Australia’s dark history and why it matters today

First published Jan 26, 2016 by Commonspace – https://www.commonspace.scot/articles/3332/james-mcenaney-australias-dark-history-and-why-it-matters-today


JUST 12 miles off the coast from Perth, the largest city on Australia’s western coast, lies beautiful Rottnest Island. With up to half a million visitors a year it is one of the country’s most popular holiday resorts; a quick search on Google reveals images of a beautiful island paradise, all white sands and turquoise seas nestling under perfect azure skies.

It is, without doubt, idyllic, but behind the glowing smiles and glossy photographs of the tourist brochures lies a dark past: for nearly 100 years Rottnest was an Aboriginal prison, Australia’s equivalent of Robin Island. Between 1838 and 1931 around 3,700 indigenous men and boys (some as young as seven) were incarcerated on Rottnest – 10 per cent of them died there, the victims of disease, malnutrition and torture meted out by a brutal, racist regime.

Some of the buildings within which these people were held still stand, but now they serve as luxury accommodation for tourists, with Australia’s largest mass grave just a few metres away. In so many ways, Rottnest is a crushingly effective symbol for Australia – the ‘lucky country’ whose dark history hides in plain sight.

Back in 2002 I was lucky enough to spend a month in Australia as part of a ‘world challenge expedition’ organised by my high school. Over four weeks we travelled from Adelaide to Darwin (via the mesmerising ‘red centre’ of this continent-sized country) and then on to Sydney.

We were even able to spend several days in the Mutitjulu Aboriginal community at Uluru, an experience which remains one of the greatest privileges of my life.

It was, in a word, extraordinary, but even among all the teenage excitement there was something else – a pervasive, persistent sadness which at 15 years old I did not understand, and at 29 am unable, and unwilling, to shake.

It took years to even begin to properly process the way I felt about Mutitjulu. For a long time I believed that I was responding to the obvious injustice of the historical loss and ongoing suffering of a community, and a people, whose warmth, generosity and dignity touched us all.

But the truth is worse. The truth is that my feelings at that time were, more than anything else, a pained and utterly uncomprehending response to something which I am only now, as an adult, able to name: dehumanisation. I may not have understood what I was seeing, but I knew that I hated it.

Nearly 14 years have passed since those days, yet that feeling has never really left me. It simmers away under the surface and boils over, magnified by age and the burden of understanding, whenever I read articles , watch documentaries or see speeches about the treatment of the first Australians.

And on this day each year, a day which, depending on your background and perspective, is known either as Australia Day, Invasion Day or Survival Day, it all comes flooding back.

All of this might seem far removed from the politics of this smaller, colder island, but the truth is that the dehumanisation behind Australia’s shameful treatment of its indigenous population – both historically and in the present day – is really a reflection of the British imperialist world view, the echoes of which still reverberate into the 21st century.

The reduction of those who are ‘not like us’ to beings of lesser value continues to this day, and though the means by which this is achieved are necessarily more subtle, the motivations are largely the same.

The brutal reality, whether we wish to face it or not, is that the ghosts of the Terra Nullius philosophy – which legitimised the theft of a quarter of the world because those living there were at best uncivilised and at worst sub-human – have never been exorcised, and we are all haunted by them.

In Australia this is manifested not just in the treatment of the Aboriginal people (who still die far younger than non-indigenous Australians and whose children are more likely to go to prison than to finish high school), but also in the plight of asylum seekers and refugees herded into internment camps on the islands of Nauru and Papua New Guinea.

Here, 9,000 miles away from Australia’s beautiful yet blood-soaked lands, that same inhuman ideology – forged in the fires of imperial expansion, exploitation and extermination – persists in our response to a refugee crisis which bears all the hallmarks of being the great challenge of our age. We may not have a ‘Great War’ to define us, but we are not short of suffering.

Faced with more than 50 million displaced people worldwide – many of them fleeing conflicts in which we are directly complicit – the UK Government (led by a man who saw nothing wrong with describing desperate human beings as a “swarm”) grudgingly agreed to accept 20,000 people over a five year period.

Now, when it is rumoured that Britain might move to help 3,000 of the unaccompanied child refugees in Europe (26,000 of whom arrived last year alone) the international development secretary is only willing to say that they will consider whether Britain, one of the richest nations on earth, “can do more”.

Nobody wants to see the bodies of drowned children washing up on European beaches, but so long as they are not ‘our’ children they are dehumanised, their suffering delegitimised. Just like Australia’s indigenous people they are condemned – first, foremost and forever – by their ‘otherness’.

Terra Nullius is the ideological thread which runs through so much of our interaction with the world. We – the civilised people – occupy the highest, most privileged position in a grotesque human hierarchy which has justified, and continues to justify, acts and attitudes of such inhumanity that they are as close to real evil as you are ever likely to experience.

So long as we refuse to face up to this we will be unable to learn from history, and we know what happens then: man’s continued inhumanity to man makes countless thousands mourn.

A photo means more than all the words we can write

First published Sept 24, 2015 by Commonspace – https://www.commonspace.scot/articles/2351/james-mcenaney-when-photograph-means-more-all-words-we-can-write


ON the 4th of May 2014 my son – Ciaran Harris McEnaney – was born in Glasgow’s Southern General Hospital.

The latter stages of my wife’s pregnancy had been difficult, as was the birth itself, but he was finally here. When I held him for the first time – hands shaking, chest tightening – I remember feeling that the world had gotten just a little bit better in the instant of his arrival.

That initial elation didn’t last. Ciaran was obviously jaundiced and it soon became clear that he was struggling to maintain his body temperature; eventually, he was taken to intensive care.

I will never, for the rest of my life, forget how it felt to sit in that room, the index finger of my right hand pressed into his tiny palm, eyes fixed on his yellow-tinged body, literally begging – first aloud and then, when the words just wouldn’t come, silently – for him to stay warm, pull through and come home.

He did, but in those moments – when single seconds seemed to stretch out into eternity – I think I would have done anything to save him.

Ciaran is now 16 months old and is a happy, healthy child growing up in one of the most affluent areas of an incredibly rich and stable country, but the fear I felt in those early days has stayed with me ever since.

When I returned home from work today he was in the garden. He now recognises the sound of my motorbike and ran up to the gate as I approached. He stood there, smiling and waving until I pulled off my helmet and reciprocated.

This usually happens immediately, but not today – today, after all that I had seen, I had to take an extra few moments to compose myself.

Ciaran is upstairs now, asleep and mercifully unaware, the sound of his breathing drifting out from the baby monitor. I am sitting with my laptop on my knee, trying desperately – and futilely – to displace from my mind the image which has tormented me all day: the body of a little boy washed up on a European beach.

Alan Kurdi was a little older than my child, his clothes a little bigger, his skin and hair a little darker, but in every way that really matters this boy was no different from the son who means the world to me.

Every time I see that photograph of Alan I cannot help but think of Ciaran, and every time it makes me cry.

In my teaching I spend a lot of time impressing upon students the importance of thinking about their intended purpose and audience – why are you writing, and who are you writing for?

Right now I don’t have an answer for either question. I don’t know who this is for or what it’s supposed to achieve, only that these words demanded to be written.

I do know that in London right now David Cameron has finally been forced – forced – to accept that Britain must offer a safe haven to more of the refugees so desperate to reach Europe that they are willing to risk everything.

I know that discussions will be taking place where the political concerns of our government are weighed against the value of thousands upon thousands of human lives.

I also know that two-and-a-half thousand miles away Abdullah Kurdi is forced to confront something which I can barely comprehend: the loss of his wife and children.

Alan’s photograph may well be the catalyst which changes Europe’s attitude to the refugees screaming on our doorstep, but how can that possibly even begin to compensate a father whose family – whose world – is gone?

Even now I cannot find the words to properly express the way in which Abdullah Kurdi’s experiences make me feel, but I keep thinking about Ciaran, safe and secure a few metres above me.

I ask myself what I would be willing to do to keep him safe, where we would go if Scotland descended into the sort of hell engulfing countries like Syria.

I find myself trying to imagine how it would feel to take my infant son out onto a dangerous sea – one which has already claimed thousands of lives – simply because the land from which we have come is more dangerous than the journey across the water.

I struggle to understand how a continent whose collective identity was forged in the fire of almost unfathomable suffering could have failed so many for so long; how any human heart can be so hardened by hatred that it becomes possible to be indifferent to the suffering of millions; and how a prime minister can claim to have ‘done enough’ for refugees and then bear to look at his own reflection.

But there is something I absolutely can understand, and that is the words of Abdullah Kurdi, whose dreams of a better life in Europe have been ripped apart: “I just want to see my children for the last time and stay forever with them.”

Picture courtesy of Mustafa Khayat

The guilty silence which leaves blood on all of our hands

First published 18 June, 2015 by CommonSpace – https://www.commonspace.scot/articles/1650/james-mcenaney-guilty-silence-which-leaves-blood-all-our-hands

ON Monday Amnesty International offered its contribution to Refugee Week by publishing a scathing report entitled ‘The Global Refugee Crisis: a conspiracy of neglect’.

The entire document (click here to read it) is a searing indictment of the response to the “growing refugee crisis”, with 35 pages laying bare the abject failure of the so-called international community.

The report outlines, in devastating detail, the scale of suffering being experienced by human beings across the world, but perhaps the most shocking point is made in the opening lines of the executive summary: the number of people ‘forcibly displaced from their homes’ has, for the first time since the Second World War, risen to more than 50 million people.

Fifty. Million. People.

To put that figure into some sort of context it is higher than the populations of Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania combined.

There are more refugees in the world than there are people living in Spain, Argentina or Canada. Of the nearly 200 countries on earth only 26 have more residents than the number of people that Amnesty International argues have ‘been abandoned to an unbearable existence’.

Across Africa, the Middle East and south-east Asia millions of men, women and children endure daily suffering which, to us, is utterly unimaginable.

In the Andaman Sea Rohingya Muslims make a desperate attempt to escape persecution in Burma. Their journey, which includes prison camps, forced marches, beatings and weeks crammed into boats with minimal supplies was briefly highlighted several weeks ago; in truth, the Rohingya’s plight has been common knowledge for many years.

In the Middle East half of Syria’s population is currently to be found in refugee camps, having fled first the forces of President Assad and now the death, torture and sexual slavery meted out by Islamic State militants.

Last year the United Nations High Commission for Refugees assisted half a million internally displaced persons in Iraq, while the United Nations Relief and Works Agency recognises the rights of around five million Palestinian refugees – denied the right to return to Palestine by the West’s main ally in the region – to access its services.

In sub-Saharan Africa the Dadaab refugee camp is currently home to 350,000 people (more than the total population of North Lanarkshire), with around 3.4 million refugees in the region as a whole.

Conflicts in Somalia, South Sudan and the Central African Republic have ensured the continuation of what may be the longest-standing refugee crisis in the world.

Meanwhile, on the continent’s Mediterranean shores, human traffickers exploit thousands upon thousands of people so desperate that they are willing to undertake a voyage which they know will possibly be their last.

So far this year almost two thousand have drowned trying to reach Europe and, despite the eventual reintroduction of the ‘search and rescue’ campaign which includes the HMS Bulwark (at least for now), it should never be forgotten that innocent human beings were initially to be abandoned because Europe’s political leaders calculated that they were of more value dead than alive.

In a world with 24-hour news services and ever-expanding social-media platforms it is a wonder that any of us sleep at night.

And yet sleep we do.

Of course we are affected – to varying degrees – by the snapshots of agony which appear on our television screens: we mumble that our leaders should be ashamed of themselves as we eat dinner; our ‘eyeballs prick with tears between bath and pre-lunch beers’; we might even donate a few pounds a month to Oxfam or hand over an annual tenner to Children in Need.

But still we sleep – soundly, every night, safe in the knowledge that our birth certificates are also winning lottery tickets.

But we know all of this. We know about the terrible events happening in the world. We have seen the photographs and the videos; we have watched the news reports; we have read the adverts for UNICEF and MSF appeals. How, then, are we able to detach ourselves so completely from the unspeakable suffering of fellow human beings?

On the one hand such detachment is absolutely necessary – we simply could not function if we were to be emotionally affected by every single unnecessary death, and it is entirely reasonable that the loss of someone close to us has a far greater impact than the end of a stranger’s life – but this does not even come close to telling the whole story.

In reality, when terrible crises occur beyond the boundaries of ‘Fortress Europe’ our responses are all too often driven not by a sense of shared humanity, or a belief that we all belong to the ‘same human family’; instead, we separate ourselves from the suffering on the basis that it is not our problem. Worse still, we are able to do this because those suffering simply do not look like us.

This phenomenon is perhaps most easily understood through the overlapping prisms of the Rwandan Genocide – where up to a million people were hacked to death in full view of the international community – and the Bosnian Civil War.

As Stephen R Haynes points out in ‘Death was everywhere, even in front of the Church’, Rwanda and Bosnia were “different stories” because in the latter, despite “the difficult-to-pronounce names and the unfamiliar traditions, we were able to identify victims who ‘look like us’.”

David Livingstone Smith goes still further in his book ‘The Most Dangerous Animal: Human Nature and the Origins of War’ when he argues, correctly, that “we feel that people who resemble us are more valuable than those who do not”.

Consider this: if the sort of outrages to which we have become shockingly accustomed were affecting Europeans or North Americans would our response – both individual and collective – be different?

If the faces staring at us from our smartphone screens and newspaper pages were white would we care enough to act? If we could see ourselves in those 50 million refugees would we, as a nation, still largely turn our backs on them?

In the extraordinarily powerful ‘Spiritual Damage’ – a short reflective essay exploring the impact of reporting on the Rwandan Genocide – Fergal Keane makes clear why this apathy is so dangerous when he argues that “if we ignore evil we become the authors of a guilty silence”.

When faced with terrible injustices inaction becomes complicity and, by that measure, we all bear responsibility for the suffering of refugees around the world.

We are citizens of a country which has provided refuge for just 187 people fleeing a living hell in Syria, which refuses to accept a Europe-wide approach to helping those “in clear need of international protection” (click here to read more), and which, just last week, deported a Pakistani asylum-seeker who is now feared dead.

The UK – as one of the world’s wealthiest nations – should be leading the way in developing the ‘global response’ to the refugee crisis called for by Amnesty International.

Their recommendations, such as the establishment of a global refugee fund, fulfillment of resettlement needs as identified by UNHCR and, most importantly, “an absolute commitment to saving lives” should underpin the foreign policy of any compassionate nation. The UK should be throwing its full weight behind these demands, but it won’t.

Instead, politicians subtly, but persistently, encourage the electorate to blame the ongoing economic crisis on groups of poor and powerless human beings including – though not limited to – asylum seekers and refugees; newspapers boost their circulation figures with articles invoking the dehumanising language of genocide; and, according to a recent YouGov poll, nearly half of Britons believe that our country should not be “a place of refuge for people who have fled from conflict and persecution overseas”. (Click here to read more).

We could and should do so much more, but the truth is that, as a nation, we simply sit back and look on, happy to benefit from the consequences of a globalised world (we have the world’s sixth-largest economy and are also one of the top international arms dealers) but unwilling to share our privilege with those left with nothing but the hope of a better life.

The challenge for all of us lies in facing up to our collective complicity in this ongoing act of evil, particularly when our lifestyles so often directly depend upon the inequalities and conflicts which are driving so much of the horror experienced on a daily basis by innocent men, women and children across the globe.

Our ‘guilty silence’ is written by our refusal to acknowledge that the very structures of our specific society and broader world order put politics and profits before people.

Despite our occasional protestations, the actions of our government – carried out in our name, for our benefit, and ultimately with our consent – coupled with our understandable yet inexcusable apathy leaves blood on all of our hands.