The politics of undocumented migrant childhoods : Agency, rights, vulnerability

Abstract: In this thesis, I investigate the paradoxical characteristics of political struggles that take place in relation to undocumented migrant childhoods. Drawing on ethnographic research in Birmingham, UK and Malmö, Sweden between 2014 and 2017, I take as my starting point the everyday life experiences of children and families who have experienced living under an immanent risk of deportation. Through a critical engagement with issues of agency, rights and vulnerability, I contrast the experiences of the children and their families with the development of policies and political debates in both countries. By analysing the contexts of Birmingham, UK and Malmö, Sweden in parallel as sites of irregular migration, I contribute with a clearer understanding of the specific characteristics of how each context constructs and governs irregular migration and how this is experienced by migrants themselves.In this thesis, I argue that a discussion about the political agency of children positioned as undocumented migrants is crucial for an informed and contextualised understanding of the political conflicts that characterise the issue of undocumented migrant childhoods. Through an analysis of the children and families’ everyday struggles, I highlight the role played by children’s rights as being perhaps the most important resource for enabling limited forms of support for these families from the host societies. However, I also show how the arguments and practices surrounding rights can be mobilised for migration control. In this sense,rights are “dangerous”.I suggest that if the intergenerational context of undocumented children’s rights is neglected, there is a risk that the human rights of children as well as adults will be marginalised. State actors arguing for the rights of undocumented migrant children often attempt to strengthen children’s deservingness by portraying their parents as “bad parents”who put their children at risk of increased vulnerability. While the state views the parents as putting their children at risk by “hiding” them, the parents view the state as putting their children at risk by trying to deport them. Parents are then forced to act as “humanitarian agents” responsible for caring for the children when state support to the rights-bearing migrant child is limited by the notion of the migrant child at risk of deportation.This “child migrant paradox” is an overall entrance point from which many of the political issues discussed in the thesis can be traced. The politics of rights in the context of undocumented migration is closely related to processes of vulnerability. Rights are mostly perceived as a matter of implementation while vulnerabilities, which rights are supposed to ameliorate, are mainly understood as descriptively self-evident. In this thesis, I problematise such commonplace understandings of rights and vulnerabilities and theorises them as fundamentally political concepts that need to be understood as enacted and reproduced through different political processes at different scales.I introduce the concept of “vulnerabilisation” to capture how states first create vulnerability through hostile policies towards undocumented migrants, then label the targeted groups as vulnerable and finally utilise this vulnerability to rationalise the governing of undocumented migrant children and families’ mobility and territorial presence. To enable children’s rights to be a productive tool for challenging the repressive governing of migrant families and children, I argue in this thesis that both the children’s rights paradigm and the vulnerabilisation of migrant childhoods need to be problematised and contextualised. Rights struggles by and on behalf of undocumented migrant children and families thus need to be aware of the fundamentally political character of rights and vulnerability.

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