By Jordy Silverstein
On March 25 2004 it was reported by the Hobart Mercury that “immigration minister Amanda Vanstone said yesterday she had received letters from primary school children calling her a racist pig.” Apparently, “she said she was not offended by the abusive letters but annoyed children had been influenced to write such things.” Andrew Bolt was suitably outraged by these letters, with them making him “wonder what hatred some teachers preach in class.” Indeed, the letter-writing campaign was part of a concerted school and Australian Education Union effort, with teachers educating their primary school students about what was going on at that time for those refugees and asylum seekers being held in detention.
Vanstone would continue to express her concern over the politicising of Australian schoolchildren throughout 2004. In July she condemned Morris Gleitzman’s new book Girl Underground, “the story of Bridget, an Australian girl with some big family problems of her own, who joins forces with Menzies, a boy whose father is an Australian government minister. Together they become pen friends with Jamal and Bibi,” two boy asylum seekers who “are in a detention centre in the Australian desert.” According to a report in the Weekend Australian on July 3, “Senator Vanstone accused Gleitzman of presenting one side of the story.” Vanstone was quoted as saying: “I think that one of the greatest things we can give kids is a childhood… Let them have a childhood as long as they can without burdening them with some of the difficult decisions that have to be made later in life. There’s no political gain to be had here. Kids don’t vote. Why ruin their childhood.” For Gleitzman though, it was important to talk openly with young children about what goes on in the world. The same article quoted him as saying that “We’re doing them a disservice by trying to insulate them from some aspects and pretend they can be kept safely in some magical, innocent place called childhood.”
Indeed, Vanstone also maintained a belief in the importance of educating school children about these issues: in May 2004 the Immigration Department – of which she was the Minister – produced a set of school kits, distributed to approximately 11,000 schools, which “were designed to ‘encourage frank and open debate’ about immigration, and overcome misleading claims by critics of the Government’s policy”. From this we can understand that it was not that Vanstone believed children to be unpoliticised, but rather that she aimed to have greater control on the direction of their political thinking.
From the reporting of these interventions into the education of schoolchildren, it seems evident that the students were keen to learn and participate in developing their knowledge of the ways in which the Australian state treats refugees. Despite Vanstone’s call for children to be unburdened with political knowledge, as Gleitzman says, many children already are attuned to, and interested in, being openly political.
Indeed, if we jump forward twelve or so years, we can turn to the children currently being held in the immigration detention centre in Nauru, who on the 2nd of November 2015 started a Facebook page, Twitter account, and website called ‘Free the Children Nauru’. Explaining that on this page ‘The asylum seeker and refugee children doomed on Nauru speak out and share their dreams and hopes with other children around the world’, the page has, since its creation, provided a space for drawings, images, videos, and words from these children. Followed by almost 39,000 people, the Facebook page has directed a series of different claims – political, activist, emotional, and educational – at Australian citizens, the Australian media, and Australian politicians.
Two days the facebook page was formed, we received the children’s words for the first time: “The Asylum Seeker and Refugee children will not be silenced any longer. This is our page, with our stories of the hell we have suffered being locked up on Nauru. We have a message coming for all Australian children. So please like and share this page so you will know the truth.” From the very beginning then, the children creating and posting on this page were seeking to communicate directly with Australian children, creating a shared knowledge, a shared sense of community and solidarity.
Indeed, a few days later, on November 11, the children wrote “When we see people like our page and say something in coment we want to scream our happiness because we know you and you know us. We want to say we love you! It is also amazing to see people that did not know us be so kind and know that we hear. Might because we not forgotten childrens. We hope we not forgotten child’s.”
Through the posts on this page – which continued to be provided by the children in detention from its formation until August 29 – the children, as children, have challenged entrenched historical ideas of refugee children as particularly voiceless, faceless, and unable to engage in politics. Like citizen children in the examples above, and perhaps even more so, refugee children have been imagined as so fundamentally constituted by their innocence that they are unable to be politically active, to have any power. What would our political discourse look like, I wonder, if we saw all peoples as equally capable of engaging in political speech? What would the actions of adults entail if we took more direction from refugee children? At this moment in time it is evident that approaches to acting for justice for refugees need new approaches: both in Australia and internationally, we are utterly failing. Perhaps then broadening our ideas of what political action can, and does, look like, could be a useful step.