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Smuggled: An Illegal History of Journeys to Australia

We interview authors Julie Kalman and Ruth Ballint about their new book, which argues the case for a new, more nuanced definition ‘people smuggler’.

Friday 25 June 2021 1:17am
Smuggled by Julie Kalman and Ruth Balint
Smuggled by Julie Kalman and Ruth Balint

There aren’t many jobs more maligned than ‘people smuggler’. Since the turn of the millennium, a narrative has emerged that insists anyone who aids a person’s passage to Australia without a visa is a profiteering monster.

Dr Julie Kalman and Dr Ruth Ballint disagree.

In their new book Smuggled: An Illegal History of Journeys to Australia, the academics argue for a new, more nuanced definition of ‘people smuggler’. A definition that recognises that while some involved in the practice do profit, there are also many stories of people risking their own livelihoods to help others flee persecution and genuine danger.

The VMC spoke to Kalman about some of the stories she and co-author Ballint share in the book.

What inspired you and Ruth to write this book?

Both Ruth and I have family who came here as unwanted refugees. Nobody tells the story of the journey of refugees and asylum seekers. How did they get from where the trouble they were in to here? We wanted to tell that story.

The whole book was inspired by Les Murray, the SBS sports presenter. He did a documentary in 2014 where he went home to Hungary to find the guy who had smuggled his family out through the Iron Curtain into Austria. He wanted to thank him. And with the documentary, he wanted to make a statement about how this man was a people smuggler as well as a hero.

People smugglers are not always criminals looking to profit from people’s desperation. There are people who risk their lives to help get others out of dangerous situations. That is true throughout history, including today.

The current discourse around people smugglers is always very presentist. It’s as if people smugglers have just arrived, and it’s always a for-profit industry. But that’s wrong. As long as there have been borders, there have been people smugglers and they have a whole spectrum of motivations.

Speaking in the present day, then, what are some of the misconceptions about people smugglers?

The extraordinary media demonisation, we know it’s politically motivated, but it’s also overly simplistic. It’s much more complicated and nuanced than it’s presented.

There was an article a while ago that Ruth wrote for The Monthly. She contacted a couple of the fishermen who had piloted a boat to Australia, who were in prison. These were the people who the Australian government would catch and put in jail, but the article is all about how they are ‘small fry’ in the operation, and not profiting from this like people think at all.

There’s also a great book by Robin de Crespigny called The People Smuggler, which we quote in our introduction. She met a gentleman who smuggled a whole lot of people from Indonesia, and he was doing it to raise enough money to get his own family out.

Photo of Julie Kalman
Julie Kalman, co-author

What are some of the stories you share in the book?

We’ve got stories of people getting through the Iron Curtain, escaping Eastern Europe. Stories of people who came to Australia from Vietnam by boat. We have one man who was smuggled out of Ethiopia when the civil war started there. The story of a well-known doctor from Iraq. A Hazara fellow from Afghanistan. Someone from Myanmar.

There’s a part about Mirka Mora’s husband, George Mora who collaborated with the famous French mime artist Marcel Marceau during the Second World War. They helped Jewish children whose parents wanted them taken away to safety. They dressed up as nuns and took them on what was supposedly a day trip, and then smuggled them across the border from France into Switzerland.

Julie Kalman and Ruth Balint will be attending a series of events in support of their new book Smuggled: An Illegal History of Journeys to Australia, including a launch event at Readings in St Kilda on Thursday 6 July 2021.

Register to attend

The Victorian Multicultural Commission acknowledges that the issue of people smuggling is complex and sensitive. The ideas and opinions expressed by Dr Kalman in this interview are her own.

Reviewed 25 June 2021

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