Featured Research Project: Minor Migrations

Criticalhabitations is happy to draw your attention to the research project Minor Migrations: Reframing the Discourse around Refugee and Asylum-Seeking Children

From the Children Overboard scandal in Australia, to the global response to the image of Aylan Kurdi’s body, to the policy of family separation at the U.S. / Mexico border, contemporary debates about migration often play out around and on children’s bodies and through ideologies of childhood. Such debates highlight the power of children to mobilise moral sentiments in a context that is largely hostile to the arrival of disenfranchised non-white bodies. Yet whilst narratives and images of vulnerable displaced children elicit strong emotions, their framing often reinforces normative ideals of children and childhood, which in turn detracts from the material realities of child displacement. Such idealized representations seldom offer adequate vehicles for ensuring children’s rights or creating ethical and humane migration regimes more generally.

The interest of various actors – politicians, humanitarians, activists, journalists, migrants themselves – in framing discussion of human mobility around child migrants builds on a long tradition of using images and narratives of children for specific national projects. Central to this tradition is the equation of children with the “universal” ideas of childhood-as-potential, innocence, goodness, vulnerability and helplessness that work as powerful vehicles of community and consensus building. As embodiments of our future, Sharon Stephens (1995) argues, “good” children have been seen as “at risk,” their protection contingent on their role within projects of nation building. At the same time, she claims, “bad” children are seen “as risks,” or threats to “our” sense of community and identity, deserving not rescue but disciplinary interventions. Such simultaneity of images of threatened and threatening, deserving and undeserving children, writes Bhabha (2014), testifies to the ambivalence concerning displaced children in the West.

In the context of migration, these archetypes contribute to ambivalent perceptions and configurations of children who migrate alone as, for example, victims or as threats to national security. And whilst they ensure visibility, humanitarian frameworks that frame children as “at risk” and rely on patrons and experts to plead their cause provide actual children with few opportunities for expressing their own opinions as agents of migration in their own right (Bhabha 2014). Resulting conceptions of the child migrant – and specifically the child refugee, as we seek to show – thus tend to reflect at an extreme the practices of silencing, dehistoricization and depoliticization that Liisa Malkki (1996) identified in Western discourses about refugee populations more broadly.

Recently, overlapping fields of study have come ever more strongly to problematize pervailing discursive practices around both childhood and forced migration. From the side of childhood studies, childhood has emerged as a site of contested social and cultural meanings and political agendas (James and James 2004). With the turn to the “politics of childhood,” the concepts of innocence, vulnerability, lack of agency, and dependency are associated with normative visions of childhood, mobilised in the pursuit of political and ideological agendas (Stephens 1995). Furthermore, a growing body of work critiques the equation of childhood with innocence (Stockton 2009; Faulkner 2011; Ticktin 2016), highlighting how normative ideas about childhood discipline and/or exclude “unchildlike” children (Aitkin 2001; Brown 2011). From migration studies, the “autonomy of migration approach” (see Nyers 2015) draws attention away from modes of state control and expert knowledge to forms of migrant agency, putting the actions and aspirations of migrants themselves at the centre of investigation, including those of children. Similarly, critical refugee studies have re-centred refugee storytelling and communities as vital sources of knowledge and agency while insisting on the importance of reconstructing imperial histories behind roots and routes of dislocation (Espiritu 2006).

In this project on ‘minor migrations’, our “child-centered approach” examines the conjunction of politics, history and migrant children in different national and transnational contexts. We chart the heightened visibility of displaced children and explore how the figure of the migrant child becomes a carrier of political meanings, configuring political debates both within and beyond national spaces. Drawing on the fields of postcolonial and cultural studies, childhood and forced migration studies, we aim to bring new perspectives to the contemporary discussion on child migration. With its attentiveness to power dynamics, our interdisciplinary framework highlights the kinds of imperial histories and practices that undergird child/related politics and policies of migration. Simultaneously we are concerned with creating “spaces of enunciation” (Woolley 2017), in which children’s voices become audible. Focusing on refugees and asylum-seekers, but also on illegalized minors crossing borders for economic reasons, we explore intersections between the politics of age and the politics of movement, between child-protection regimes and national economies, between humanitarian sentiments and human rights, between the politics of childhood and the politics of asylum.

Who We Areposter_crossing_borders_lecture_series_potsdam_uni

“Minor Migrations” is a collaboration between Bard College Berlin and the Department for English and American Studies at the University of Potsdam. Developed by Prof. Kerry Bystrom, Dr. Sunčica Klaas and Dr. Carly McLaughlin, the project brings together international scholars and activists working in the field of child migration.

The project spans a variety of initiatives, such as the international symposium “Shifting Frames: Migrant Children, Politics and History” and the lecture series “Children Crossing Borders.” We are very grateful to the Thyssen Foundation, Bard College and the University of Potsdam for their generous support of the project’s activities. For further information see https://www.uni-potsdam.de/iaa/ and https://berlin.bard.edu.


Works Cited

Aitken, Stuart. “Global Crises of Childhood: Rights, Justice and the Unchildlike Child.” Area 33.2 (2001): 119-127.

Bhabha, Jacqueline. Child Migration and Human Rights in a Global Age. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014.

Brown, Elizabeth. “The ‘Unchildlike Child’: Making and Marking the Child/Adult Divide in the Juvenile Court.” Children’s Geographies 9.3 (2011): 361–377.

Espiritu, Yên Lê. “Toward a Critical Refugee Study: The Vietnamese Refugee Subject in US Scholarship.” Journal of Vietnamese Studies 1.1-2 (2006): 410-433.

Faulkner, Joanne. The Importance of Being Innocent: Why We Worry About Children. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

James, Allison and Adrian James. Constructing Childhood: Theory, Policy and Social Practice. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Malkki, Liisa. “Speechless Emissaries: Refugees, Humanitarianism and Dehistoricization.” Cultural Anthropology 11.3 (1996): 377-404.

Nyers, Peter. “Migrant Citizenships and Autonomous Mobilities.” Migration, Mobility and Displacement 1.1 (2015): 23-39.

Stephens, Sharon, ed. Children and the Politics of Culture. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995.

Stockton, Kathryn Bond. The Queer Child, or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century. Durham: Duke University Press, 2009.

Ticktin, Miriam. “Thinking Beyond Humanitarian Borders.” Social Research: An International Quarterly 83.2 (2016): 255–271.

Tyrrell, Naomi.et al. (eds). Transnational Migration and Childhood. New York: Routledge, 2012.

Woolley, Agnes. ‘Narrating the ‘Asylum Story’: Between Literary and Legal Storytelling’, Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies, 19.3 (2017): 376-394.


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