One of the comments in a facebook group dedicated to opposing a new centre to house unaccompanied child refugees in the Kent coastal town of Whitstable reads: ‘Children rights and safety before political views’ (Group: ‘Opposed to the plans for Ladesfield’, accessed 21 October 2015). This argument is intended to call on a moral vision of the protection of children, which is set apart from tawdry political wrangling. The central idea is that children are unquestioningly deserving of protection and support, no matter what side of the political spectrum you are on.
However, the comment seems to wilfully ignore the fact that the Ladesfield centre has been repurposed precisely to protect children. It will serve as a reception centre for refugee boys aged 16-18 for stays of up to two months before they can be moved into more permanent accommodation. The existence of the centre recognises that children (defined in international law as under-18s) are in need of specialised services and support.
Moral visions related to children are often fraught with these kinds of contradictions. Questions relating to belonging, identity, gender, and life-course are an uncomfortable part of discussions about human rights. These questions seem all the more intrusive when they are addressing the security and well-being of the seemingly most innocent and vulnerable members of society. But, an understanding of the trajectory of British imperial history can help us to unpack some of the categories and questions raised.
The first question raised by the quote above is ‘Which children?’ While the commenter is keen to raise the reader’s consciousness of the potential threat to ‘local’ children (in this case, the children of Joy Lane School which is located next-door to the new reception centre). This focus ignores the ‘rights and safety’ of the children to be housed in the new centre, primarily boys aged from 16-17 fleeing conflict in Syria. Throughout British imperial history, we can see how concern over ‘our’ children trumped and often obscured the much greater exploitation of children in the colonies. Child labour was seen as acceptable for African or Asian children, while concern mounted in the UK throughout the 19th century over the question of child labour.
The second question is over the definition of childhood itself. Protestors claim that 16-17 year old migrants cannot be seen in the same light as British adolescents. This question of how to determine when childhood ends, was also one faced within the British Empire. For example, after the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, children liberated from slave ships were subject to different treatment than the adults. But the definition of a ‘child’ was often down to either the measurement of height (4′ 4″ being the cut-off) or the individual determination of naval officers. Children removed from captured illegal slavers were accommodated in a variety of planned resettlement programs, which varied from the Church Missionary Society-run villages of Sierra Leone (such as Regent), to the 14-year apprenticeships of the Cape Colony, or were forced into indentured plantation or domestic labour of the Caribbean. In each location, the colony’s labour needs and prevailing attitude towards childhood and children determined the fate of so-called ‘liberated’ children.1
The British government has long-standing experience in the settlement of unaccompanied child migrants. The notion of a responsibility toward the children of other societies as well as one’s own developed in the colonial context. In colonial settings, administrations was deeply concerned about the form and course of childhood. This concern manifested in a plethora of educational, welfare and health reforms directed toward the children of colonised people as well as indirect efforts to influence mothers and other caregivers. But, this ‘civilising’ effort was, at its heart, racist and divisive and set in place a separate, but very unequal, systems for the children of the colonies.
Currently, refugee children are afforded certain rights under British law. They will be supported in the centre for 6-8 weeks until they can be placed in social housing or moved into employment or training. But migrant children are also subject to detention in facilities not far removed from prisons, and for indefinite lengths of time. Often severed from close or extended family networks, and lacking financial, social or professional skills, refugee children are especially vulnerable. Thinking about how British policy towards migrant children and child protection developed in a colonial context can help us to understand the tensions and contradictions in contemporary policy.
- Children made up around 20% of the Africans forced to cross the Atlantic as part of the slave trade. See ‘Slave Voyages: Transatlantic Slave Trade database’ for more information.