Childhood Denied: Politics of Personhood in an Unequal World

Images of young children being washed ashore en route to Europe and CBP agents tearing toddlers apart from their parent’s tight embrace throbbed through media outlets and into the hearts of global viewers. Movements to “let the kids in” and “keep families together” ensued and after time, became subdued. But what if some of the children arriving at national borders, seeking protection, are not so young and do not strike the same chord as toddlers do? What happens when their “deservingness” is overshadowed by the presumed illegality of their entry and a portrayal of inherent violence from their country? Is there indeed a universality of childhood and if so, what does it look like in the context of imperialism and subsequent migration?

We live in a time where fact and history have been replaced with inflammatory language and fear; a time when words like immigrant, asylum seeker and unaccompanied child are linked to criminality and danger. As such, recent political rhetoric in the “age of suspicion” has questioned the legitimacy of Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children (UASC) in the EU and Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC) in the US despite the steady number of children fleeing their countries alone due to intolerable conditions and in need of international protection. From 2008 to 2017, there have been 198,500 unaccompanied migrant children who have entered Europe, the majority of whom are from Afghanistan, Syria and Somalia (Menjivar, 2017) or the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. In fiscal year 2018, there have been 50,036 unaccompanied migrant children arriving in the United States primarily from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala (U.S. Customs and Border Patrol 2018), often referred to as the Northern Triangle of Central America (NTCA). I argue that taking a historical and world systems analysis approach to migration can and should embolden developed/core countries to take accountability for their capitalist gain at the expense of the developing/periphery populations — affecting protections for children in particular.

The response to child migration has been to deem it a ‘crisis’ limited to the borders at which children arrive rather than to examine the volatile foundation of the environments children are fleeing, rooted in a history of imperialism. Today, the MENA and NTCA are considered the “most violent” and “least peaceful” regions due to organized crime, poverty and corruption (Menjivar 2017). Children, in particular, are forced to flee and embark on traumatizing journeys to countries largely responsible for the conditions they are fleeing. “Without sufficient political, economic, or social analysis to contextualize the proliferation of violence and in the absence of balanced representations” (Abrego 2017) the ‘most violent’ and ‘least peaceful’ narrative can lead to a perception of inherent violence and danger which can be detrimental to the treatment of unaccompanied children and their ability to receive international protection. This article looks at the language used in response to unaccompanied migrant children, determine their eligibility for protection, and politicize the “humanitarian crises” in the United Kingdom and the United States in the context of historical relations between “sending” and “destination” countries.

De Genova et al inspect the word “crisis” and its prevalence in reporting on the global situation of migration. The authors identify ways in which “humanitarian/ migration crises” have been linked to “economic/security crises” (De Genova et al 2016) and how such terms “evoke particular policies and public reactions” (Menjivar 2017). In looking at history, one can see that the “crisis” framework has been strategically used by government actors in order to intervene through foreign and domestic policies. Such language has been used to justify interventionist policy with blatant disregard for the human cost of intervention. The word “crisis” seems to convey a sense of imminent danger and demand immediate action which often justifies reactionary policies rather than policies that take into account the complexity of the situation at hand. The very idea that crises disrupt the “presumed stability” of the present, “tends to conceal the violence and permanent exception that are the norm under global capitalism and our global geo-politics, and may serve to perpetuate the conditions that have led to the purported “emergency” in the first place” (De Genova et al 2016).

Furthermore, “crises are essential to the reproduction of capitalism. It is in the course of crises that the instabilities of capitalism are confronted, reshaped and re-engineered to create a new version of what capitalism is about” (Harvey 2014). Harvey’s argument exposes the cyclical nature of the World Systems Theory (Wallerstein and Hopkins 1982) which highlights ways in which core countries benefit at the expense of those on the periphery, a system that is evident in looking at both the history of intervention and the current situation of migration on a global scale. “In this world of ours, a world of powerful centers and subjugated outposts, there is no wealth that must not be held in some suspicion” (Galeano 1973). The origins of capital accumulation have been sewn out of colonialism and used to rationalize the implementation of inhumane policies, many of which lead to substantial monetary gain. Benazir Bhutto and Eduardo Galeano write about foreign intervention in the Middle East and Latin America as a means of explaining what the West considers “the backward” and “uncivilized” status of the regions. This “civilized/uncivilized binary” used by colonizers to exclude those who benefit from laws of war and intervention continue to reinforce the “dynamics of exclusion” from refugee laws (Chimni 2009).

While many are shocked by the anti-immigrant policies recently implemented by right-wing nationalist rulers (such as the hostile environment policy in the UK and the family-separation policy in the US), it is not surprising if you look at the history of imperialism. Rather than approach these issues as new phenomena, I argue that we tackle them at their roots, developed over centuries, and urge that countries be held accountable for conditions they have helped to create and maintain. Through a history of interventionism and capital accumulation, core countries have historically treated those on the periphery as gateways to fulfill economic and political objectives and are now positioned as the gatekeepers with the power to determine who is and who is not deserving of international protection. The politics of personhood in the context of imperialism and subsequent migration reveals not only the deservingness of protection but the deservingness of childhood and agency, which have historically been denied for periphery peoples.

In looking at Afghanistan and Guatemala, two of the countries with the highest number of unaccompanied asylum seeking children arriving in the European Union and the United States, it is important to consider their geo political positioning. Both countries have been viewed as gateways into the regions they form part of; Afghanistan as the “land bridge” into Asia and Guatemala as the access point into Central and South America. Following WWII, the threat of communism was central to the geopolitical conflicts of the time as well as being the impetus for the Geneva convention and definition of refugee established in 1951. After the war, there was a need to supplement the workforce in Europe to help rebuild and “granting refuge was seen as a noble deed in light of the atrocities of the war” and “the modern states’ duty to create a humanist project that would prevent the events of the war from ever repeating themselves” (Jubany 2017). However, the political positioning of modern nations protecting those at the hands of the oppressive Soviet Regime is what led to the Cold War and established “an ideological divide between the East and the West” and “good and evil”. This political divide is what produced the “Red Scare” and allowed for the West to intervene in both Afghanistan and Guatemala.

Through proxy wars supported by Western nations at the cost of Afghan and Guatemalan lives, conditions of poverty, instability, and violence were sewn. In the case of Guatemala, when democratically elected leader Jacobo Arbenz threatened US corporate greed by introducing modest agrarian reform bills, the United Fruit Company along with its CIA counterparts lead a propaganda campaign to establish support for “Operation Success” in 1954; a military coup that subsequently led to US sponsored Guatemalan genocide (Galeano 1973). Similar to the way the United States trained death squads in Guatemala, Mujahideen were recruited and trained by the US and UK to fight communism through “Operation Cyclone” in Afghanistan. Once the enemy was defeated, the fighters, including Osama bin Laden, were not welcomed in their countries of origin and as a result, the Taliban was formed out of the chaos of war-torn Afghanistan.

In her last book, late Prime Minster of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto, wrote that if Afghanistan had not been used as merely a “blunt instrument to trigger the implosion of the Soviet Union” and then abandoned, history in the entire region might well have been very different (Bhutto 2008). Similarly, Eduardo Galeano argues that “from a geopolitical standpoint Guatemala might be seen as a colony condemned to perpetual nonfulfillment as a nation…As part of a region vital to the security of the imperium [the United States], Guatemala must remain under its exclusive and undisputed hegemony” (Galeano 1967). This geo political history is critical to understanding unaccompanied child migration as an “alternative survival strategy for minors facing economic hardship and danger from violence” (Menjivar 2017).

In her study on unaccompanied migrant children fleeing to the EU and the US, Cecilia Menjivar establishes that “children leave their countries for a variety of reasons related with various degrees of intensity to violence, a range of structural conditions, lack of rule of law, corrupt governments, and a desire for a better education and future” (Menjivar 2017). While most research is focused on overt violence, Menjivar addresses long-term structural forms of repression that have driven youth to search for a better future outside their countries’ borders for decades. Access to basic needs and basic governance are absent in the lives of children and are often the leading motivators for them to seek support and security abroad. Despite increased international spending in military and humanitarian assistance, 50 percent of the population in Afghanistan lived in poverty as opposed to 40 percent in 2014; children under the age of 15 constituting more than half (World Bank 2016). Considering structural and institutional violence and oppression developed over centuries and supported by exterior actors in countries of origin would transcend the “simplified policy understandings of migration” (Feldman 2011).

As noted by Stephen Castles in his discussion of mixed-motive migration, “countries with weak economies, increasing inequality and widespread impoverishment tend also to have tyrannical rulers, weak state apparatuses, and high levels of violence and human rights violations. Thus the conditions that cause economic migration are closely linked with those that cause forced migration, leading to the migratory movement of people with mixed-motivation” (Castles 2003). While not a new phenomenon, the discussion of mixed-motive migration has increased due to the impacts of globalization, new sources of violence and rising inequality. I argue that “mixed-motive” is not to say that the reasons qualifying for asylum are not included but rather they are mixed with the complexities of the long shared history between the Northern Triangle of Central America and U.S. and indicative of occupied territories such as Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq.

United States intervention in the NTCA and MENA as well as bilateral efforts to control migration, reveal how extraterritorial influence “allows states to simultaneously extend their sovereign privileges through forms of mobile government and elude the responsibilities that come with it” and can result in “irreversible human rights violations” (Jacquemet 2015). Following the “surge” of unaccompanied minors in 2014, the Obama administration developed a bilateral agreement with Mexico to increase border security at Mexico’s southern border and throughout the country as a means of preventing the “humanitarian crisis” from reaching US soil but instead, the policy perpetuates the cycle of violence experienced by child migrants on a transnational level. Similarly, the British government is currently helping to fund a network of 26 Libyan detention centers where child refugees have been reported to suffer from abuse and malnutrition (Taylor 2018).

The forms of interdiction and refoulement through which asylum seeking children are denied their right to asylum and instead subject to arbitrary detention and deportation from third countries (Mexico and Libya) are clear violations of human rights, child protections in particular. Rather than exposing the root causes of migration and acknowledging culpability, core countries continue to be complicit in the violation of human rights as a means of protecting their sovereignty and deterring migration. Such policies reveal an institutionalized “culture of control” which emphasizes the crime rather than its causes and is the common approach to asylum seekers and migration in general (Welch and Shuster 2005). The consequence of this framework is that asylum seekers are narrowly viewed as a threat to social order rather than a result of colonization therefore allowing nation-states to enact policies aimed at restricting movement at any cost.

Such efforts to restrict the movement of unaccompanied child migrants reveal how the governmentality of migration values deterrence over protection and allows for regimes of exception for detention and deportation (Feldman 2011). While policies in response to UACs in the US were initially focused on protecting “vulnerable children”, the need to protect the nation-state soon took precedence and has become even more abundantly clear as anti-immigrant rhetoric, cast by the current President of the US, links the ‘surge’ of unaccompanied minors from Central America to the ‘surge of MS-13 violence’ in the US. The migration crisis and “its foregrounding of child victims, has produced a humanitarian narrative of crisis which is built on a politics of innocence and vulnerability” (McLaughlin 2017). Consequently, increasing anti-immigrant rhetoric has altered the perception of unaccompanied asylum seeking children from a sympathetic response to unaccompanied child migrants as innocent victims, to the treatment of child migrants as preemptive suspects due to the increasing “illegality of asylum” as a political and ideological construct.

In 2016, the Dubs amendment to the United Kingdom’s Immigration Act was passed and offered unaccompanied immigrant children held in refugee camps across Europe a legal route to resettlement in Britain. However, there was immense political backlash when the first group of UASCs arrived in the UK as “they did not look like children” (McLaughlin, 2017). Lord Alf Dubs, who was behind the passage of the amendment, arrived as a child refugee himself in a process called the Kindertransport, which was intended to save young children from the Nazi regime (McLaughlin 2017). Due to the appearances of primarily male youth from the MENA, their status as children was scrutinized, resulting in arbitrary age assessments and severe consequences for the children in question (European Union Committee 2016).

The European Union committee issued a report on the state of unaccompanied children in 2017 which found that due to the flawed age-assessment process imposed as a result of public scrutiny, many children were wrongfully placed in unsuitable conditions. The report confirmed that “at least 127 minors have been found classified as adults in UK detention since the start of 2010 up to June 2015 … children as young as 14 have been assessed as adults, with immigration officers making incorrect decisions based on the person’s appearance. Some children were held in detention centres for months, in conditions they described as ‘distressing’ and ‘scary’” (European Union Committee 2016). The “culture of disbelief” exposes the precarity of childhood as a category in its encounter with the politics of border control and its failure to offer genuine protection to children in the framework of Britain’s punitive asylum system (McLaughlin 2017). Age-assessments expose how in the context of asylum, the category of childhood is a social construct open to interpretation, negotiation and manipulation. Following the social and political response to the “non-childlike” refugee children, Home Secretary Amber Rudd claimed that the Dubs Scheme acted as a “pull” for refugees and encourages “people traffickers” (Bulman 2018), drawing a correlation between the “humanitarian crisis” presented by child refugees with criminality and danger.

In 2014, Obama established a “Central American Minor” (CAM) program for minors from the NTCA through which parents with legal status in the US could apply for refugee status for children under 21-years-old who still lived in one of the NTCA countries. Due to the difficulty of gathering evidence in home countries and interviewing for asylum without legal counsel, many children were not granted refugee status but were able to obtain parole order to safely reunite with their families in the US. President Trump ended the program shortly after he took office and has since, made multiple efforts to call into question the validity of unaccompanied immigrant children and asylum seekers in general.

Similar to Home Secretary Amber Rudd’s statement establishing the Dubs Scheme as a “pull factor” that encourages criminals, President Trump often attributes MS-13 gang violence to the ‘surge’ of UACs from the NTCA which he refers to as a “humanitarian disaster” caused by the “open door policy of the previous administration” (Trump 2017). In a speech made to law enforcement officers in Long Island, Trump claimed that “few communities have suffered worse from the MS-13 thugs than the people of Long Island” while equating these so-called “thugs” to animals and encouraging the audience to “work to dismantle, decimate and eradicate MS-13”. Further in to this speech, Trump warned that “we will find, arrest, jail and deport all criminal aliens” and if their country does not want them back, he threatened to use “the power of economics” to stop trade with such countries. Trump ended his speech by proclaiming: “We will defend our country. We will put the safety of the American people first. I’m doing that with law enforcement and trade and so much else. It’s called America First” (Trump 2017).

In criminalizing an entire population of asylum seeking youth, Trump draws a correlation between violent criminality and asylum seeking migrant children. Also in this speech, Trump links migration, trade and the ‘the power of economics’ which is directly associated with world systems analysis and migration governance (Fassin 2011). I argue that we must consider the long legacy of ‘America First’, the President’s favorite slogan, in our foreign and domestic affairs and how such nationalist rhetoric has instilled a sort of justification for perpetuating violence at each stage of the lived experience of periphery peoples.

Life politics produce a “figure” of the deserving aid recipient “framing her or him as a victim in need of protection” (Fassin, 2011). The legacy of violence afflicting the three countries of the NTCA are rooted in ‘patterns of imperium’ (Hopkins, 1982) and must be considered when processing asylum seekers from the region. Instead of recognizing these shared histories, such context is often omitted and the very foundation of asylum and refugee law further establishes the divide between ‘good and bad’, ‘deserving and undeserving’. The classification of “refugee vs. immigrant” creates a system through which one must meet the constraints of “who is deserving of protection” (Cabot, 2013) and who is not.

The politics of childhood in a racialized context coupled with the increasing illegality of asylum seeking reveal the precarity of childhood as a social construct, vulnerable to ideological and political scrutiny. In her writing on the “culture of disbelief” and asylum, Olga Jubany argues that “while legal and policy changes contribute to shaping immigration officers’ worlds, it is the messages and meta-message about asylum seekers as threats that have the greatest impact on officers’ actions” (Jubany 2017). When the process of asylum is subject to changes in ideology and political scrutiny, what does it mean for children to be dragged through the system from adolescence into early adulthood? How does this affect their mental health and their likelihood of being able to stay in the country of residence on the basis of their claim as unaccompanied asylum seeking children? The state of limbo experienced by asylum seeking children in the UK due to the limitations of the Dubs amendment and the immediate skepticism following the policy is similar to the situation unaccompanied immigrant children from the NTCA are experiencing in the United States under a president who has labeled them all as gang members. Asylum law is under attack due to allegations made by nationalist leaders who link refugees and asylum seekers to criminal organizations and pass policies that treat immigrant children like animals.

Despite movements to “let the children in” and “keep families together”, UASCs are currently missing in the UK (Bulman 2018) just as those separated from their parents in the US, becoming unaccompanied minors, are lost in the immigration system. When countries have long been determined battlegrounds for wars and the exploitation of their resources, what does that mean for the treatment of their people, especially their children? The politics of childhood in the context of migration reveals not only the deservingness of refugee status but the deservingness of childhood. In a world of “first vs. third” and “core vs. periphery”, is there actually a universality of childhood? Yes, these children have had to grow up quickly, much faster than I (along with most policy makers) have had to, but if we truly take into account the conditions they are fleeing, why should their appearance even matter?


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