The last few months have been rather emotionally charged. The catalysts for such a global uproar of compassion were two geo-political disjointed groups of children: the 1,995 children separated from their parents when apprehended crossing the US border’s ‘illegally’ from April 18 to May 31; and the 12 boys of the Wild Boer soccer team trapped in a cave in Thailand from June 23 to July 10. In spite of their very divergent historical trajectories of visibility, these two groups of children occupied global attention at the same time. Gripped with trepidation, the world witnessed the unfolding of their fate, from US President Donald Trump’s signing of an executive order prohibiting the separation of migrant families in June 20 to the miraculous rescue of the Thai boys in July 10. In both instances, the whole world stopped breathing, then rejoiced at seeing families reunited with their children in these two sides of the world.
While in the US, activists and compassionate citizens alike could celebrated the power of people and the media in exposing the brutality of Trump’s administration of the ‘border,’ everybody else in the Global North could exult at seeing an international team of more than a thousand professional cave divers, engineers, doctors and disaster experts rescuing each of the children trapped in the cave one by one. In both instances, images of parents crying while finally embracing their children alongside images of the very best of multiracial humanity working together 24/7 gave a new lease of life to those who stood by and watched. The emotional consumption of these events allowed them to identify with a new born trans-border collective of people who care. Or, as one of the Thai cave rescuers sang when the last of the 12 boys was brought to safety: ‘Imagine there’s no countries….The world will be as one.’
As these events unfolded on our screens, here in Australia, a spontaneous question was raised. Australia has historically been at the forefront of both Indigenous child removal and detention of asylum-seeking children. Why then is this global outpouring of compassion not extended to children separated from their parents by the Australian government? To address this question, we have asked Stephanie Gilbert, Sukhmani Khorana and Jordana Silverstein to comment on the latest events from the vantage point of their respective fields of expertise: Indigenous child removal, pro asylum-seeker solidarity campaigns, and refugee children policies.
Gilbert opens this symposium by reflecting on the underlying dynamic underpinning policies of child separation and removal: dehumanisation. Only through the effacement of their individuality and their consequent treatment as ‘bodies’ could migrant children in the US be taken away from their parents. In this regard, she argues, the visibility they obtained through the leaking of images of ‘baby jails’ may have contributed to resuscitating bodies and temporarily seeing them as part of a forgotten humanity. She suggests that while a coerced invisibility might explain the lack of a national outcry for the asylum-seeking children detained offshore in Australia, it does not explain the continued silence surrounding the disappearance of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in the welfare system, juvenile detention, and death. As Gilbert writes, there is ‘no other “home”, imagined or otherwise, for Aboriginal people to be sent back to;’ Indigenous people are born with invisibility inscribed on their bodies. Indigeneity thus amounts to invisibility, a birth gift of the settler colonial state.
Khorana’s reflection further unpacks the theme of visibility. As she argues, although journalists have been forbidden to visit Australian offshore detention facilities in Nauru and Manus Island, layers and layers of evidence documenting the gross violations of human rights committed against men, women and children legally seeking asylum, have been exposed in both the Australian courts and the media. How can we explain the failure of this evidence to elicit compassion? Khorana’s response evokes the power of law and politics to overwrite evidence and questions widespread activist strategies of retelling the tale of state violence against asylum seekers.
Silverstein concludes this symposium by questioning the question, or, as she puts it, ‘when and why have refugee and asylum-seeking children become visible as a separate group?’ To provide an answer, she traces the history of asylum-seeking and refugee children policies and, in the process, proves how the discourse of children as a ‘different’ and ‘particularly vulnerable’ population group to administer has enabled, rather than hindered, the detention of these children and families.
Taken together, we hope these contributions offer useful critiques of the widespread Australian apathy towards Indigenous, asylum-seeking, and refugee children beyond the reductive themes of visibility and empathy fatigue. Understanding history, as is always the case in settler colonial states such as Australia, is pivotal for countering the effacement of all of those who fail to fit the idealised image of the nation as a white possession.