Child welfare
across borders
  Session 6 - Displaced, Dispossessed and Moving Child Populations

Session 6


6.2 - Reasons for displacement

Who are the children who find themselves swept up in the consequences of adult conflicts, desires and intolerances?

There are many kinds of conflicts that result in children being uprooted temporarily or permanently from their families, communities and even countries. As Appadurai comments

The world we live in is one in which human motion is more often definitive of social life than it is exceptional.

History reminds us of the truth of this statement. Wars, empire building, racial intolerance and natural disaster provide points of reference for social change for as long as written, pictorial or archaeological evidence shows.

Whilst the media pays much attention to refugees there are of course many other motives for people to move.

1. At an individual level children may be separated from their family members, families or communities because of:

Divorce or separation - the cases of the marriages of different nationals can mean children are pawns in access battles and find themselves living in a different country through no choice of their own. This may be sometimes because a parent abducts their child or children and the laws of each country interpret parental rights differently

Domestic violence - the refuges for women who have fled violent husbands are testimony to crisis-driven situations that lead women and often their children to search for a new life in safe surroundings. Research in recent years has begun to address the trauma and its effects such events have on the children involved.

Familial abuse and abandonment - children who are subject to serious risk or harm in their home will be subject to legal proceedings in which the province or state takes responsibility for decisions regarding their safety. In many situations this will mean being removed to live with in foster care or residential setting with obvious destabilisation of their domestic situation and often much wider effects on their peer and social networks as well as the personal consequences of the abuse

Running away - many children may not wait for external intervention in their chaotic and/or abusive lives. For some the only way out they may be able to see is to run away and leave everything including their name behind them. The Missing Children Society of Canada states (1999):

There were over 48,000 reported runaway cases in Canada in 1998. Although runaway children have left home voluntarily, studies have shown that children who repeatedly run are often running from a home life that is physically, mentally or sexually abusive. While the majority of runaways return home within a short period of time, many others do not.

Young people's sexuality may also be a reason for them to run away. Children in these circumstances are vulnerable to predatory adults and older experienced children who may get them involved in crime, prostitution, drug abuse, and other features of an underworld existence on society's margins.

Voluntary or forced adoption - whilst less common that in the past there continue to be birth parents who choose not to raise their children as their own and hand parental responsibility over to another agency to determine the child's future. There remains pressure on some mothers to give up their parental responsibilities and rights due to mental ill health, learning disabilities or the social stigma attached to their parental status. There are also complexities of trans-national adoption based upon a 'rescue' ideology. This involves taking children away from their native country where they are at risk of death or maltreatment and 'for their own good' taking them to be raised in a foreign country. This clearly is a individualist approach to need, where rather than focus upon change at a higher level the action is targeted at the individual child.

Boarding school - the examples of the Doukhobor children (reported in session 5) and indigenous people's of Canada and Australia are stark reminders of the way in which compulsory residential schooling has been used as a means of destabilising families and communities, distancing children from their cultural and religious identities and isolating them from individual and collective parenting.

Boarding school can also be used by parents themselves through access to wealth as a means of shedding some parental responsibility and under the guise of the child's best interest can be used to permanently unsettle and displace the child from their family or community. For some sections of society boarding school can, of course, can be part of the ritualised entry into a particular social strata, for children as young as five years old.

The use of boarding school for special needs children who may have physical, emotional and or learning difficulties has also been a part of the history of all four countries involved in this course. Isolating and separating these children from mainstream society has in the past has been disguised by a number of theories in which access to 'expert' and specialist is key. Moves to community-based 'people first' approaches for policy and practice undermined dominance of this residential model but the legacy of decades of institutionalisation from childhood to adulthood has been seen in the often painful dismantling of the system for both service users and providers.

Kidnapping or abduction - It seems hard to accept that in the year 2000 children are still exposed to situations in which they may be taken by physical force or coercion by adults and subjected to a range of abusive and exploitative acts. The reality means there is still a considerable way to go before the articles within the UNCRC are realised for all children. Children may be kidnapped or abducted for many reasons, including:

  • during family disputes
  • when parental power wins over children's rights, for example when children are returned to parental birth countries as part of an arranged marriage
  • to become child soldiers (see Amnesty International War Games web site).
  • for forced labour (see session 5)
  • by those who intend other forms of physical or sexual harm

Forced separation in situations involving war or natural disaster - this will be covered more fully in the next section.

2. At a family or community level there are additional reasons for movements of displaced peoples. Forced migration is arguably a contentious topic because as with all forms of oppression the processes that may lead people to move on are not always overt. Assimilationist systems seek to make people fit their new society rather than that society adapting and responding to the diversity brought by peoples of different nationalities and cultures. Reasons for people moving in and between countries include:

  • Religious and cultural persecution
  • Intolerance on grounds of race, sexual orientation or other personal characteristics or lifestyles - such as Romanies
  • War
  • Natural disasters such as famine, flood, earthquakes
  • Loss of traditional employment and/or housing - urban drift

In recent history countries have developed categories of displaced people, often represented in legislation that is designed to keep certain groups and individuals from entering national borders and dictating the movements and rights of those within borders.

The term refugee or asylum seeker is one that carries many negative connotations for both governments and individuals. Rather than focusing upon the distress or vulnerability of people the dominant representation is often concerned with distrust and fear that impoverished foreigners will overwhelm countries who will undermine prosperity, employment opportunities and social cohesion.

The next two topics are concerned with these categorisations and trends in movements to different countries. We suggest you read the report linked to Exercise 1 next.