultural Food in Australia' (RLI).

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