Flipping the narrative on children: challenging the current approach to child protection

Traditional views of children’s capabilities do not fit neatly onto a dinghy or into a backpack of a child who leaves a war-torn country or chooses to go on a migration journey in search of opportunity. As the process continues in 2018 to create two global compacts, one for refugees and one for regular migration, humanitarians should reconsider definitions and approaches surrounding the label of “children.” What does it mean to be a child or an adult, a bystander to your own life or an empowered youth making decisions for yourself? Answering those questions differently could give children not only the respect and dignity they are due, but also the room to be full participants in decision-making that affects them during times of crisis or when on the move.

Organisations and donors that work with child refugees and other migrants generally see these young people as helpless victims, knocked about by the harsh conditions of migration. It has been, and continues, as the dominant approach to child protection. This approach is so deeply embedded that, even unknowingly, it is rarely considered that these children are capable of playing an active role in their own migration.

Researchers for Beyond Trafficking and Slavery used a series of blog posts in 2015 to examine children’s abilities to participate in their migration decision-making. Sam Okyere, of the University of Nottingham, and Neil Howard of the University of Antwerp, touch upon how childhood is framed during the migration process when it comes to trafficking and labour. They describe how our complete denial of minors’ decision-making power when it comes to labour or migration – framing them as nothing more than vulnerable, hapless victims – justifies interference under the guise of ‘protection’ that prevents children from working or travelling freely at all

In Jordan, the Centre for Strategic Studies, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the Ministry of Labour reported in their National Child Labour Survey that nearly 70,000 were engaged in child labour; about 50,000 of those children worked in hazardous jobs. These statistical definitions are based on working age, number of hours worked per week and the working environment. The evidence is clear: children are working in overwhelmingly negative conditions.

While the ideal is ending hazardous forms of child labour – the economic reality for many families is that children must work to contribute income to their household. What’s more, work can be seen as an opportunity for children to grow and mature in their personal environments. If international legal and humanitarian definitions were not so tied to traditional values, children might be able to earn money for their family and play an active role in their community in safer, more regulated environments.

The ageing-out dimension – when a child goes from being a “minor” (under 18) to an “adult” (over 18) – adds more complexity to the protection of children on the move. Particularly in Europe, cases continue to emerge of children who lose support from state and humanitarian institutions on the day of their 18th birthday. Brenda Oude Breuil is a senior lecturer and researcher at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. She says laws often portray children as being victims in need of state care while they are under 18, yet are suddenly criticised for freeloading off the state as soon as they reach legal adulthood.

Both views promote dependency and could be construed as considering children a burden. Both erase any chance of autonomy and could push young people into finding alternatives that are even more injurious to their wellbeing.

All of these contentions can be examined in the context of irregular migration to, from and within the Middle East – particularly for children who travel to Europe along the Eastern Mediterranean route. The Mixed Migration Platform and INTERSOS, in conjunction with the Migration Policy Centre, looked into the challenges faced by children who migrate alone in our report, On My Own: protection challenges for unaccompanied and separated children in Jordan, Lebanon and Greece.

For instance, the age-assessment mechanism that still is used across the European Union is a prime example of how age is used to define ability and responsibility versus vulnerability. Our report and others highlight instances of children being wrongfully assessed as adults and then thrown into the criminal justice system (with no legal recourse) for such “offenses” as improper documentation. In some cases, young people lose support and sympathy when they reach adulthood and still are waiting for their asylum application to be processed. When these obstacles arise, can you really blame a young person for using alternative, riskier means to survive?

On my Own examines how those who monitor the protection of children’s rights and wellbeing see children. The report notes that the current approach may actually harm children more than it protects them.

Protective custody in Greece, for instance, reflects protection measures gone awry in a model that arbitrarily detains children in police stations ‘for their own good’, for extended periods of time. Our researchers also spoke with children in Lebanon, who reported similar occurrences. Used as a first response when it should be a last resort, this practice directly violates EU Article 11-3 of the Directive 2013/33/EC1, which sets minimum standards for the reception of asylum seekers. The directive states that minors should not be detained, excluding “exceptional circumstances”. Detaining minors also violates the best interests of the child as defined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Again, our report found that many children decide to use smuggling networks and take informal work in an attempt to reclaim ownership over their lives.

On my Own also found that policies criminalise children in Jordan and Lebanon because of documentation requirements that bind them to their parents or guardians. These restrictions rob children of the freedoms they are entitled to under international human rights law. Bombs, poverty and the threat of forced conscription might push those under the legal age of adulthood to take matters into their own hands. But an absence of legal pathways to a solo child migrant entering a country or being granted residency, leaves him or her with little choice other than to take risky routes, stay in precarious accommodations and work in unprotected, under-the-table jobs, our study found.

It is not news that policy making, including in the humanitarian sphere, can be a tricky process. This process so often leaves out those best placed to inform on the basis of their own real experiences. The participation of children, who not only are capable, but also are passionate, driven and full of refreshing ideas, should be made a regular part of the humanitarian response to these young travellers on migration journeys.

We must do more to listen to children. We must utilise their stories and flip the narrative from one of victimisation to one of resourceful individuals who deserve to be passed the pen, camera, or microphone at every possible moment so their voices can be heard. As work continues next year in developing the two Global Compacts, let us keep this in mind.