Guest post by Vasileia Digidiki and Jacqueline Bhabha. Vasileia is a Harvard University Instructor and a Health and Human Rights Fellow at the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University. She leads the Harvard FXB Center’s program on migration. Vasileia has published extensively on issues of human trafficking, victim blaming, sexual exploitation of migrant children, voluntary repatriations and the impact of migration policies on children. Jacqueline is Professor of the Practice of Health and Human Rights at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. She is Director of Research at the Harvard FXB Center for Health and Human Rights, the Jeremiah Smith Jr. Lecturer in Law at Harvard Law School, and an adjunct lecturer in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. Jacqueline has published extensively on issues of transnational child migration, refugee protection, children’s rights and citizenship.

This is the second post from our new themed series focusing on selected chapters from the newly published Handbook of Migration and Global Justice, edited by Leanne Weber and Claudia Tazreiter and published by Edward Elgar. The editors’ complete introduction to the handbook is available as an open access download here.

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In today’s world, “migration” and “global justice” rarely go hand in hand. Though the COVID 19 pandemic temporarily equalized access to international mobility by radically curtailing all travel, we are now moving back to the status quo ante where access to safe and legal mobility is radically maldistributed.  In general, populations living in the Global North, especially those who are white and wealthy, have no difficulty moving across international borders, while populations living in the Global South, especially those are black or brown and poor, face huge, often insurmountable hurdles to cross-border migration. Another factor that affects access to safe and legal mobility is age. In our chapter, Against the Best Interests of the Child: The Global Injustice of Migrant Externalization, we argue that children face particular difficulties accessing much needed protection, in part because aggressive migrant exclusion policies, such as arbitrary detentions of asylum-seekers, illegal separations of families and illegal mass pushbacks, deliberately target the routes they use to secure safety. 

Several major migration contexts, including both the Mediterranean and the Caribbean basins, illustrate the harsh and rights violative impact of these externalization policies. Children from Nigeria, for example, compelled to leave what they perceive as a future without hope or prospects back home, endure arduous journeys across the African continent to reach Libya as a staging post for onward European migration. But in the main their courageous plans come to nothing: many migrant children who attempt to reach Italy and the EU by crossing the Mediterranean Sea encounter extreme abuse in Libya and then de facto repatriation home. According to a recent study, 88.2 per cent of young migrants interviewed reported traumatic experiences after their entry into Libya, experiences that prevented them from reaching Italy. The effort to secure a rights respecting existence in a European context is nullified not by the migrant children’s lack of resilience or stamina but by deliberate interference with the children’s plans by EU governments and their allies. Agreements including the Italy-Libya Memorandum of Understanding of February 2017 are part of a concerted effort to “protect” Europe from forced migrants rather than to “protect” children from harm. These agreements ensure that routes out of danger, including out of Libya and across the Mediterranean are deliberately blocked to prevent access to European shores. Opportunistically, European governments justify this interference by alleging a concern for the threats posed to migrants by smugglers who facilitate their journeys, when in practice a far greater threat is the prevention of safe onward mobility. As a result, African children hoping to secure access to education, skill training, future employment and a better life instead find themselves, after months, and in some instances years, of challenging migration across the continent,  confined in harsh detention facilities in Libya and then presented with return to Nigeria, euphemistically termed “voluntary return”, as the only alternative to continued incarceration.

An analogous situation plays out at the external borders of another wealthy migration destination in the Global North. Central American children fleeing violence and other acute threats to their safety in their home countries, encounter harsh externalization measures that block their efforts to secure protection in the United States. Countries of the so-called “Northern Triangle”, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, have become murder capitals of the world with children and youth particular targets of violence, extortion and other grave human rights violations. These are precisely the sorts of circumstance that international humanitarian protections including the grant of refugee status were designed to address. Yet, children fleeing these forms of persecution routinely find themselves blocked from access to a safe system where they can present an asylum claim. Government policies such as militarization of the US-Mexico border, facilitated by drones and high tech surveillance devices, and increasing criminalization of irregular border crossing, compel families to rely on smugglers to facilitate their children’s migration, exposing the children to more risky journeys and more exploitative arrangements. Those children who manage to access the US face punitive measures, including detention, family separation and protracted asylum procedures. But many never make it across the border at all. The COVID 19 pandemic has exacerbated an already acute human rights crisis at the US’s southern border. Since 2019, the US government has invoked public health concerns to justify the exclusion of asylum seekers, including of families with children, seeking to cross the border to present their claims. These measures violate international law which stipulates clearly that such forms of exclusion are only legitimate if they are implemented in non-discriminatory and proportionate ways. Nevertheless, US governments continue to deny extremely vulnerable children and their families access to safety and protection. 

We conclude that the real migration crisis is not a crisis of numbers but a crisis of solidarity and trust. By externalizing the humanitarian responsibilities at the cost of the protection of some of the most vulnerable children in the world, Global North polities with huge resources are escalating global injustice rather than promoting global justice.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Digidiki, V. and Bhabha, J. (2021). Against the Best Interests of the Child: The Global Injustice of Migrant Externalization. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2021/12/against-best [date]