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Lind, 2020 🔗

The Politics of Undocumented Migrant Childhoods

Year: 2020

Type of text: Doctoral Thesis 

Published by: Malmö University

Language: English

Author: Jacob Lind 

Pages: 332

TillgÀnglig/Available at:

Short description of the text 

“[…] [T]he overall aim of this compilation thesis is to investigate, across different scales, the politics of undocumented migrant childhoods in the UK and Sweden through a critical engagement with the concepts of agency, rights and vulnerability.” (p. 16)

“In this thesis, I investigate the paradoxical characteristics of political struggles that take place in relation to undocumented migrant childhoods. Drawing on ethnographic research in Birmingham, UK and Malmö, Sweden between 2014 and 2017, I take as my starting point the everyday life experiences of children and families who have experienced living under an immanent risk of deportation. Through a critical engagement with issues of agency, rights and vulnerability, I contrast the experiences of the children and their families with the development of policies and political debates in both countries. By analysing the contexts of Birmingham, UK and Malmö, Sweden in parallel as sites of irregular migration, I contribute with a clearer understanding of the specific characteristics of how each context constructs and governs irregular migration and how this is experienced by migrants themselves.” (p. i)

Most important results

“In this thesis, I argue that a discussion about the political agency of children positioned as undocumented migrants is crucial for an informed and contextualised understanding of the political conflicts that characterise the issue of undocumented migrant childhoods. Through an analysis of the children and families’ everyday struggles, I highlight the role played by children’s rights as being perhaps the most important resource for enabling limited forms of support for these families from the host societies. However, I also show how the arguments and practices surrounding rights can be mobilised for migration control. In this sense, rights are ‘dangerous’.” (p. i)

“I suggest that if the intergenerational context of undocumented children’s rights is neglected, there is a risk that the human rights of children as well as adults will be marginalised. State actors arguing for the rights of undocumented migrant children often attempt to strengthen children’s deservingness by portraying their parents as “bad parents” who put their children at risk of increased vulnerability. While the state views the parents as putting their children at risk by “hiding” them, the parents view the state as putting their children at risk by trying to deport them. Parents are then forced to act as “humanitarian agents” responsible for caring for the children when state support to the rights-bearing migrant child is limited by the notion of the migrant child at risk of deportation.” (p. ii)

“This “child migrant paradox” is an overall entrance point from which many of the political issues discussed in the thesis can be traced. The politics of rights in the context of undocumented migration is closely related to processes of vulnerability. Rights are mostly perceived as a matter of implementation while vulnerabilities, which rights are supposed to ameliorate, are mainly understood as descriptively self-evident. In this thesis, I problematise such commonplace understandings of rights and vulnerabilities and theorises them as fundamentally political concepts that need to be understood as enacted and reproduced through different political processes at different scales.” (p. ii)

“I introduce the concept of “vulnerabilisation” to capture how states first create vulnerability through hostile policies towards undocumented migrants, then label the targeted groups as vulnerable and finally utilise this vulnerability to rationalise the governing of undocumented migrant children and families’ mobility and territorial presence. To enable children’s rights to be a productive tool for challenging the repressive governing of migrant families and children, I argue in this thesis that both the children’s rights paradigm and the vulnerabilisation of migrant childhoods need to be problematised and contextualised. Rights struggles by and on behalf of undocumented migrant children and families thus need to be aware of the fundamentally political character of rights and vulnerability.” (p. ii)

Theoretical perspective/framework

“This thesis primarily connects three different research fields: childhood research, human rights research and migration research. The theoretical discussion in this chapter is mainly concerned with the overlaps between these three fields.” (p. 19)

“Furthermore, I draw on specific theoretical developments within the critical study of migration (Editorial Board movements, 2015), childhood (Alanen, 2011) and human rights (Douzinas, 2000), which I argue are fruitful to consult when trying to understand the politics of undocumented migrant childhoods.” (p. 19-20)


“To understand the paradoxical positionalities of undocumented migrant children as both undocumented migrants and children, one needs to look for the places where key political processes in this context are made visible. I do this mainly by drawing on interviews and participant observation of the everyday lives of children and families that I conducted in Birmingham, UK and Malmö, Sweden between 2014 and 2017.” (p. 15)

“By following discussions in the media and policy developments during my research, I further understood that children’s rights are also at the centre of political conflicts regarding undocumented migrant children and families. Therefore, I have complemented my fieldwork with a study of the arguments put forward in institutional debates regarding undocumented migrant children’s rights.” (p .16)

“I found an “activist research” approach (Hale, 2008, see also Gruber and Lundberg, 2020) absolutely necessary for working closely with undocumented migrants […]. Furthermore, as a researcher of irregular migration one is also increasingly scrutinised by surrounding society as public opinion is currently shifting towards more hostile and exclusionary migration policies, which can also include personal threats from extremists.9 Last, but definitely not least, my own self-critique and doubts about my motives, privileges and positionalities as a white, middle class, heterosexual cis-man with no experiences of migration myself, yet still conducting this kind of research, is a source of constant reflection and reflexivity.” (p. 75)

“The primary material used in this thesis includes ethnographic observations, interviews and visual material produced by my participants during interviews. The secondary material used includes newspaper articles, press releases and similar texts, but also policy documents, state reports and other documents produced by state actors.” (p. 76)

Policy suggestions

“[…] politically aware human rights work for undocumented migrants must consider the position of rights claimants and think creatively about whether or not there are ways to claim rights that do not reaffirm the current system in which different categorisations cement exclusion.” (p. 241)

“Whatever potential one can find in mobilising vulnerability for undocumented migrant children’s rights, I argue, one will find through staying aware of the fundamentally political character of how childhoods, vulnerability and human/children’s rights are constructed and understood.” (p. 241)

“One key argument of this thesis is that humanitarian, de-politicised approaches to issues such as undocumented migration easily become contra-productive. One possible way forward is to channel and mobilise tendencies of well-meaning humanitarian organisations and individuals by problematising and, at the same time, mobilising their empathy to enable a struggle that is both politically aware and persists in the long run (see Povrzanović Frykman & MĂ€kelĂ€, 2020).” (p. 243)

Suggestions for further research

“In relation to the overall issue of human rights and vulnerabilisation, future research needs to keep a reflexive approach to issues of migration in general (Dahinden, 2016) and migrant childhoods in particular.” (p. 246)

  • “I argue that the implications for future political and scholarly work somewhat overlap since, in both contexts, one of the key issues at stake are our taken-for-granted ideas about how human rights and vulnerability can be understood in relation to migrant childhoods. In both political work as well as future research there is a need for further reflexion and political awareness, and questions like those suggested above can help activists as well as researchers better understand the prerequisites and presuppositions that condition political and scholarly work in this field.” (p. 247)
  • “Finally, I suggest that children’s rights call for a rethinking of rights in future research and political work in relation to futurity. Following Bhabha (2014), I believe one has to have a forward-looking approach to insisting on the human rights of migrant children. Their rights are not just about protection on the basis of compassion, but they are also central for “building just foundations for an inclusive, diverse, and globally mobile future society” (Bhabha, 2014, p. 16).” (p. 249) 
  • “Future research about the human rights of undocumented migrant children would benefit from keeping a close eye on issues regarding futurity, since undocumented migrant children’s future is central to both the governing of children and for thinking constructively about the unfixed sense of human rights politics. If struggles about children mainly concern their future and the future of human rights are open, an approach to rights as something always yet to come creates possibilities for thinking openly about how justice and equality for undocumented migrant children can be achieved here and now.” (p. 249)

Summarized by: Josefine Carlsson