A Safe Place to Live by Bic Walker, (Bic Walker, 2011) and Ziba Came on a Boat by Liz Lofthouse, illustrated by Robert Ingpen (Penguin Group, 2007).

Reina and James ReillyPutting these two children’s books together provides new insights and unique perspectives on Australia’s refugee policies. Our review provides a brief overview of this history, followed by a discussion of these two books.

Australia’s response to refugees has, at points, been dominated by shortsighted policies tinged with fear and even prejudice. At other times, Australians have shown kindness and generosity that embody the national anthem’s bold pledge: “for those who come from across the seas, we’ve boundless plains to share.”

The earliest days following Federation were stained by the “White Australia” policy, which sought to exclude non-English-speaking, non-white immigration to Australia—a policy promoted by labour unions fearful that Asian immigrants would steal working-class jobs. As a result, a mere 3,500 refugees were settled in Australia between 1921 and 1938.

After World War II, Australia initially opposed the establishment of an International Refugee Organisation within the United Nations due to fears that Australia would be pressed into accepting non-Caucasian immigration. To meet labour shortages, Australia instead opened its doors to southern and eastern Europeans. From 1947 to 1973, Australia accepted nearly 400,000 refugees and displaced persons—primarily from Europe.

The first recorded instance of asylum seekers arriving in Australia via unauthorised boats occurred in April 1976, as South Vietnamese fled following the Communist victory of 1974. From 1976 to 1982, an estimated 2,000 “Vietnamese boat people” arrived in Australia. In addition to permitting them to remain in Australia, Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser’s government eventually resettled some 56,000 Vietnamese refugees from camps in Malaysia, Hong Kong, and Thailand.

Yet once asylum seekers from Cambodia began to arrive in Australia in the early 1990s, the Labor government under Paul Keating was far less welcoming. In 1992, the Keating government established a mandatory detention policy whereby anyone entering Australian territory without a visa was placed in a holding facility while their asylum claim was evaluated.

Refugee policies turned even harsher following the 2001 Tampa affair, when a Norwegian tanker picked up 438 people whose vessel was sinking off the coast of Indonesia. When the captain tried to return these Afghan refugees to Indonesia, they threatened to throw themselves overboard. Yet once he arrived at Christmas Island, the Howard government refused to allow them to land, creating a lengthy diplomatic standoff.

The Tampa Affair led the Howard government to establish the so-called Pacific Solution, whereby asylum seekers were directed to nearby island nations such as Papua New Guinea and Nauru while their claims underwent a lengthy review process. While detained offshore, asylum-seekers were denied access to Australian lawyers and to protection under Australian law.

In 2007-08, the Labor Party under Prime Minister Kevin Rudd abandoned the Pacific Solution and abolished temporary protection visas. Yet as asylum seeker claims continued to rise, Labor under Rudd and under Prime Minister Julia Gillard continued to face mounting political pressure. Rudd’s Indonesia Solution, followed by Gillard’s proposed Malaysia Solution, failed to halt the mounting political criticism and opened the door for a return to the Coalition’s even harsher measures under Prime Minister Tony Abbot.

book 2The two books under review here attempt to tell the story of this checkered history to children through the perspective and voices of small children. A Safe Place to Live is the story of a young girl, who along with her brother and sister, are on a journey to find a safer home.

It starts out in their old home, where there is a war. The three children board a boat bound for Australia but along the way pirates attack their boat. They are left to drift when an oil tanker picks them up and takes them to a refugee camp.

At the refugee camp, or the “waiting place,” the children stay and wait for a few years before they are flown to Australia to start a new life in a safe home.

The author of this book, Bic Walker, was a Vietnamese refugee herself. She came from Vietnam to Australia by boat when she was just three years old. A Safe Place to Live is a true story about her journey to Australia.

One of the best parts of this book is the way the illustrations capture the mood of the story. The use of colour and the style of painting are particularly good. This book is based on a very serious and touching subject, but it is written for small children. Yet, in the end, the story is too complicated for most small children. But for older children and adults, the story is too flat, and so it may not fully please either type of reader.

book 1Ziba Came on a Boat, however, is an entirely different kind of story. Ziba, a little girl, is on a boat drifting through the sea. The book shows us her memories of home and the things that have happened in the past. She remembers playing with the village children and helping her mother cook. Then she remembers being locked away in her home. She remembers her village in flames and escaping with her mother. Then she dreams about her new home, and how it will be free and happy.

This book is very touching and serious. It raises many questions, such as, what will happen to Ziba? Will she make it to her new home? Where is her new home? Will she ever be free again? The illustrations in this book are absolutely stunning. The detailed paintings really bring the characters to life.

Liz Lofthouse, the author of this book, was inspired to write after hearing stories told by people from the Hazara community, refugees from Afghanistan who now live in Perth.

This book is really aimed at older children. Though it is a picture book, it masks a very real topic: the refugee situation in Australia today. Ziba could very well be any other little girl from Afghanistan escaping to Australia. If that is the case, Ziba may never even reach her new home. She’d be locked up in a detention center.

In different ways, both of these books try to explain a complex subject—refugees seeking protection in Australia—for children. But, by looking through the eyes of the children narrators, even adults can learn a great deal about the good, and not so good, parts of Australia’s response to refugees.

Reina Reilly (age 12) and James Reilly, NSW Regional Meeting


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