Every child has the right to a peaceful and secure upbringing. Every child has the right to be cared for. Every child has the right to be treated with respect. Yet child migrants are frequently denied any of these things.
According to research from UNICEF, the world’s overall migrant population currently comprises 20 million refugees, 10 million of whom are children. All of these young people have had to leave their homes — and everything they have ever known — for reasons out of their control. The constant threat of war and persecution means that seeking a better life elsewhere is the only option.
Being exposed to such traumatic situations — such as seeking asylum — at an early age can prove permanently scarring. It is hugely unjust that children who are often not old enough to fully comprehend what is going on around them can be born into a world of pain and instability. It is deeply wrong that whilst some children are enjoying a positive and healthy start in life, others are suffering.
Even once a child migrant leaves their country of origin, life is still often characterised by fear and danger. Extremely perilous journeys must be undertaken in pursuit of safety. To make matters worse, many child migrants become separated from their parents, leaving them to navigate complex and adult systems alone.
In light of these desperate circumstances, it is imperative that adequate care is provided by the host society. Regrettably, this is not always the case. In the United Kingdom, cuts to the legal aid system means that unaccompanied migrants are unable to get free support for their immigration cases. Even for children who make it to the UK with their parents, the ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’ (NRPF) is applied to all individuals who are subject to immigration control. This means that many of those who do not possess British citizenship are prohibited from accessing mainstream benefits, leading to poverty and insecurity.
As if these brutal circumstances were not enough, child migrants also have to contend with a media that is overwhelmingly hostile. Newspapers in the UK are seemingly determined to portray migration in a negative and dehumanising light, even in stories which feature endangered children.
This idea is encapsulated by the following headline from the Daily Mail: ‘Revealed: Number of unaccompanied child migrants being cared for by UK taxpayers has DOUBLED in the last three months and six more arrive here alone EVERY day’.
Despite the immense vulnerability of unaccompanied child migrants, the headline focuses on how their arrival in the UK is burdensome because they need to be cared for by taxpayers. It is important to note that a calculated attempt is made to draw attention to the number of migrants arriving, as demonstrated by the capitalisation of the word ‘doubled’.
It is deeply wrong for the headline to hone in on the financial cost of child migration. Taxpayers’ money is not being spent recklessly, it is used to provide essential care for children who are in a highly precarious situation. Previous research has found the notion of immigration ‘costing a fortune’ to be a prevalent theme within the British print media. A study by King’s College London that analysed coverage of the 2016 EU referendum pinpointed it as a recurring trend within the articles that were surveyed.
With child migrants already facing a multitude of difficulties, it is of paramount importance that they are represented with respect and decency by the media. Much of the problem of biased coverage stems from the thoughts and feelings of migrants being given little or no attention. Multiple studies have found migrant perspectives to feature in a strikingly low number of articles about immigration. To fully understand the plight of child migrants, a conscious effort should be made to speak to them and ensure that their views are made known. When young people are exposed to such trauma, it is essential that the general public are provided with accurate information. But whilst an attempt exists to use child migration issues for political point-scoring purposes, there is very little chance of the situation changing for the better.
In order for progress to be made, journalists need access to the appropriate sources. To this end, it is vital for a dialogue to be established between media professionals, social workers and other key individuals who provide care to child migrants. This will enable issues involving children to be discussed with the necessary level of care and sensitivity.
At present, the media industry is closed off to migrants. This means that they are rarely involved in the production of news stories, thus leading to events being represented through the lens of those with no first-hand experience of the issues being discussed. To bring about fairer coverage, individuals of all backgrounds need to be provided with equal career opportunities.
It is wrong for innocent, vulnerable children to be treated so inconsiderately by our print media. It is time for their feelings to be made known.
Written by Cameron Boyle, a political correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service, an organisation of immigration solicitors that provides legal aid to asylum seekers. The opinions expressed in this work are the responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of the Child Protection Hub.