Youth migration is changing definitions of childhood

January 28, 2015, South Dakota State University

Stories of a sudden "surge" in unaccompanied children fleeing Central America and Mexico for the United States dominated the headlines last summer.

President Barack Obama called it a humanitarian crisis and ordered the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to coordinate an emergency response.

But the United States is not alone among the developed and developing economies in facing problems associated with unaccompanied migrant , some not yet in their teens. The issue is confronting policymakers around the globe and challenging a number of established societal assumptions about childhood.

Relevant to San Diego

In San Diego last week, academic researchers from more than 30 countries gathered for the 4th International Conference on the Geographies of Children, Youth and Families. The three-day conference was organized by San Diego State University's Department of Geography to discuss topics ranging from youth migration to child labor, educational policies, violence against children and 's rights and well-being.

"San Diego was a good setting for this year's conference themes—borders and well-being," said Stuart Aitken, former chair of SDSU's geography department.

"It may be argued that the field of children's geographies got a start here in 1998, when a National Science Foundation grant brought together a dozen or so young academics to establish an ongoing discussion about the place of children and youth in the world, how they imagine it and grow into it, which aspects of that world limit their growth and development, and how they push back against those limits."

Not a new phenomenon

Karen Wells, a researcher at the University of London who studies the impact of globalization on children, said she attended to learn about new research in the field. The United Kingdom is currently experiencing youth migration from Eritrea and Afghanistan, she said.

The theme of threaded through the conference, culminating with a panel discussion of unaccompanied migrant children crossing the U.S.-Mexico border into California, Arizona and Texas.

Panel members Kate Swanson from SDSU, Sarah Blue from Texas State University and Rebecca Torres from the University of Texas-Austin presented data putting the "surge" in perspective.

"The term 'surge' is problematic for many reasons," said Torres. "It suggests that the recent increase in arrivals of unaccompanied migrant children is a new phenomenon when in reality it has been taking place for several years. 'Surge' evokes a sense of crisis, which can be used to incite fear and provoke anti-immigrant sentiments among the American public," she added.

Defining childhood differently

Data presented by Torres, Blue and Swanson, taken from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency, show that apprehensions of children under age 17 at the Rio Grande section of the border rose from about 14,000 to about 38,000 from 2013 to 2014.

During the same period, however, apprehensions of youth at border crossings in California and Arizona remained static or fell slightly. Fewer Mexican youth attempted to cross the border last year, while the number of unaccompanied minors from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala rose in 2014.

The panelists agreed that more research is needed on the serious physical and mental health consequences of child migration.

"We have to realize that these are children migrating, in increasing numbers, below the age of 12," said Swanson, an associate professor of geography. "They have taken remarkable and often treacherous journeys to the U.S.-Mexico border. Many are escaping conditions of poverty and extreme violence. With numbers expected to rise in the coming year, the question remains: what will happen to these young people?"

Ramona Pérez, professor of anthropology and director of SDSU's Center for Latin American Studies, also suggested that the traditional definition of childhood may not apply to the increasing population of unaccompanied minors.

"We have to think of childhood differently when dealing with these young people," she said. "They haven't had the same beginning as U.S. children. Their understandings of childhood, responsibility and the future are shaped by environments of survival. You can't attempt to integrate them without first addressing the traumas they have been through and the burdens of responsibility they carry. Most of our systems for refugee children are not yet equipped to address this important issue."

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