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] Continue reading “What is a Child? The Calais Child Refugees in Imperial Context”

Rethinking Children’s Experiences of War: African Child Soldiers in the Second World War

child soldiers

Child soldiers in Africa are often assumed to be a new phenomenon, linked to the spread of so-called ‘new wars’ and ‘new barbarism’ in the civil wars which swept across the continent in the 1990-2000s. The defining images of the child soldier in today’s humanitarian-inflected discourse are those of the ragged young rebel boy in flip flops with an AK-47 in downtown Monrovia, or the kidnapped Acholi children seized from their families by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda. New research, however, is beginning to challenge this assumption, and the idea that child soldiers are always either simply ‘victims’ or ‘perpetrators’.

There is in fact a much longer and deeper history of child soldiering in Africa than has previously been acknowledged. Our seminar groups have been exploring this history by analysing evidence for African children’s recruitment into British forces in the Second World War, looking in particular at the memoirs of former child soldiers who fought in Egypt, Burma and India. Although these memoirs need to be treated carefully, as they are adult recollections of children’s experiences, they reveal striking differences between contemporary and historical accounts of children’s experiences of war. Continue reading “Rethinking Children’s Experiences of War: African Child Soldiers in the Second World War”