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Home arrow Economics arrow Children and Forced Migration: Durable Solutions During Transient Years

Childhood, Youth, and Sexuality

So far, the literature on unaccompanied minors experiencing forced migration has been dominated by gloomy reports of child trafficking and child exploitation, often written by legal analysts (Bhabba 2004, 2008) and child psychologists (Derluyn and Broekaert 2005, 2007). These disciplines usually employ normative frameworks for thinking about unaccompanied minors. In particular, the Western standard for defining childhood based on age and the assumption of childhood innocence is hardly ever challenged. As Tanon and Sow (2013, 193) and others have shown, maturity is not necessarily linked to calendar years, but depends mostly on social competencies.

Prout and James (2003) also have shown that the meaning of childhood and, thereby maturity, is contextual in that it is interpreted through culture and is not independent of other variables of social analysis. Lacking both the physical strength to defend themselves and the cognitive and psychological development to understand their rights (Chavez and Menjivar 2010), unaccompanied minors are forced to learn on the go and may experience “premature maturation” (Derluyn and Broekaert 2007, 142). This process is evident in the enormous resilience shown by some UYAS during their long-lasting journeys.

Western ideas of psychosocial development emphasize the different nature of certain stages of life, especially childhood and adulthood, marked by the age of 18, an age that has legal implications when people attain it. Furthermore, societal and cultural constructions of childhood have created ideals of what constitutes a “good” or “healthy” childhood (Uehling 2008). For many children and youth, however, the ideal of a sorrow-free childhood never materializes, as they have to make sacrifices for the greater good of the entire family. Instead of learning and developing into an adult in a protected environment, regarded as suitable by Western child psychologists, they may have to spend their time on tedious tasks, suffer from lack of food, and basic care, especially in the face of displacement, conflict, and ongoing violence. Without endorsing such deprived situations, the argument here is that it is harmful to ignore the impact that growing up under these circumstances has on the UYASs’ level of maturity and life experiences; that is, it does not allow for the possibility that their needs may differ from those of children growing up in protected environments.

The UYAS are socially effective agents with their own rights, but they often are seen as both at risk themselves and as bringing risk to others. On the one hand, they are perceived to be more vulnerable than adults because they face higher risk of sexual violence, exploitation, and abuse and therefore need special legal protection (Crock 2005, 121). On the other hand, they are perceived as bringing risk to the communities they find themselves in while in transit or when they have been resettled because of their potential for teenage rebellion and troublesome behavior and their cultural and linguistic otherness. In other words, they can be both “threatened and threatening” (Uehling 2008, 844). These two perceptions of UYAS produce tension in the way state authorities deal with them because of the clash between the basic principles of humanitarian- ism and human security (Uehling 2008, 837). As children they are still undergoing emotional and intellectual development. Although children generally are understood to have special needs, their sexuality, or their need for intimate relationships, is not considered as being among those special needs.

Western models of childhood foster assumptions about it as an age of innocence, during which employment and active sexuality are not deemed appropriate (Ensor and Gozdziak 2010, 2). This assumption of innocence requires that children are shielded from the corrupt and impure aspects of the “real world,” an attitude that has been described as “caretaker paternalism” (Huynh et al. 2015, 37). Upholding the assumption of innocence can result in ignoring what is really happening during migration journeys, which is often the very opposite of innocence. Some UYAS are still childlike but also show signs of maturity. Despite the assumption that children are asexual beings, many who work with UYAS have come to accept a different reality. For example, local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Indonesia have realized that many unaccompanied young asylum-seekers are sexually active and have, therefore, included them in sex education programs such as the CWS HIV/ AIDS prevention campaigns (Khresna et al. 2009).[1]

One of the main tasks that should be undertaken by authorities in transit states is to keep UYAS apart from potential traffickers and other exploitative situations. The Netherlands is one European transit country that provides special temporary shelters for intercepted UYAS, where they literally are locked in the shelters at all times with no access to the Internet or to phones and are kept under strict surveillance. Youngsters often have been forced to stay there until they are either placed in a more permanent home or, more often, deported to where they came from. Such an understanding of what is in the best interests of the child, of course, is questionable and the restriction on mobility and freedom has been found to be in direct violation of other Dutch laws (Galloway et al. 2014). It is also highly questionable whether deportations can be justified as prioritizing the “best interests of the child,” as trying to reunite minors with their parents or relatives seems to ignore the fact that it was their parents who, judging it to be in the best interests of their children, sent them overseas in the first place (Vacchiano and Jimenez 2012).

Needless to say, many UYAS have tried to escape from such shelters in order to continue their journeys. Even staunch defenders of the incarceration model have acknowledged that “all this means that very often the right and sometimes necessity to protect these minors is diametrically opposed to what the minors want themselves” (Derluyn and Broekart 2005, 48). In Indonesia it also became obvious that more restrictive measures (e.g., night-time curfews) often turned out to disadvantage the unaccompanied young asylum-seekers. Those who have failed to comply with the strict rules of shelters have been thrown out of them and have ended up on the streets, where the UYAS are exposed to a much higher risk of abuse and exploitation.

  • [1] Several activities in this program are offered to asylum-seekers and refugees, including UYAS:regular information sessions giving basic insights into HIV/AIDS; distribution of translated information sheets; voluntary and on-demand counseling, as well as testing for and treatment of HIV/ AIDS.
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