Universal Children’s Day: A time to pause and reflect upon our ongoing research on children

Dr Elizabeth A. Faulkner

Lecturer in Contemporary Slavery

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

e.a.faulkner@hull.ac.uk

PhD students researching child exploitation at the W.I.

Charlotte Russell  c.russell-2018@hull.ac.uk

Jasmine Holding Brown j.holding-brown-2019@hull.ac.uk

Saphia Fleury s.fleury-2019@hull.ac.uk

James Baker j.baker-2019@hull.ac.uk

The 20th November is Universal Children’s Day (also known as World Children’s Day), as this was the date in 1959 when the UN General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Rights of the Child and in 1989 the UN General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child (hereafter the CRC). This November then marks the thirty-first anniversary of the recognition of children’s rights and offers an opportunity for researchers working on child exploitation in the Wilberforce Institute to take a moment to pause and reflect together upon the role of children’s rights within their research. PhD students James Baker, Saphia Fleury, Jasmine Holding Brown, Charlotte Russell and Dr Elizabeth A. Faulkner (Lecturer in Contemporary Slavery) all work in the area of ‘children on the move’, interrogating both historical and contemporary abuses of children’s rights in situations where they are forced for a range of reasons to leave their homes and cross national borders.

As identified by Price and Cohen (1991) the CRC guaranteed the child’s ‘individual personality’ rights and set the minimum rights which states should recognise for children. But though the CRC is often celebrated for its universal acceptance (with the USA being the only State that has failed to ratify), questions still arise around its provenance and representation. Notions of the child and childhood have been heavily influenced by Western discourses and a romanticised ideal of childhood. The perception that ‘West is best’ is perpetuated in the CRC which can be interpreted as a new imperialism brandished under the guise of ‘children’s rights’, serving as an effective tool to ‘beat’ the Global South, in addition to deflecting from the continued Western dominance within the field of children’s rights. There are other problems too – within this construct children are residential, fixed and inherently local. What then does all this mean for us as researchers investigating ‘children on the move’?

The research of Jasmine and James considers historical exploitation and abuse of children perpetrated in the twentieth century in the form of British and North American ‘child saving’ schemes and the British ‘assisted child migration schemes’ to Australia.  Focusing on the early twentieth century prior to the drafting and adoption of the CRC, children were arguably invisible in the international legal system. Approximately 7000 children were taken from British (and some Maltese) orphanages and sent to work in Australia’s agricultural sector, living in farm schools thousands of miles from home, and many became victims of maltreatment, involving aspects of physical, verbal and sexual abuse. When such cases were reported to authorities by child migrants they were seldom believed, and even if they had been, children’s rights at the time were far less developed than they are today. In this way, justifications for such projects, which emerge from ideals of ‘saving children’ and of advancing British views through education, destruction of culture and populating colonies with ‘white British stock’, are interwoven into the legacy of children’s rights. It is striking how the welfare of children, or ‘children’s rights’ as we might now conceptualise them, can be tied so effectively to the ‘national interest’ in ways that ultimately harm children, assimilation through education being a particular case in point. 

If we look at children taking refuge from persecution and the consequences of conflict, this has been a matter of international concern since Eglantyne Jebb  (the founder of Save the Children), in 1920, declared that ‘the world’s children stand in urgent need of better protection’. Despite the fact that the treatment of children affected by armed conflict – the rights of refugee and asylum-seeking children  – had been dealt with by the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 and the Additional Protocol of 1977, they were not separately recognised in an international instrument until the adoption of the CRC in 1989 through Article 22. The research of Charlotte and Saphia considers the contemporary movement of children, with the former focusing upon children within European refugee camps and the latter upon child migration in the context of climate and environmental change.

Charlotte’s research advocates for the amplification of children’s voices in line with the rights afforded under international law, with the aspiration of addressing the impasse between policy and practice regarding the enjoyment of rights afforded by the CRC. The voices of children provide a link between the contemporary and historical aspects of this research, as each of the doctoral research projects seeks to centralise children.

Saphia’s research catalogues the inadequacies of the international legal framework to address children who migrate, whether domestically or internationally as a consequence of climate change. In contrast to any other international human rights treaty, the CRC provision for the protection of refugee and asylum-seeking children remains largely absent from mechanisms designed to tackle the human impact of climate change and environmental degradation. (Pobjoy, 2017; Myers & Theytaz-Bergman, 2017). The recognition of the rights of migrant children in the two Global Compacts on Refugees and Migrants has been lauded as the first intergovernmental agreement to recognise climate-related migration. However, the Compact (not legally binding) is far from flawless despite making a departure from the traditional international legal architecture that has been implemented to protect refugees. The protections afforded to environmentally displaced persons are not systematic and competing priorities in migrant protection may ultimately bury the issue of climate migration. There are also difficulties when we consider the rights of children that fall outside the traditional view of children as weak, passive and vulnerable in the context of contemporary migration, such as adolescents who have decided to migrate in search of economic opportunities, as this strikes at the heart of the international legal framework.

Children are victims of some of the most devastating examples of state sanctioned and private human rights abuse, within the context of international law. Migration is the field where children’s rights come face to face with and clash with the sovereignty of states, in particular their prerogative to decide on entry, residence, and expulsion of non-nationals. The conflict between the interests of the nation state and the rights of children opens an interesting space for research into the exploitation of ‘children on the move’ during the past two centuries and beyond. We look forward to continuing our research and further discussions on the exploitation of children and the global challenges connected thereto.

“Children’s Rights” by LindaH is licensed under CC BY 2.0
https://search.creativecommons.org/photos/2643bf16-3190-496d-827d-de8e4843eedf

Summary of author’s recent publications

Dr Alicia Kidd

Postdoctoral Researcher

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

alicia.kidd@hull.ac.uk

Today Alicia Kidd, postdoctoral researcher at the Wilberforce Institute, provides a summary of two of her recent chapters on human trafficking.

Both can be found in Julia Muraszkiewicz, Toby Fenton and Hayley Watson, eds, Human Trafficking in Conflict: Context, Causes and the Military (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020), at https://www.palgrave.com/gb/book/9783030408374

‘Unavoidable Exploitation? Conflict, Agency and Human Trafficking’

In this first chapter, I look at those who find themselves caught up in human trafficking and conflict. Both are topics that have received significant attention within the Social Sciences. However, there is little literature that looks explicitly at the intersections between the two, or that considers if – and how – conflict might impact a person’s risk of being trafficked. What does exist focuses predominantly on child soldiers and post-conflict zones.

As a result I begin with a summary of the literature surrounding child soldiers. It concentrates on how child soldiers fit the definition of being victims of human trafficking, the ways that child soldiers are recruited, their experiences whilst attached to an armed force or group, and how their experiences continue to affect them long after they leave, or after the conflict ends.

My focus then turns to post-conflict zones and how the long-lasting effects of conflict can continue to put people at risk of trafficking even after the conflict has ended. The existing literature highlights a range of issues leading to human trafficking in post-conflict situations including economic and political restructuring, corruption and poverty, as well as the vulnerabilities faced by refugees, internally displaced persons (IDPs) and children; these topics are all discussed.

Whilst this chapter summarises current knowledge of the links between conflict and human trafficking, I build upon this knowledge by introducing the findings gathered from in-depth face-to-face interviews with individuals who have fled conflict to the UK. These findings provide personal insights into experiences of how conflict can increase a person’s vulnerability to becoming a victim of human trafficking.

Understandings of human trafficking often revert to an assumption that all agency must have been removed from the victim. While some victims of trafficking have no agency in the lead up to their trafficking experience, others have some level of choice in the decisions that lead towards their exploitation. Collating the existing literature and the findings from the interviews, I argue in this chapter that conflict impacts a person’s agency to the extent that it increases a person’s risk of being trafficked. Conflict restricts the choices available to a person, leaving them to choose between limited options which are commonly all imbued with risk. But while their choices may all be undesirable, people do exercise agency within the narrow range of options available to them, and some of these choices will lead to exploitation. As such, I argue that victimhood and agency should not be understood as a binary, but on a spectrum.

‘How Definitions of ‘Child Soldiers’ Exclude Girls from Demobilisation Efforts’ (with Dr Ally Dunhill)

The definition ‘child soldier’ is commonly understood to refer to any person under 18 used in any capacity by armed forces or groups; this includes armed combatants, but also those in ancillary roles such as cooks, ‘wives’ and guards. Disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) programmes exist to encourage soldiers to give up their weapons, to take them out of service, and to resettle them into civilian society. Such programmes aim to create stability, re-establish security and create the conditions needed for peace. However, while DDR programmes claim to be aimed at everyone involved in armed forces or armed groups, regardless of their role, in practice, they often use much narrower definitions for child soldiers, focusing predominantly on those who carry a weapon; this serves to exclude many roles typically undertaken by girls. 

In this chapter, co-written with Ally Dunhill, we examine the remit and outcomes of DDR programmes to understand why they differentiate between the gendered experiences of child soldiers. Using examples of these programmes, we analyse how children are identified and recruited into such initiatives. We contemplate whether children’s experiences as being part of armed forces (belonging to a state) and armed groups (not under the clear control of a state authority) are adequately considered, and whether the gendered treatment in these programmes is conducive to long term recovery and reintegration into civilian communities. We explore how girls are often overlooked in definitions of child soldiers and highlight the harmful consequences of this. We then assess how the outcomes of the programmes impact the futures of those both included and excluded in the remit of the programmes.

We find that in failing to recognise girls as victims in these situations, DDR programmes are leaving them in precarious situations whereby they have left a trafficking situation only to find themselves in a vulnerable position, facing a lack of support and a high risk of re-exploitation. Building on existing literature on female child soldiers, this chapter highlights the need for further research and concludes with recommendations for generating more effective and inclusive efforts to support female children associated with armed forces or armed groups.

Human Trafficking in Conflict: Context, Causes and the Military (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020), at https://www.palgrave.com/gb/book/9783030408374