An interesting new paper recently published in Children's Geographies, discusses the experiences of children who migrate independently in Southeast Asia, exploring the complex motives that cause children to migrate seeking work. The paper challenges assumptions held by some international children's welfare agencies that children who migrate for work are passive victims of exploitation who are 'trafficked' or forced do so, or that when they migrate it is for purely economic reasons.
In recent years there has been a substantial increase in disillusioned children leaving home independently and migrating to another country in search of work. A new paper published in Children's Geographies explores the complex issues surrounding child migration in Southeast Asia, asking whether these children are exploited victims of trafficking, or if they genuinely seek to improve their 'lot in life'?
The term 'child worker' conjures imagery of an oppressed, vulnerable individual, trafficked or forced by those seeking to exploit them. Though undoubtedly true in many cases, this notion rules out the child's influence on their own destiny. The author, Dr Harriot Beazley, of the University of the Sunshine Coast, questions the dominant protectionist views, drawing on first-hand accounts from Indonesian street children. They reveal fascinating insights into children's perspectives, experiences, and the complex social and economic factors that lead to migration.
The article argues that child migration is not always forced, and children often voluntarily decide to move for work. The author states "Child migration for work is much more than an economic phenomenon, and involves psychological dimensions, including the impact of traditional practices as well as consumerism and modern cultures of mobility."
Interestingly, Beazley's research also reveals that many children cited the 'pursuit of personal freedom, excitement and adventure' as their motivation to leave home to find work; this is in part influenced by the depiction of 'global youth culture' in magazines, films, TV and on the internet.
There are also other cultural and social issues at play; in many situations the construction of a child is not compliant with Western views -- a girl married at 15 is no longer a child and many children are expected to contribute earnings to the family at a young age. Furthermore, in some Southeast Asian nations there is a culture of a young 'wandering hero' that is derived from many traditional stories; inspired by this 'rite of passage', young teenage boys leave, make their fortune and return with new found status, many with money to build houses. There is a hope and expectation amongst young people, they aspire to a better life and see migration as their future.
However, despite this positive ambition and opportunity, the study suggests that many children experience negative aspects of migration; physical and verbal abuse, rape, prostitution, imprisonment, non-payment, poor living conditions, poor food and little rest to name but a few. The article goes on to highlight that there is significant domestic and international migration of adolescent girls into the sex industry in Southeast Asia, particular in East Java; and that trafficking is also a large scale problem, affecting an estimated 250,000 annually in Asia.
Nevertheless, the experiences of migrant children described in this paper demonstrate children's strong autonomy and rejection of their 'victim' status. Many children want to migrate and there are examples that demonstrate that migration for work can be a positive experience for many children. In conclusion Beazley urges for more child-centred research "to give children opportunities to convey their multiple identities and multiple realities through their individual migration stories and to ensure that children's rights are not being violated in the name of 'protection."
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