A number of alarming news reports have recently appeared relating to the ongoing global refugee crisis. Last week, it was reported that two Honduran teenagers had been murdered while staying at a hostel for unaccompanied child refugees near the US-Mexico border. The same week also revealed that in December two Guatemalan children had died while in the custody of US border officials on separate occasions. Elsewhere, over the course of four days before Christmas, 12 crossings across the English Channel were attempted by 89 people, representing the highest spike in such attempts since 2016.
Perhaps even more concerning, however, is the response such reports have met; President Donald Trump utilised his Twitter account to blame the deaths of children at the border on the American Democratic party and their “pathetic immigration policies,” reasoning in the same 140 characters that “if we had a Wall, they wouldn’t even try!” In a second tweet, Trump also demonised the children’s families by claiming that the first child had died because her father had not given her water “in days.” Moreover, Trump has also kept up his demands for a wall to be built along the border, and earlier this month requested $5 billion from Congress to do so. In the event of Democrats blocking his access to such funds, he has threatened to shut down the border altogether.
Meanwhile, Conservative MPs in Britain demanded the Royal Navy be deployed in order to deal with what Home Secretary Sajid Javid termed a “major incident” in the Channel. In fact, Conservative MP Charlie Elphicke has called on authorities to “get a grip,” and to license placing more patrol boats in the Channel to deter others from attempting to make the journey.
Of course, these attitudes are nothing new; Donald Trump arguably won his presidency on a racist, xenophobic and anti-immigration platform that was designed to stir up emotions on the American right. Likewise, in Britain the 2016 referendum vote to leave the European Union was influenced by a ‘Vote Leave’ campaign that presented immigrants as aliens, with UKIP’s Nigel Farage and right-wing members of the Conservative party arguing that Britain should strive to “take back control” of borders before reaching “breaking point.”
The focus of these reports on the centrality of children and young people to global crises, however, is a fairly new development. The deaths at the US-Mexico border in the last month are of those no older than teenagers, and an increase in unaccompanied minors has been seen in reception centres run by the charity Refugee Council as a result of attempts to cross the Channel, says the The Guardian. In addition, local charities have also said that overall the number of unaccompanied child refugees has risen to its highest level since the dismantling of Calais’ migrant camp in 2016.
Indeed, this is a trend that can be tracked across the globe; the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada has released figures suggesting that the number of unaccompanied migrants coming to Canada doubled between 2016 and 2017 alone, and a report by the European Migration Network earlier this month showed an 80% increase over three years in the number of child migrants arriving in Ireland. The fact that unaccompanied child migration is on the rise makes the anti-migrant rhetoric seen in these reports even more jarring. Stirring up fear and suspicion of anybody seeking refuge and a better life after experiencing unimaginably desperate circumstances is never the most effective way of addressing a global crisis, let alone when aimed at the young and vulnerable.
The global migrant crisis is constantly shifting in demographic and cause; the fact that the same tone and command of political rhetoric is used year after year therefore reveals a severe lack of sensitivity and understanding. At most, it only highlights further the baselessness upon which such fear and suspicion is grounded. The people characterised by Trump as “drug dealers, criminals and rapists” in his presidential campaign, whom only a $5 billion US-Mexican wall would prevent from “pouring through”, are in reality unaccompanied teenagers legally classed as minors. In the case of Britain, employment of military forces in the Channel would merely constitute an armed confrontation against children, rather than any kind of meaningful response to who Nigel Farage termed in 2016 as “jihadi terrorists.”
Rapid change is desperately needed in the responses taken towards migrants and refugees at borders and reception centres across the world. Susan Whetten-Udall, an LDS Immigrant Services Volunteer Co-ordinator, told US Today that new and additional facilities are needed at the border, and called for churches and community centres to also open their doors to be used for the purpose. It is this kind of compassionate response that displaced people rely on, and governments should be held accountable if they refuse to offer sufficient help.
Appealing to anti-migrant attitudes in order to push a campaign has been used as a political tactic for decades, reaching back into economic depressions and social uncertainty throughout history. However, the language used to represent migrants desperately needs to change in order to spur on the necessary action. Political focus needs to shift from deterring migrants from making journeys to addressing the desperate circumstances by which they are forced to do so. An increase in unaccompanied minors and child deaths at borders should surely speak more than ever to the vulnerability, rather than the threat, of those who are uprooting their lives and families to seek refuge from conflict.
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