With the UN Convention for the Rights of the Child and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, all children – all girls and boys born on this planet – have the same rights. Among those rights are the right to move freely, and the right to school. It should be simple: whether a child stays where he or she was born, is born while the mother is on her way to somewhere else, or migrates alone, in a group of children, or with parents or other caregivers, the right and needs of each and every child have been recognised. Not only that: it makes good sense to be kind to children for the sake of adults, too. As the saying goes, “children are the future, and the future belongs to them”. Disregarding children’s rights means disregarding the future. Still, children’s right to grow up in safety, to move freely, to play and to learn are widely disregarded. This is very much the case when it comes to children in migration. The legal statuses available to children in migration set them apart as somehow less child, more migrant. A child who is not a citizen of the country, or who may not even have legal residence, is even less in a position to assert his or her rights than other children are. Socially, too, this is often the case. A “migrant child” is migrant first, child second, and the social and regrettably often derogatory identity of “migrant” may label even a child who has never herself migrated although her parents did.
Children may represent the future of the countries and local communities into which they or their parents have migrated, the futures of their families, of their societies of origin, or their own futures as adult individuals. School is usually seen as a key to the futures of children and societies, not least to the integration of “migrant children” into the “host societies” where they live. Migrant children have varying access to education during their migration trajectories, and “many children of migrants suffer from educational disadvantage” (European Commission). They may also struggle to be included and to feel that they belong in school once they do have access. The recent shift in European migration policies towards the forced or voluntary return of people who are not, or no longer, in need of international protection means that the futures of migrant children in Europe, and thus what they need in order to prepare for their futures, have become much less predictable.
In a recent book that I edited together with US migration scholar Elzbieta M. Gozdziak, we described childhood as a field of contestation where families, national states, civil society organisations, and children are central actors engaged in the many meanings and practices of childhood. Focusing on the integration of migrant children anticipates their future lives as adults. This brings us to a key question: for which futures are their schools supposed to prepare them? Article 29 of the UNCRC (1989) obliges governments to ensure that the education of the child is directed at “[t]he development of respect […] for the national values of the country in which the child is living” as well as for “the country from which he or she may originate.” Other countries than these two are not mentioned, which ignores the significant fact that many may be on their way to somewhere else – such as a Syrian child in Turkey, Lebanon, or Greece who might be part of family plans to move to Northern Europe.
Our framework of contested childhoods and migrancy highlights the importance of how migrant children are seen by others. Labels such as “migrant child” and others, and the meaning and values that such labels are given, impact on girls and boys themselves and on the communities and societies in which they live. School can be the most important social arena for children’s feeling of acceptance and belonging and for their integration into a new local community. Sadly, however, schools may also be places where children experience profound feelings of not belonging. We do not know exactly how this will impact the future of individuals, families, communities and societies, but a good guess is that we would all be better off if we did not risk the experiment.