If it matters that Clemantine and Claire are female, it also matters that they begin their journey as children, navigating a civil war and genocide without adult, or state, protection.
In 2010, the UNHCR released “Children on the Run,” a report which investigated how minors experience displacement. All unaccompanied—and often undocumented—children face a variety of human rights violations along escape routes, in refugee camps, and when under the care of humanitarian organizations. Yet, even amongst child migrants, violence is gendered.
In the aftermath of World War II, famed sociologist, Hannah Arendt, famously wrote, “We became aware of the existence of a right to have rights… and a right to belong to some kind of organized community, only when millions of people emerged who had lost and could not regain these rights because of the new global political situation.” Without the protection of a community—a state—there is no advocate against violence, no protection from violation.
Unaccompanied migrant minors—“Arendt’s Children”—expose the persistence of this truth, and our ineffectiveness in addressing it 70 years later, with heartbreaking clarity. At least rhetorically, allowing children to suffer is a universally acknowledged moral outrage, requiring a swift, and compassionate, response. Yet immigration policy, as the gateway into the arendtian community, is stoic in its cynicism.
Borders, like war, remain indiscriminately violent.
“Even once the fire fights died down, no one would let the children out—because all the adults knew. They knew people were all the same. They knew that we were scared and hungry, thus capable of becoming depraved. The Congolese Army was filled with war orphans (Kadogo), many close to my age, just 11 or 12 years old, children just like me but who hadn’t been forced to stay inside, so they’d wandered out and met a man with a rifle who offered them candy or stew.”
Clemantine testifies of the fear for children fleeing conflict: abduction and enlistment into militias. But we wrongly frame this violence as affecting boys more than girls. Colloquially, “child soldier” still means “male child soldier,” a myth perpetuated in mainstream research. In “Child Soldiers: What About the GIRLS?” feminist researchers Dyan Mazurana and Susan McKay expose the lie:
“In conflicts in Africa, girls are among the primary targets of armed forces and armed opposition groups that abduct them, and force them to become warriors and sexual and domestic slaves. No numbers exist to indicate the extent of the practice, but abduction into the ranks of armed forces or groups is geographically widespread.” (emphasis mine)
In 1992, after the end of Mozambique’s 12 year civil war, humanitarian organizations rallied to help former child soldiers. Young men and boys were enrolled in demobilization camps where they entered programs aimed at rehabilitation and successful reintegration into civilian life. There were no camps for girls.
In fact, the girl is invisible in migration studies. Like the fictional “model refugee” that migration policy caters to, “unaccompanied minor” is more categorical convenience than representative. Studies rarely investigate the issue, nor differentiate the risks for boys and girls. “There are significant gaps in the existing protection mechanisms currently in place for these displaced children. The extent of these gaps is not fully known because much of what happens to these children is not recorded or reported anywhere,” a UNHCR study concludes. “No numbers exist” is an indictment of the academic and journalistic communities.
We cannot protect children from a harm we are yet to acknowledge.
Clemantine and Claire were not conscripted by warlords. They made it to borders, all eight of them. Yet even there, the sisters encountered various forms of violence.
“One day we arrived at two hills covered with blue and white tents…When we reached the front of the queue, a woman grabbed my hand and pushed it into a bucket of purple ink. The dye meant I had been counted. Nobody asked my name—too many people for names. We were given a tent, scratchy blankets, and a pot. A man pointed to the part of the hill where we should pitch our tent and to the hollow between the two hills where we should stand in line, once a month, to fill a plastic bag with maize and beans…The camp bathroom was located near the ditch that aid workers had dug for dead bodies…Each morning I walked two or three hours to fetch water and wood. Once at the pump, I waited in line for an hour more.”
The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights enshrines the Arendtian “right to have rights.” Article 15 decrees “Everyone has a right to a nationality,” and “No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality,” while Article 14 establishes “the right to seek and enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.”
Why, then, do refugee camps exist? At the most basic, un-nuanced level, refugee camps exist because borders are closed. Refugee camps exist because the 1951 United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees made protecting refugees optional. The law guarantees only the right to request asylum in a safe country, without compelling the state to accept. Actually, each country has autonomy to judge the validity of a refugee’s claims, and accept or reject applications without heed to consequence. Refugee camps exist because refugees have human rights, but no political rights. Refugee camps exist because the UNHCR is mandated to feed, clothe, house and protect but cannot grant a new life, a new home.
And that leaves the child refugee subject to the whims of politics in the abstract, and to immigration control materially. It leaves her locked out of the international community, waiting. Waiting sometimes for years, decades, sometimes for whole lifetimes, to resume a full life, beyond the Maslow’s hierarchical existence of the unclaimed.
“It’s strange, how you go from a being person who is away from home to a person with no home at all. The country that is supposed to want you has pushed you out. No other country takes you in. You are unwanted, by everyone. You are a refugee.”