Migrant teenagers play football at the new camp in Calais. Kashfi Halford/Demotix. All Rights Reserved.
During the course of my research on unaccompanied migrant minors (mineurs isolés étrangers) in Marseille, France in 2008-2009, I stumbled upon a case of a young migrant boy from North Africa that clearly illustrated how our dealings with migrant youth have all the appearances of a clenched spasm. He was supposedly 16 years of age, and after arriving by boat—as is the case for many of these boys escaping home countries they feel have nothing to offer them—the boy tried to make a living as a (contraband) cigarette vendor in Marseille’s informal market. His living conditions worried social workers and the boy eventually was brought before a juvenile judge who placed him under tutelage in a state institution. This judge deemed the boy ‘in need of state protection’, his minority playing a central role in that decision.
Not so long after, the boy was apprehended for pickpocketing. The public prosecutor (procureur) was evidently so fed up with what he almost surely saw as ‘welfare scroungers’ that he ignored both the boy’s identity papers—which described him as 16 years old—and the earlier court decision. He ordered a bone x-ray (teste osseux) to determine the boy’s ‘real’ age and ‘true’ identity. This test, which has a fault margin of about 1.5 years, resulted in a dramatic twist of fate: the boy was suddenly now eighteen years old, and thus was no longer a minor in need of protection but an illegal migrant. The child protection measure installed by the juvenile judge was annulled and the boy was ordered to leave French territory within three months.
Although this series of events took place several years ago, more recent cases show that not too much has changed. They illustrate the judgemental, oftentimes ‘morally’ based approach used with migrating young people who do not fit the social categories available to them. They also show how young migrants’ complex, liminal realities—which are characterised by movement—become reduced to the fixed identities that nation-states understand.
We are currently experiencing the paradoxical reality of ever more porous borders on the one hand, which make it almost impossible for nation-states to control the movement of people, and public demands for ever more (government induced) protection and security, on the other. One result of this situation, as Jock Young details in his excellent book The Exclusive Society, has been that when groups of people fall outside the system, they are morally blamed for their precarious position, socially and economically excluded, demonised, and kept at distance.
Ideal victims, folk devils
In the case of young migrants in Marseille—and this holds true for most of Europe’s major cities—this means that symbolically they are only allowed to play one of two roles. They must be either a ‘victim of child trafficking’, who should be protected and kept within the narrow confines of government institutions, or an ‘illegal migrant’, whom governments will be ready to expel. These two roles correspond to the criminological concepts of the ‘ideal victim’ and the ‘folk devil’.. The first refers to stereotypical victims with whom we can easily empathise, as they are weak, innocent (because of their age or gender), voiceless, and in need of help. The second refers to stereotypical enemies who are blamed for all that is wrong in society and who are vehemently feared.
Thus, when young migrants find their way to West European cities in order to earn a living, grow into independent adults, and deal with the indignity of belonging to the world’s ‘have-nots’, they might be labelled as ‘trafficked children’—provided they have the right age and the experience of exploitation. The category is backed up by forceful visual representations of children that are desperate, dirty, confined, and deprived of all agency. Whether the ‘child’ actually believes himself to be victimised, or deems the conditions of exploitation acceptable or at least better than ‘back home’, or takes pride in his income earning activities is completely ignored. His agency is pushed aside with arguments of cognitive superiority of those who define and represent him. It is not my intention here to deny severe experiences of child exploitation. Rather, I oppose the application of a reductive label that ignores the individual and diverse experiences, motivations, and agencies of the children under discussion.
If not labeled as ‘trafficking victims’ in need of protection, young migrants are labeled as ‘illegal’. Since this label requires that one is over 18 years of age—as most European nation-states cannot legally expel individuals below this cutoff point—governments can and sometimes do go to great lengths to designate them as such, as observed in the abovementioned case. Their ‘felt’ identity—which is in-between the category of child and adult, a person who is growing up, gaining independence, and earning a living yet is still vulnerable to exploitation, drug abuse and psychological instability and unease—is manipulated and molded into the clear-cut category of a rational adult who exploits, undeservingly, the benefits of the guest country.
Both identities are forced upon them. They do not describe what we could know about them if we took the time to fully explore their realities, their needs and dreams, as well as the structural conditions that caused them to leave home. The current conception of migrant young people in Europe is manipulated and based on fake morals, and as such it does not offer any outlook for a humane and sustainable way to address their needs.