New take on child migration

Child Migration in Africa is the latest book in the groundbreaking series Africa Now from NAI and Zed Books. It explores the mobility of children without their parents in West Africa. The children’s accounts challenge the normative ideals of what a “good” childhood is. Read the interview with Dorte Thorsen, below, who wrote the book together with Iman Hashim.

Interview with Dorte Thorsen

By Mattias Sköld

1. Why did you decide to write a book about child migration in Africa?
Iman Hashim and I were keen to write this book to introduce to a wider audience the accounts of children and young people who began their migration in their early teens and occasionally earlier. This was because their stories challenged popular representations of children as victims of trafficking and parental neglect. In fact, they revealed a much broader and more complex picture of what children experience as migrants and of the continued importance of social networks of family and friends. Their stories did not paint a rosy picture of migrant life for children but documented the many ways in which they navigated exploitation and adverse conditions in the labour market, as well as family relationships that did not live up to their expectations.

2. Why is this an under-researched area?
Children’s migration in the global South became a hot topic within child protection and advocacy groups as an extension of the focus on the worst forms of child labour, though increasing concerns about trafficking in human beings and irregular migration also played a role. Brief studies were commissioned in various countries to identify the extent to which rural children worked in commercial agriculture or in urban areas. However, these projects were usually too brief to allow time to find the children and interview them and to do research both in their villages and their destinations. Often policies were based on anecdotal evidence and spectacular cases reported in the media. Doing research with child migrants requires longer term projects that are designed rigorously to reflect the diversity of experience, to understand the choices and constraints involved and to take children’s views seriously.

3. Why focus on Burkina Faso and Ghana?
Our focus on child migrants from rural areas of Burkina Faso and Ghana grew out of our awareness of the need to understand the context in which children migrate – to understand how childhood, family and work are perceived in that particular society at that time. We had done long-term fieldwork in Ghana (Iman Hashim) and Burkina Faso (Dorte Thorsen) and we felt children and their families were often misrepresented in child rights advocacy and that some policies were potentially harmful to child migrants despite the good intentions. The focus on Burkina Faso and Ghana was also a practical consideration. We had initial funding for relatively brief field research of four to five months requiring existing knowledge of the field and of people who would help us find child migrants. We still spent considerable time seeking out additional child migrants to have sufficient depth in our material.

4.  Could you give an example of a how children’s accounts in the book challenge normative ideals of what a “good” childhood is?
The accounts throughout the book show vividly that children do not see work as an adult activity only but take pride in working well and in being able to pay school fees, save money to buy bicycles, clothes or other desired items and to give their parents the occasional gift. Some young migrants are keen to pursue schooling and do so thanks to the income they have earned or hope to do so as remuneration for their work for older siblings or other relatives. However, it is clear that childhood for poor West Africans involves more than play, school and a carefree period in the bosom of their nuclear families.

5.  What is your opinion of the public debate on child migration?
In West Africa and in large organizations such as UNICEF, ILO and international NGOs, the debate is changing. In the early-2000s, the idea of curbing children’s migration was increasingly common.   Towards the end of that decade it swung, so that migration is looked at in the broader perspective of mobility, including the formal and informal opportunities for learning that children gain through moving to, within and between locations. This is a very important change. It acknowledges children’s ability to strategize and act upon experience and aspirations for their future. At the same time, it highlights the many ways in which poor children are disadvantaged and excluded from formal education and from protection in informal education and the labour market.

Burkina Faso
Dorte Thorsen
East Africa
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