Jacquelyn Baker interviews Jordana Silverstein about her book, Cruel Care: A History of Children at Our Borders (Clayton: Monash University Publishing, 2023).
Congratulations on the publication of Cruel Care, Jordy! I learnt so much about the history of Australia’s immigration policies and found it difficult to put down. The back cover of your book contains praise from Munanjahli and South Sea Islander Professor Chelsea Watego who says that this is the ‘type of intellectual work needed in this time, in this place’. What motivated you to write this book and what is significant about it being published now?
Thanks so much Jacquelyn! I was really honoured and grateful for Professor Watego’s generous words. Cruel Care came out of my work as an ARC Postdoctoral Research Associate on Professor Joy Damousi’s Laureate Research Project, ‘Child Refugees and Australian Internationalism, 1920s to the Present’, so in that sense there were very clear motivations to write the book: it was an outcome of funded research. But more specifically, I was motivated to write this kind of history book because I felt that for all of the conversation around refugee policy – and for all of the outrage – it’s very clear that we’re failing to make significant and substantive positive changes. On the contrary, things are getting worse, and being normalised as such. But how did we get to this current state of things? If we can understand the history, we can understand how things could be different. Alongside that, in this book I wanted to think about the connections between immigration policies and settler-colonialism. While this has been done to some degree by many excellent thinkers and scholars, I wanted to continue this line of thinking, with a focus on the politics around children in particular. I want us to really understand that there can be no justice at the border under settler-colonialism: that the only just way forward is to move towards the end of the settler-colony, and a radical rethinking of what ‘Australia’ could be.
As for the significance of it being published now: it took me a while to find a publisher for this book, but I think it came out at the right time. We have a new(ish) ALP government, and a general sense that people are open to change. How far can we push that though? I’m keen for this book to help us see what can be done, what can be thought, if we consider the histories that bring us to the present moment.
Something that I really appreciated when reading your book was this sense that Cruel Care is part of a bigger dialogue about immigration policy, settler colonialism and children. Can you share with us who your biggest sources of inspiration were?
A range of First Nations writers, thinkers, and activists who I’ve either worked alongside and/or learned so much from, primarily. People such as Associate Professor Crystal McKinnon, Professor Chelsea Watego, Professor Gary Foley, Dr Amy McQuire, and organisations such as WAR (Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance), and so on. And then also other thinkers who have worked on these ideas and approaches before, particularly Professor Suvendrini Perera, Professor Joseph Pugliese, and Associate Professor Maria Giannacopoulos. Migrant and refugee organisations and activists too were inspiring to me. I wanted to think about how this history could be useful, and all of these people and groups link together a genuine active anti-racism and anti-colonialism practice with their work understanding and critiquing these systems and structures.
You conducted oral history interviews with politicians, policymakers and public servants between 2017 and 2019. Did you encounter any challenges that are unique to interviewing this group?
A challenge in oral history interviews is always accessing people who are willing to be interviewed, and this remained a challenge here. While I was able to speak to quite a few people involved in this policy-making, there were many people who I would have liked to speak to who didn’t get back to me, or who didn’t agree to speak with me. And then because people are busy, there were some people who I interviewed who didn’t approve their transcript, and so I couldn’t use the interview in my publications. There are always challenges in making sure that you are being respectful and ethical in conducting interviews, and while the particularities of how that plays out are different when interviewing a group of people with significant political and social power – as compared to more grassroots people – the underlying issues and drives remain the same, I think.
Cruel Care weaves oral history testimonies with archival research. Can you explain to our readers which archival sources you utilised to write your book?
I primarily used government and public service archives found in the National Archives of Australia, as well as archives in the National Library of Australia: the papers of the ALP and the Liberal Party, as well as some oral history interviews found in the NLA’s collection. I used United Nations archives in Geneva and New York, in order to understand the broader picture for child refugee policy. And I accessed newspapers through Trove, and parliamentary speeches and questions – as well as minutes from Senate estimates and parliamentary inquiries – through Hansard.
Did you come across anything surprising or unexpected in the archive?
One of the first things I looked at was held in the Melbourne branch of the NAA. It was one of those fortuitous archival finds: I did a catalogue search, and something that was available locally popped up, and so I went down to North Melbourne to look at it. What I found were the papers of social workers and others who had been involved in providing care for so-called unaccompanied refugee children in the 1970s and 80s. These children had the Immigration Minister as their guardian, who delegated the everyday care for them to local authorities. Many children were housed in group homes, and social workers would write reports about the children and their lives, providing intimate details about them. Seeing the ways that archives can hold peoples’ records like this, allowing historians to come along decades later and read all the information, was revealing both of how social workers thought about the children – and themselves in relation to the children – and then also of how we can approach these records in the present. It was a reminder that we might find all sorts of personal information in the archives, and we need to think carefully about how to use these records.
Who do you envision as the audience for Cruel Care?
I hope that the audience can be quite broad: I want to speak to the general public who is seeking to understand what has happened, and to be challenged in their analysis and knowledge; to historians thinking about Australia’s migration history; to policymakers who work in this area, to hopefully improve things somewhat; to community activists undertaking refugee solidarity work; and to refugees themselves: I hope there can be something in this book which makes sense and feels useful to them.
You define “cruel care” as:
a form of care where policymakers claim they are being compassionate as they act in deeply harmful ways. Where systemic violence is perversely justified as acts of necessary kindness. (p. 2)
In particular, you write that policymakers ‘used emotive language to justify their approaches’ (p. 2). What was the most common emotion that policymakers fell back on or evoked?
Sympathy. And this is a sympathy which is often patronising and helps shape a binary state of refugees as needing to be saved and policymakers as the ones to help save them. It is thus also a racialised sympathy, creating white saviours who claim to hold the relevant knowledge and be responsible for shaping the futures of non-white people.
Your book looks primarily at how child refugee policy has worked from the 1970s to the present. Why did you choose this timeframe?
Any temporal division is always going to be circumstantial and provisional, of course, and at times in the book I dip back into the post-World War Two period, and I locate the whole history that I’m telling within the longer colonial history. But the 1970s served as a useful starting point as it was the beginning of the modern period of immigration and refugee policy, as well as multicultural policy, in Australia. There is somewhat of a reshaping of policy approaches and language at this time, and it was useful to think about the history from that vantage point. We have to start somewhere!
If there was one lesson or takeaway that you would like politicians and policymakers to glean from reading your book, what would it be?
I would like them to understand that child refugee policy isn’t about them. In my research I found that policymakers and politicians like to centre themselves, whether it’s talking about their feelings and concerns or about how difficult it is to be Immigration Minister. But in doing so, they work to erase the histories and personhood of the refugees themselves, and they do great harm. This discursive and linguistic erasure has material effects. So for instance, when John Howard said of the parents involved in the so-called ‘Children Overboard’ event that ‘we don’t want parents like that here’, he tried to control the story and the set of feelings. A repositioning, whereby policymakers take more seriously the fact of their own subjectivity, and focus instead on the wisdom, histories, knowledge, and emotions of refugees, would – I think – produce an entirely new politics. This is just one lesson, one push, that I would like policymakers to take from this book.