Reviewed: Cruel Care: A History of Children at Our Borders, Jordana Silverstein, Monash University Publishing
In May 2012, the president of the Indigenous Social Justice Association, Ray Jackson, issued passports to two Tamil men who were being detained in Villawood, one of Australia’s most infamous onshore detention centres. As he issued the passports, Jackson said, ‘Locking people up doesn’t solve any problems, it only causes harm.’ Jackson went on to compare the plight of refugees to the history of Indigenous incarceration in the colony. ‘This has to stop,’ he said. ‘The Australian government must stop imprisoning Indigenous people, and they must stop imprisoning asylum seekers.’
Jackson’s sentiment, which has been repeated countless times by Indigenous peoples throughout the decades, echoes the thesis that underpins Jordana Silverstein’s extraordinary new book, Cruel Care. Silverstein’s book is an enlightening work of deep critical analysis that radically centres Aboriginal sovereignty in a discussion about Australia’s onerous treatment of refugee children, with a particular focus from the 1970s onwards till today. Silverstein, a grandchild of refugees who migrated to Australia to escape the Holocaust, situates Australia’s unique, repressive treatment of child refugees within the broader framework of this continent’s ongoing colonial project.
Using archival research, as well as interviews with key policy-makers, politicians and advocates in the immigration and child protection sectors, Silverstein provides a more complete view of Australia’s history with refugees than any other material I have seen recorded for mainstream audiences. The book taps into key rhetoric uttered throughout Australia’s political past, clarifying the racism that not only drives the ongoing oppression of refugee children but also underpins the settler-colonialism that is at the heart of the nation-state’s allusions around ‘nationhood’.
As such, Cruel Care represents a confluence of ideas and peoples that the Australian government has long strived to keep disparate. Silverstein adroitly teases apart the government’s obfuscations about its ‘cruel care’ of refugee children as a defining act of white colonialism, while still managing to maintain the specificities of the colonial violence enacted on both refugees and First Nations peoples. Silverstein highlights a known yet oft-elided fact: that these oppressions cannot be isolated, and that they exist on a continuum resulting from colonisation.
The work itself is accessible while still being rigorous, written with a tone that is earnest enough while being neither too maudlin nor dispassionate. Most significantly, while it ranges from individual analysis of key moments in Australian refugee history—the Tampa incident, Howard’s ‘children overboard’ concoctions and the Nadesalingam family’s plight to return ‘home to Biloela’ chief among them—to documenting broader themes such as the political manipulation of crisis, the role of legislation and the role of immigration ministers in Australia’s history with child refugees, the book never goes off-course and always remains true to its objective of linking cruel care to colonialism.
And, though Silverstein enlightens the reader with wide-ranging interviews, the work is critically ethical when it comes to the perspectives of those most vulnerable in this analysis—refugee children themselves. However, these insights are all extracted from written sources rather than oral histories taken by Silverstein herself, which gives the project a sense of restraint. Yet, this choice seems to be, as Silverstein herself notes, a recognition of ‘its limits’. ‘I am not the person to tell their stories,’ Silverstein writes.
At the outset, Cruel Care goes to great lengths to define its parameters as a piece of research and documentation of history; similarly, Silverstein devotes essential opening pages to the shifting definitions of ‘child’ and ‘refugee’ as understood within the framework of Australian (and global) policy and politics. I was astonished to read that a National Children’s Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission declined to be interviewed for the book, her office asserting she was ‘not a suitable candidate for [the] project as it is not something within in [sic] her scope of work’. I was not surprised to learn, later, that major power players such as Peter Dutton and Amanda Vanstone refused to speak with Silverstein.
Nevertheless, Silverstein forges critical connections between political rhetoric and action in the book, all of which are sharply observed and poignant. It’s clear that politicians in Australia have spent decades trying to disconnect civilians’ impressions of refugee children from what is generally understood as socially acceptable treatment for ‘Australian’ children. What is perhaps most impressive is that Silverstein never falters in linking this propaganda back to Australia’s past and ongoing treatment of Indigenous peoples and the general populace’s ignorance towards the myriad faces of colonial violence. With Silverstein’s guidance, one instantly recognises the parallels between relegating the Nadesalingam children to detention on Christmas Island and the extensive incarceration of First Nations children in facilities such as Don Dale, where over 99 per cent of the children interned are Aboriginal.
This is a readable and indispensable analysis of a much-obscured area of Australian immigration policy, viewed through an ingenious lens that shows how Australian colonialism and the immigration system are linked. Although it will provide insightful and engrossing reading, Silverstein’s excellent book does not feel as though it’s intended as an introductory guide to Australia’s treatment of refugee children, but rather a deep dive into the politics and policies, as well as a reframing of the issue, for those already armed with some understanding of Australia’s refugee history.
Matilda Dixon-Smith is an author, editor and bookseller living on unceded Gadigal land. She tweets from @mdixonsmith.