Investigating the positionality and political agency of migrant children

How do migrant children react to the paradox of holding two seemingly contradictory subject positions at once: the (deserving) child and the (undeserving) migrant?

Children’s position as specific right-bearers was a major driving force behind last year’s turn of events during the “summer of migration”. Images of Syrian war refugee Alan Kurdi lying dead on the shore in Turkey stirred up waves of emotions, and not very long after Europeans were applauding refugees as they arrived at train stations across the continent. The leading call at charity galas and in letters from aid organisations was “Help the Syrian children!” But we all know how quickly the tide turned later that fall and how the gates of fortress Europe once again closed in the face of children and adults alike of all nationalities.

In my on-going research project I investigate the paradox of migrant children as both bearers of specific rights and being subject to immigration control, and how children react to the experience of this paradox in their everyday lives. They are both children and migrants, and thus both considered especially vulnerable and deserving of special protection as children. At the same time, as migrants they are threatened by the interest of sovereign nation states to control migration. In short, during last year’s events, policies and public opinion first shifted to emphasise the child migrant, and then shifted back to emphasise the child migrant.

The point of departure of my Politics article, ‘The duality of children’s political agency in deportability‘, is to look at a specific group of children positioned as migrants, namely those who are threatened by deportation since they lack permission to reside in the UK, even though many of them are born in the UK and have lived in the country their whole lives. As I got to know some of these children and their parents I got an insight into how the children themselves experience and react to the paradox of being both positioned as a deserving, rights-bearing child and a potentially deportable child.

They are all allowed to go to school and their parents’ primary aim is to make sure they live as much of a “normal life” as possible. But as the children came home from school, letters from the Home Office were lying on the kitchen table. Some of the children curiously opened the letters without their parents’ knowledge and read about their potential threat of deportation. One child was even forced to participate in a meeting at the Home Office, at the age of 5, where she was told that she might have to go back to Ghana, a country she had never been in. This knowledge of one’s potential deportability stirred up anger and repugnance in the children. Other children were not as aware of their situation. Their parents tried to avoid involving them in these issues so that they could put all their focus and energy on succeeding at school. However, these children were also affected by the stress the threat of deportation had on their parents. Deportability makes itself known in different ways and children are very good at picking up on their parents’ anxiety.

Drawing on theories about children’s political agency, primarily discussed within children’s geographies, I analyse these children’s experiences of living their everyday lives in deportability. I argue in my Politics article that these children’s political agency comes about through dual processes. Both the children who knew more and those who knew less about their families’ immigration issues shared the experience of social inclusion mainly through going to school. One aspect of how their political agency comes about is how they all argue for this position of being included and being “just like everyone else”. I argue that their struggle to sustain this experience of inclusion is an expression of mundane everyday acts of political agency.

Secondly, some of the children expressed political agency in more active, direct and visible ways through writing angry letters to the Home Office, taking part in stage plays about their fear of being deported or vividly arguing against anyone claiming they are not “British”. However, in these active contestations of being positioned as “deportable”, the children point to their experience of being included as the ground for their claims and argue for this inclusion to continue. In this way, the duality of their political agency is not a contrasting phenomenon but rather complementary.

The aim of my study of the everyday lives and political agency of irregularised migrant children in the UK is to give an insight into how children react to the paradox of both being positioned as (deserving) children and (undeserving) migrants. Hopefully it can increase our awareness of what it is like for children to be stuck on the wrong side of the current draconic migration regime and help us recognise children’s struggles as they happen in their everyday lives so that we also can take their claims more seriously.

Jacob Lind

Jacob Lind

Jacob Lind is a PhD student at Malmö University and is part of the research project “Undocumented children’s rights claims”. He has conducted comparative ethnographic research in Malmö, Sweden and Birmingham, UK among irregularised migrant families.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *