I spent the weekend working on a paper about “Children on the Move.” I’m not even close to done with it yet, but the topic is fascinating. Some reports say that 1/3 of migrants are between the ages of 12 and 25, including millions of children under the age of 18. The number of children and youth who migrate is difficult to pin down with certainty, given that migration is often within country, seasonal, across porous borders, and because most child migrants don’t have legal means to migrate or they lack identification, leaving them under the radar and uncounted.
Children move for all kinds of reasons, from and into all kinds of situations. The push-pull factors that cause them to migrate vary a great deal from situation to situation. Often the movement of children is lumped under trafficking and child labor, and all children who move are considered victims, and all those who support children to move are labeled criminals or traffickers and all parents who allow their children to move are lambasted for not caring about them. If you read what children and parents involved in migration say, it’s clear that this is not the case.
One person I interviewed for the paper noted off the record that sometimes those working with children who migrate are forced to put them in the category of “trafficked” or “at risk of trafficking” because there is no real category (or funding) to support children who are “seeking better opportunity” or “fleeing domestic violence” or “scared for my life because of the gangs in my community, and traveling across several countries up to the US seems like less of a risk.”
Just like adult migrants, children often move of their own will to seek opportunity in other places. Their movement in and of itself is not negative, but moving without protection mechanisms and support can indeed put them at risk. Policies and systems that don’t talk to each other also put children and youth in peril, whether it is when children themselves move, or when their parents move with them.
For the report I’m doing, I’m looking at how ICTs are being used by children and youth to make their journey safer, and ways that communities, local child protection committees, institutions, governments and NGOs are using or could use some of these new ICT tools to better support and protect children and youth who move for any reason.
Some interesting efforts are happening, including some ingenious local networks in West Africa that work across communities to help ensure children’s paths and travels are as safe as possible; and a radio and SMS project in Tanzania that is building up a pro-child protection constituency by encouraging people to tell stories about when and where they have supported or helped a child.
It’s been heartbreaking to read about Afghan youth who are forcibly returned to a country they can barely remember because they have turned 18 and are no longer supported by the UK child welfare system, yet at least a tiny bit encouraging that a UK organization is working on a mobile app that could provide these youth with at least a map and some information about their ‘homeland’ so that they know where to go for help when they step off the plane in what is now a foreign country.
Reading about migrant parents in the US losing their children to foster care because they have been detained for migration violations and are unable to show up to court to keep their children, or they lack critical information about how the system works, or they are not allowed more than one phone call makes my blood boil. Having been married to a Salvadoran, I’ve experienced my own fair share of migration difficulties and horror stories. They are not pretty, and family separation hurts, no matter what color or nationality the family is. It seems that the root of some countries’ inability to deal with migration in a dignified way is an underlying devaluation of people from other places and an inability to see them as human. Can ICTs play a role in changing attitudes at the broad scale? Or can we at least enable migrants in detention more communication with families so that they don’t lose contact with their children? A few initiatives are looking at storytelling as a way to bring more humanity into the migration debate.
As both Duncan Green (Why is migration a Cinderella issue in development) and Owen Barder (Is migration too toxic for development) have written recently, migration has not been a hot topic on the development agenda, and it’s only now starting to get some play.
Why is that? I think Owen’s comment is pretty good to spark some thought:
Migration is a Cinderella issue in development because there is nobody to speak for the people who are disadvantaged by the current rules. Domestic civil society organisations which work on migration are mainly focused on the rights of immigrants, not on improving the impact of migration on development or creating opportunities for people in poor countries. DFID is largely in retreat from non-aid issues. The big development NGOs at best speak for their own visions of development, and at worst promote the aid industry of which they are part. As a result, people in developing countries are denied some of the most powerful and inexpensive ways in which they could improve their lives.
We need to find a way to look at all angles and aspects of migration, including that of child migration, in a holistic way that involves all these different actors. I think that one reason migration is not talked about enough in the development debate is because it is a touchy political issue that might make a donor base freak out. It also tends to makes agencies that work with children a bit uncomfortable – If we protect children who migrate, will we be seen to be encouraging illegal migration? Will we be seen as supporting child labor? Are we liable if we give children safety tips or information, and then something happens to them? How can we do no harm? What about unintended consequences?
More recently, many child-focused agencies have started to better come to grips with the realities that children are going to migrate, and it’s altogether possible that staying in their home community is actually not in their best interest. These are thorny questions, however, that are difficult to deal with, especially in the open when the political debate around migration has been so traditionally ugly.
Perhaps framing migration as an economic issue will help bring it into the debate, but I do hope we don’t lose touch with the human side of migration.