Child Migrants and Zones of Exception – ZIMM Speaker Series Talk by Prof. Jacqueline Bhabha

Child Migrants and Zones of Exception: A Talk by Jacqueline Bhabha

By M. Belén Arce Terceros

Child migrants occupy a zone between law and custom, reception and rejection; their position in this distinctive twilight space explains why they are the most vulnerable of migrants. That is the reading Jacqueline Bhabha, attorney and professor of health and human rights at Harvard University, proposed during a lecture hosted by the Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility at The New School.

Though the plight of unaccompanied minors from Central America crossing the border into the United States caught the attention of the media during the last summer, the issue has been long standing but has been overlooked. Referring to her work assisting child migrants in Chicago and her research in the legal and human rights field, Bhabha explained to an engaged audience why this issue is exceptional by exploring its manifold complexities.

First of all, Bhabha clarifies that there is a vacuum  in law and policy; there is no clear framework or space that child migrants can occupy, thus leaving them in this twilight zone. The failure of addressing this problem within a rights framework has many costs and few benefits, according to Bhabha. “It is a dismal, oppressing and traumatizing experience that (children) have to go through after the journey” to cross the border.

The poor response to child migration in the United States is exemplified and manifested in the facilities in which they are detained. Children are held in places that “are more reminiscent of jails in the global south, and far away from immigrant communities.” These places are usually cold, inadequate and overcrowded, she described. The conscious decision of placing them there is clearly a sign of an “exclusion and containment” oriented policy towards minors, says Bhabha, which puts children in “a place of vulnerability.”


She also referred to the lack of trained personnel and attorneys to represent children, which she said requires special skills. “The institutional failure to think about child migrants as an area of concern for many years has led to a lacuna, nobody thinks about children as having specific needs.” They only become a problem when they turn 18, when they realize that they are undocumented and face the possibility of deportation.

“Why are we always underprepared” to respond to this problem?, Bhabha asked. “The answer is: we do not have policies, because child migrants are generally invisible. They fall through the cracks, they don’t have a voice, there is no one to advocate for them and they can’t advocate for themselves,” she explained.

Exploring the reasons for the neglect of child migrants, Bhabha said that it could not be argued that this is a new phenomenon. There is a long history of child migration, and declarations referring to their rights can be traced back to 1924, with the declaration of the rights of children. “To say there is no history (minors’ mobility) is not convincing; unaccompanied children have been arriving for a long time.”

Ambivalent attitudes

“Even more important is the reality of what we see in the treatment of children; it’s not all explained by invisibility,” she said. “We also see inconsistent decision-making in the courts.” Bhabha drew a parallel between the ambivalent attitudes and relations adults hold with teenagers, and said this dynamic had an effect on the institutional treatment of minors. “This ambivalent reaction toward child migrants pervades (governmental) failure domestically and internationally.”

On the one hand, she said, there “is a protective instinct and set of responses” towards child migrants. “On the other hand we have a harsh punitive response,” which can be clearly seen in the case of the detention centers that look like jails. “Why is this so?”, wondered Bhabha. Many of the children who apply for asylum were involved in violence as members of gangs, but more generally there  “is a sense of suspicion of this unattached young people. Kids are seen as runaways … they are not like our children.”

The expert explored the responses offered to the crisis that broke out during the summer, even drawing the attention of President Barack Obama. “We have had an increase in the allocation of funding for the representation of unaccompanied minors … This is not enough but it’s a huge step.” There has also been more debate over the possibility of offering guardianship for these unaccompanied minors, as a basic way of ensuring their human rights. “On the other hand, we’ve seen a massive increase in resources to remove children” from the US, and to get countries like Mexico and Guatemala to close down their borders.

Syrian child refugees

This omission or failure to act, forces us to look at what the priorities are and what set of actions are needed. For example, Bhabha mentioned the case of the Syrian children refugee, which has been hardly addressed, and which represents a “humanitarian crisis, a calamity.” What will happen to this generation of Syrians is of big concern; it clearly shows “the cost of inaction” in the treatment of child migrants.

Bhabha identified four issues related to this vulnerable group that are barely addressed: 1) the underfunding of humanitarian needs by the international community; 2) the lack of a resettlement policy; 3) the education of child refugees and the challenges this poses for displaced communities; and 4) the absence of labour opportunities. “Addressing the issue of child migrants would bring the benefit of having a generation of recipients of humanitarian intervention rather than a generation of resentful uneducated refugees.”

“The risk of child statelessness is dramatic,” she said, pointing at the psychological and health consequences this situation can pose. “These twilight zones of exception become zones of despair, exclusion and inequality.”

“Rather than a polarized attitude that ranges from exclusion to protectionism, we need an approach that combines justice and human security,” and we need to assess the impact of this issue on “the security of millennials,” Bhabha concluded.



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