Smuggled – An Illegal History of Journeys to Australia
Authors: Ruth Balint and Julie Kalman
Publisher: NewSouth Books
Reviewer: Matthew Coe
Smuggled – An Illegal History of Journeys to Australia is a short collection of (often moving) stories about people who have managed to settle in Australia, and other parts of the world, following journeys from abroad.
Authors, Ruth Balint and Julie Kalman, are Australian historians with interests in refugees and migration.
Balint is an Associate Professor of History at the University of New South Wales whose grandmother was a Jewish refugee. She has previously written about displaced persons and Australian border protection. She will release her book Destination Elsewhere: Displaced Persons and their Quest to Leave Postwar Europe in November 2021.
Kalman is an Associate Professor of History at Monash University with interests in the effects of Jewish emancipation on the non-Jewish world, across French, British, and Mediterranean settings. She is also a child of European migrants. She is completing a book tentatively titled The Kings of Algiers.
Their book includes several stories (mostly sourced from interviews) about refugee journeys to Australia over the last 80 years.
The stories touch on events arising from the Holocaust, communism in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, and conflicts in Vietnam, Ethiopia, Iraq, Afghanistan and Burma (Myanmar).
Some of the stories are from well-known Australians – television presenters, artists, writers, doctors and actors. Les Murray (the late SBS sports broadcaster) and Professor Munjed Al Muderis (the celebrated surgeon and human rights activist) are, perhaps, the most high profile. Each story involves people smugglers. One is written from a people smuggler’s perspective.
The smugglers of these stories include conscientious diplomats, corrupt bureaucrats, brave teenagers and opportunistic business people. One story briefly references sympathetic soldiers who declined to raise the alarm or open fire on a young family from their watchtowers in the dead of night.
Along the way, the smugglers are variously described as heroes, opportunists, entrepreneurs and beloved uncles. Some stories describe fond and lasting relationships forged between the smugglers and the smuggled.
But the authors are careful not to invite too many Oskar Schindler style comparisons.
The more troubling practices of people smuggling are acknowledged. The lies about vessel size and sea worthiness, the partially delivered promises and the ongoing need to turn a dollar all get a mention. The authors note “For as long as there have been established smuggling routes, it would seem, smugglers have made little distinction between things and people.” Other complicated realities are further discussed in a contribution from Behrooz Boochani at the end of the book.
In their introduction, Balint and Kalman acknowledge the cynical view some Australian politicians have taken to refugees and those who would assist them over the last 25 years. But they go further, reminding readers that such ideas have long been a recurring theme in Australian public life, going back to the end of the Second World War (and much earlier).
Through their stories, the authors advance the case for a more sympathetic public discussion of refugee issues.
They offer a range of perspectives on the risks taken by those forced to engage with people smugglers to escape hostile and intolerant regimes.
Their book vividly describes perilous journeys people have taken, despite knowing the risks. Reading these accounts, it is not difficult to understand the motivations behind people’s decisions to flee their homelands.
It is an effective choice for the authors to make their case with personal stories. What’s most impressive when reading them is that, in spite of the tragic events these people have seen and the challenges they have overcome, they maintain an impressive level of gratitude for their lives.
Late in the book, it is acknowledged that this attitude is unlikely to be matched among refugees who did not make it. It is, perhaps, because the authors wanted to offer hopeful perspectives on refugees that the fate of such people is not more fully explored.
For the most part, the authors keep their book brief and accessible. Apart from a small academic detour in the early parts of the final chapter, the book is clearly and persuasively written, and the stories are allowed to speak for themselves.
Balint and Kalman have succeeded in offering an overview of the diverse and complex personal experiences of refugees coming to Australia, and a helpful perspective for thinking about refugees and those who would assist them.
This book will find an audience with those already sympathetic to the challenges of displaced people and who may be concerned about Australia’s approach to the United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. But it is also worthwhile reading for anyone who suspects there might be more to the stories of Australian refugees than slogans and headlines.