What is a Child? The Calais Child Refugees in Imperial Context

Members of the campaign group Citizens UK hold a ‘refugees welcome’ event outside Lunar House in Croydon. Photograph: John Stillwell/PA
Members of the campaign group Citizens UK hold a ‘refugees welcome’ event outside Lunar House in Croydon. Photograph: John Stillwell/PA

Rhian Keyse
University of Exeter

The plight of child refugees being reunited with their families and resettled in the UK has been the cause of much attention in recent weeks. The charity Safe Passage UK says that it has identified 387 unaccompanied children in the infamous Calais ‘Jungle’ refugee camp who have a legal right to come to the UK, either because they have close relatives in the country, or because of the Dubs Amendment to the 2016 Immigration Act which gives the most vulnerable unaccompanied child refugees the right to asylum in the UK.[1]

Yet, as the first children arrive on British shores, controversy is raging in the media, with some commentators querying the age of certain of these refugees, and therefore their right to be included in the resettlement programme. David Davies, the MP for Monmouthshire, has called for dental checks and hand x-rays to examine the new arrivals, alleging that some adults are claiming to be children to exploit the ‘well of hospitality that exists in Britain’ and subvert entry requirements.[2] Such calls raise important questions about the nature of childhood, and the competing constructions of the category.

These debates are not new, and calls to categorize childhood in purely physical terms are starkly reminiscent of colonial debates over which colonial subjects were ‘children’ and therefore deserving of humanitarian intervention. My PhD research on local, imperial and international interventions into child and forced marriage in British colonial Africa during the first half of the twentieth century illuminates some of these debates, and speaks to the problems with insisting on a rigid definition of childhood based on physical development and chronological age. Categorization of children and young people in this way is notoriously inaccurate, has been described as ‘inappropriate and unethical’ by the British Dental Association, and fails to take into account the social and emotional aspects of their lived experience.[3]

The Problem with Straight-18

The so-called ‘straight-18’ definition of childhood, which sets 18 as the age below which a person is considered a child, is currently the accepted international standard, adopted by policymakers and activists worldwide and adhered to in Britain’s refugee policy today. This position has taken on the character of an almost self-evident truth. However, it has a very recent origin: the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1989.[4]

Such definitions are of course politically useful, in terms of creating clear rhetoric, and outlining distinct parameters for humanitarian intervention on the basis of children’s rights. However, they can also occlude local social, cultural and historical specificities. Scholars of childhood have convincingly demonstrated that ideas of childhood are social constructions, the content of which shift with time and space.[5] The ideas of chronological age and physical development insisted upon by politicians such as Davies form but one way of marking the boundary between childhood and adulthood. Their blunt application by international actors and policymakers dismiss local social and cultural constructions of childhood and adulthood, and the historically contingent nature of the idea of childhood itself.

What is particularly striking in the current debates is the insistence upon medical evidence of the stage of physical development of the children arriving in the UK. The idea that physical markers of biological development should be applied to colonised children to establish their childhood and therefore the imperative to intervene in their lives is a feature of much correspondence in British colonial debates over forced and child marriage, a key site of contestation over the boundary between childhood and adulthood.

Discussions around child marriage in the late 1920s in India led to similar concerns being raised in Kenya from 1926 onwards.[6] Yet defining who was and was not a child, and therefore who should be protected by law from marriage, caused a headache for colonial administrations. Suggestions that chronological age – perhaps 12 or 13 – should be applied as the basis for child marriage laws, were confounded by the lack of birth registration in the colony at this time. The difficulties in ‘determin[ing] the ages of Natives’ were noted by missionaries such as H.W. Innis of Kisumu, who wrote to the Senior Commissioner of Nyanza to argue that physical characteristics, in particular the onset of puberty, should be determined in order to define which females were in need of legislative protection.[7]’ J.A. Ross, the medical-officer-in-charge at the Native Civil Hospital in Kakamega concurred, stating that it was ‘impossible’ to determine the age of a girl, and therefore her fitness for marriage, unless her physical condition was medically examined.[8] The District Commissioner of North Kavirondo concluded from this evidence that ‘no harm’ was done by marriage and sexual intercourse provided that a girl had attained physical ‘maturity’.[9]

Although the exact definition of physical maturity was never defined in these discussions, a medicalized, physical construction of childhood already dominated by the late 1920s. As with the refugee children medicalized in today’s debates, there was no discussion of the emotional or psychological maturity of potential child spouses, and physical characteristics alone were considered grounds for offering or withdrawing protection.

Overcoming Colonial Ideas of African Childhood

Brett Shadle has ably shown that the late 1930s saw a shift in colonial ideas of African childhood, influenced by the writings of the Archdeacon of Kavirondo, Walter Owen. A noted campaigner against forced and early marriages, Owen wrote an emotive letter to the Manchester Guardian in defence of Kekwe, a young Tanganyikan female of between seventeen and twenty, who had been sentenced to hard labour in 1936 for killing her unwanted husband. Although such girls were ‘only Africans’, Owen argued, ‘their anguish is no less deep than the anguish of English girlhood’.[10] Emotional development, then, rather than physical characteristics, provided the grounds for Owen’s appeals for intervention on behalf of African girls.

However, a closer look at his personal papers reveals that, even as Owen appealed for a recognition of the emotional and psychological needs of African girls, his investigations, too, were not free of the physiological and medicalised definitions of childhood. Aodo daughter of Nyenge, a girl of around fifteen years of age who complained to Owen about having been forced to marry a soldier against her will, is described as being ‘five feet, five-and-a-half-inches tall’ with a 33 inch chest, and no wisdom teeth.[11] Measuring Aodo’s physiological development was clearly considered key to establishing that she was a child worthy of protection. Neither the physical nor emotional definitions of childhood deployed by colonial administrators and missionaries in the first half of the twentieth century accounted for Kenyan social and cultural ideas, such as whether the young people in question had undergone initiation rites, married, or given birth to a child.[12]

Such categorizations of children through physical indicators was not restricted to girls fleeing forced marriages. Colonial discussions of appropriate responses to juvenile delinquency led to debates over which young offenders were criminally responsible, and the different punishments appropriate for certain year groups. In his 1946 report on juvenile delinquency in the Gold Coast, the psychiatrist Geoffrey Tooth called for a ‘more accurate method of determining age’, and explored the potential uses of x-ray data in determining the age of boys and young men for such purposes.[13]Whilst this historical evidence derives from sub-Saharan African contexts, it amply demonstrates the imperial roots of a fixation with physical markers of childhood when categorizing ‘other’ children for the purposes of administration or intervention.

Ideas of childhood were – and are – clearly complex, and blunt chronological and physiological descriptors do not capture the entire meaning of what it is to be a child. The deployment of such discourses in current debates are rooted firmly in the imperial past, with physical characteristics privileged as a means through which to show that colonized children were worthy of humanitarian intervention and protection. These ideas are widespread, in a range of current debates over child soldiering as well as child marriage and refugee status.[14]

Yet they are clumsy, and fail to recognise the historical, social, and cultural contexts in which they are being applied. Reflecting on the historically contingent nature of childhood helps us to understand the broad and contested nature of the concept. One-size-fits-all solutions minimize the traumatic experiences and humanity of those who fall outside the rigid definition of ‘childhood’, which is a historical construction rather than a self-evident truth.

[1] See http://safepassage.org.uk/

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/oct/19/child-refugees-dental-tests-verify-age-david-davies

[3] See https://www.bda.org/dentists/policy-campaigns/public-health-science/public-health/position-statements/Xray-position

[4] http://www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/crc.aspx

[5] See, for example, Alan Prout and Allison James, ‘A new paradigm for the sociology of childhood? Provenance, promise and problems’ in Allison James and Alan Prout (eds.), Constructing and reconstructing childhood: Contemporary issues in the sociological study of childhood (Abingdon: Routledge, 1997), 7-34.

[6] Brett Shadle, ‘Debating “early marriage” in colonial Kenya, 1920-1950’, in Annie Bunting, Benjamin N. Lawrance and Richard L. Roberts (eds.), Marriage by force? Contestation over consent and coercion in Africa (Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2016), 89-108.

[7] H.W. Innis to Senior Commissioner Nyanza, 12 December 1927. Kenya National Archives, PC NZA/3/28/4/1.

[8] J.A. Ross to District Commissioner North Kavirondo, 5 May 1927. Kenya National Archives, PC NZA/3/28/4/1.

[9] District Commissioner North Kavirondo to Provincial Commissioner Nyanza, 14 November 1927. Kenya National Archives, PC NZA/3/28/4/1.

[10] W.E. Owen, ‘Marriages in Kenya: Reluctant girls paid for in goats’, Manchester Guardian, 16 June 1936. Church Missionary Society Archives, University of Birmingham, CMS ACC 83 O1.

[11] W.E. Owen, ‘Aodo d/o Nyenge’, 24 March 1944. Church Missionary Society Archives, University of Birmingham, ACC 83 O16.

[12] See for example Simeon Ominde, The Luo girl: From infancy to marriage (Nairobi: East African Literature Bureau, 1952); Lynn M. Thomas, Politics of the womb: Women, reproduction and the state in Kenya (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2003).

[13] Geoffrey Tooth, ‘A survey of juvenile delinquency in the Gold Coast’, (Accra, 1946).

[14] On child soldiering, see Stacey Hynd, ‘Identifying with war: (Auto-)biographies of child soldiers in contemporary African conflict’ in Martin C. Thomas and Andrew Barrios (eds.), The civilianization of conflict (New York: Oxford University Press, forthcoming).

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