When I decided to move abroad, I felt like the move was itself the opportunity I wanted. Living in a new country is a really interesting experience, it gets you to think through the pragmatics of how other people live, it allows you to see new things, and learn about the world. But moving also gave me other kinds of opportunities that I never would have imagined in my doctoral research, my professional development, and in forming some big picture thinking.
When I came to Oxford I was in the second year of my PhD (which looks at the topic of missing persons – you can read more about my work here) and transitioning from researching journal articles, books, and archival materials towards interviewing. Being in a new country meant that I could talk to people I never would have met if I were still in Australia. And it gave me different ideas about what my research could do and what made it important.
In Australia, missing persons is often wrapped up in notions of landscape – being lost, falling victim to the desert, or to killer animals. Of course, there are other causes too, people run away to escape from horrible situations, people get abducted, and so on. But being in Europe in particular made me think more closely about the issue as something that is not inevitable but caused, and something that policy instruments and institutions can respond to. This is particularly important in Europe around the fact that a considerable proportion of missing young people are unaccompanied minors – refugees who have travelled to Europe and who don’t have the protection of their parents or other caregivers. Europol says there are at least 10,000 minors who fit into this category in Europe, although everyone I’ve spoken to says this is a massive underestimation. This was not actually an issue I was aware of before I started speaking to people here. It’s a complex issue and I think it’s really important to talk about in the context of missing persons because of the enormous number of refugees and displaced people in the world (over 65 million, the biggest number ever) and the ease in which members of that population go missing when in chaotic, threatening, or otherwise dangerous situations. It’s also really dangerous to be a missing child in particular. They’re at enormous risk of being a victim of trafficking, slavery or otherwise exploitative working conditions, organ harvesting, and more.
Moreover, travelling myself has really made me realise that missing persons is a global issue. I’ve talked to people who have dealt with cases (either personally or as a support worker or investigator) that have traversed national borders. This is particularly the case in Europe where crossing borders is very quick and easy. In that way, being overseas has opened up my mind to thinking about my work in different and more flexible ways. And this will have a huge impact on what I’ve been able to find in my research.
Brexit has been troubling to me on many levels. On the most selfish level, leaving the EU will be something of a professional loss for me as being able to identify as a resident of an EU country – especially as a young person – entitles you to apply for free or heavily subsidised professional development opportunities. Last year, I was part of a European Youth Media project (which I’ve mentioned like a bajillion times because I really liked it) which meant I could sit in the media room at the EU Parliament in Strasbourg and report on youth issues. There are other projects on my radar which sound likewise amazing.
But even once the UK leaves the EU, proximity to a range of countries is itself is still useful. Europe has a lot of interesting conferences, workshops, residencies, etc. that are invaluable for me. Next month I’ll be heading to Iceland for a conference which would have been very difficult if not impossible to get to from Australia. There are also so many designated spaces for artists and writers to work at and meet similarly minded people. Australia has tons of opportunities as well, but the number of opportunities here is compounded by the number of countries that are accessible.
Although I don’t think I’ve ever really been a parochial person, when I had only lived in Australia my goals and my vision about what constitutes “success” was heavily shaped around the culture. For example, some of my loftier goals were to write for publications which are highly circulated and well-regarded in the country, but are barely heard of here. I think I would still get a kick from being published in a magazine that I read and loved throughout my life, but moving has meant putting some of those goals in a wider context. Everything I used to hope for feels smaller.
Naturally, part of the impact the wider lens has had is to make me think about even loftier achievements which would be globally recognised (like being in The New York Times or something). But there’s something paradoxical has happened too, which is that I’ve grown to feel that the biggest, most prestigious, the most recognised of accolades aren’t really all that important. After all, for many years, the most important things to me were never really understood or cared about by most people in the world. And that’s fine. I’m becoming more commitment to the quality of the work itself, to trying to find the best place for it to fit, to valuing local knowledge as well as global prestige. This has been quite a gift because the wider lens has given me space to think about what I really want to work on, who I want to work with, what stimulates my curiosity, what kind of impact I want.