Migration and the politics of parenting

What’s behind our preoccupation with refugee parents?

September 13, 2015 2:00AM ET

Last week public mourning over the death of Syrian toddler Alan Shenu developed into a debate about the ethics of parenting. Peter Bouckaert, the emergencies director for Human Rights Watch, explained that he shared the photo of the dead child to pay tribute to the boy’s parents. “Those parents are heroes” he wrote. “I admire their sheer determination to bring their children to a better life.”

By contrast, Peter Bucklitsch, a member of the right-wing U.K. Independence Party, said Alan’s death was due to his parents’ irresponsibility. He seemed to believe there was no reason for them to take to the sea because there was no underlying threat to the boy’s survival.

“The little Syrian boy was well-clothed and well fed,” he said. “He died because his parents were greedy for the good life in Europe.”

Why do the ethics of parenting recur as a central aspect of debates about unauthorized migration? Because thinking about whether Alan’s parents made a good decision enables us to think about the agency behind this boy’s journey. It suggests that their journey was not only one of necessity but also a choice — and this is the first step in framing it as a political issue rather than merely a humanitarian one.

Once we think about the agency behind the journey, we are no longer unified by pity. It thus compels us to take a stand and asks us whose side we’re on.

Since at least the mid–20th century, children have been at the center of debates about unauthorized migration. Think, for example, of the voyage of the Jewish migrant ship the Exodus, which in 1947 left from a displaced people’s camp in the south of France to Palestine, then under the British mandate. Members of the Jewish paramilitary group Palmach, many of them teenagers, organized the voyage (which very quickly became an icon of national liberation, complete with a classical Hollywood rendition). At the time, the British Foreign Office alleged that the ship carried 200 kidnapped Jewish refugee children, victims of “strikingly inhuman” acts perpetrated by “Marxist youth organizations.”

According to a New York Times story from Sept. 5, 1947, some parents complained that their kids were taken from Hungary. More important, the journey was a way in which parents and children participated in building their future. For better or worse, they tried to realize their dreams.

Similarly, children were central to descriptions of the Vietnamese boat people crisis, starting from 1975. Describing the chaos in the city of Danang after the fall of South Vietnam, Jonathan Schell wrote for The New Yorker, “Bands of children, hungry and thirsty, wandered aimlessly on the streets, demolishing everything which happened to fall into their hands. Danang was seized by convulsions of collective hysteria.”

Talking about Alan Shenu’s family transforms a humanitarian sentiment into a political one.

Another journalist, John Pilger, described the way South Vietnamese parents tried to save their children when U.S. forces left the country, often exposing them to great danger. “The Blue Ridge shuddered and moved forward, leaving the exhausted faces still pleading to be taken on board,” he writes. “A few hours earlier a few of us had watched as the bodies of two infants were lowered into the sea; and in one last, disconsolate gesture which is embedded in my memory, a woman stood up and held out her baby as if to say, ‘At least take him’; then she slipped, and they both fell into the sea.”

One of the most dramatic episodes in this history of refugee children at sea came to be known as the Child Overboard Affair. In 2001, Australia introduced the Pacific solution, a set of policy measures aimed to prevent unauthorized boats from landing on it shores. In Operation Relex the country’s navy was charged with turning back any new migrant boat that appeared. Many of those on the boats refused to reverse course, generating protests and riots at sea.

At the height of these acts of transnational civil disobedience, the Australian government declared that boat migrants threw a child overboard in order for the child to be saved by Australian forces. The conversation about the ethics of parenting came to be phrased as a set of propositions about human decency.

“I don’t want here in Australia people who would throw their own children into the sea,” then–Prime Minister John Howard said. “It offends the natural instinct of protection and delivering security and safety to your children.”

As a parliamentary inquiry later exposed, the child overboard story was a fictitious propaganda stunt aimed at dehumanizing the migrants. But some of its other findings nevertheless raised difficult ethical dilemmas: Migrants resorted to capsizing their boats, thus imposing Australian jurisdiction over their bodies and forcing Australian authorities to commence rescue operations. While putting a child in danger may seem morally reprehensible, it isn’t necessarily a cynical or opportunistic move; it’s an act of desperation. Today refugees in Europe, too, have put themselves in harm’s way through hunger strikes in part because they have no right to any other form of political participation. By exposing themselves and their children to risk, these refugees are engaging in a similar form of expression.

One of the reasons Alan’s photo garnered attention was that the image was utterly familiar. The dead boy curled up on the beach looked like any other child of that age, lying at home in a bed. Perhaps that is also one reason someone like Bucklitsch could make the cruel assertion that he was well fed.

What is less comfortable is that Alan’s photos depicted a subject devoid of agency. We imagine him as a quintessential victim of circumstances entirely beyond his control. That, however, is possible only as long as his story is detached from the decisions his family members made. Talking about Alan’s family transforms humanitarian into political sentiment, and depending on who speaks, it can be a way of reclaiming the boy’s dignity or excluding him from being worthy of compassion.

The narrative recently became even more complicated. An Iraqi survivor of the capsized boat alleged that Alan's father, Abdullah Shenu, was at the helm — an allegation he denies. While some European policymakers cast asylum seekers as helpless victims, and people smugglers as heinous criminals, this last chapter complicates any such binary moralistic account. 

Whatever his role in the accident, the father was dreaming of a better future, not merely aiming to survive. Now that Alan and his brother Galip are dead, Abdullah Shenu no longer wants to reach Europe. “Everything I was dreaming of was gone,” he told journalists. The statement emphasized the role he had in the decision to leave from Turkey and the effect this decision had on the lives of his kids.The fact that he dreamed first and foremost as a parent of small children reflects the intimate relationship between family life and politics.

Itamar Mann is the national security law fellow at Georgetown University Law Center. He is author of the forthcoming book “Humanity at Sea: Maritime Migration and the Foundations of International Law” (Cambridge University Press, 2016).    

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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