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Have we done enough to help children of war?

1 April 2023 115 views No Comment

Joy Damousi,
The Humanitarians: Child War Refugees and Australian Humanitarianism in a Transnational World, 1919-1975
Cambridge University Press, ISBN 978-1-108-83390-5
Nonfiction, pp 347, $125.


First published by Cambridge University Press in 2022, this important but extremely expensive publication spans six decades from the formation in Australia in 1919 of the Save the Children Fund to our humanitarian interventions during the controversial war in Vietnam.

Written by Professor Joy Damousi, Dean of Arts at the Australian Catholic University, The Humanitarians could be of considerable interest to some readers of The Weekend Australian. Its subject matter is rather timely, mapping as it does Australian efforts to assist child war refugees suffering the brutal effects of conflicts throughout much of the twentieth century.

This carefully researched book explores the multi-layered forms of Australian humanitarian activities. A focus of Damousi’s latest study is an exploration of the ethical and political dimensions of our efforts, nationally and internationally, to save, evacuate, assimilate and sponsor children at risk because of war. Many were adopted here or placed in orphanages. Damousi documents that some humanitarians, were “so motivated and desperate to save children from the violence of war that surrounded them that they abducted, smuggled and physically removed children to what they believed was a safe haven from conflict – faraway Australia.” While in 1919 these actions and practices were generally regarded as noble, by the early 1970s they were hotly disputed, and increasingly rejected.

Even though the symbol of the vulnerable child remained potent, there were limits to this unifying image, especially when Western and other governments, including Australia, themselves engaged in war. Damousi states, “This was an inherent contradiction of support in certain times, but then dramatic, and even cruel, abandonment during periods of conflict.”

While her language in this weighty tome is sometimes opaque and her theoretical constructions have echoes of post-structuralism, Damousi focuses usefully on a number of key topics. These include migration history, the connection between children and war, and the Armenian genocide, which began during the First World War, provoking powerful responses that gathered force in Australia in the 1920s. She also documents the various humanitarian reactions to the various young victims of the Bolshevik takeover of Russia, the persecution of Jews in Germany in the 1930s, and the plight of children caught up in the Spanish Civil War and later the Korean War (1950-1953) and the Vietnam War (1955-1975). Yet it was America that armed the Viet Minh to fight the Japanese in World War Two, eventually enabling the Viet Cong to win the war and causing the suffering of so many children and adults.

Damousi highlights the protracted campaign to bring here children born to Australian servicemen and Japanese mothers after the Allied occupation of Japan, which took place from February 1946 to November 1956. She also deals in detail with British and Greek children evacuated to Australia.

Especially illuminating in this book are discussions about the vital role of Christian and non-Christian women in humanitarian work and what Damousi terms “the emotional communities they formed.” She also examines the nexus between Australia’s White Australia racial policies and “our humanitarian endeavours toward war child refugees.” After 1946, the recently revived Save the Children Fund was led by Victorian-based, former World War One nurse, Florence Emily Grylls, who “saw the funds mission as including both Indigenous and recently arrived ‘New Australians’ as part of the same assimilationist endeavours.”

As Damouisi puts it, “The assumption that Australia was a land of unoccupied wide open spaces where (child and adult) refugees could be resettled denied the reality that such land had been inhabited for tens of thousands of years and had never been ceded by Indigenous Australians.”

Importantly, The Humanitarians boasts a number of mini-biographies of Australian humanitarians. Particularly fascinating are biographical studies of women workers, some of whom, unlike Grylls, were unknown prior to the book’s publication. Damousi graphically details their often-traumatic experiences in Australia and overseas.

From the 1950s onwards, debates ranged internationally about whether evacuation and separation of children from parents or families in global war situations created more problems than they solved. But it only occurred to a few humanitarians at the time to ask children in war zones what they wanted to happen to them!

As Damousi correctly concludes, “These questions especially and specifically resonated within Australia, with the devastating and violent removal of children from Indigenous families, which was entrenched in government policy.”

The Humanitarians may shed some indirect light on how, in the twenty-first century, we might best deal with child and adult refugees fleeing wars, floods and famines and seeking asylum in Australia. Is it appropriate, for example, to vilify and dehumanise them?

Although this worthy and sometimes dense book is helpfully indexed, it is a shame that it does not contain any maps, photographs or illustrations.

Ross Fitzgerald is Emeritus Professor of History & Politics at Griffith University. His most recent book is My Last Drink: 32 stories of recovering alcoholics, co-edited with Neal Price.

The Weekend Australian, April 1-2, 2023, Review, Books, pp 16-16

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