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With help from the Oxford research by COMPAS at the School of Anthropology, students create a moving piece of theatre to shed light on the harsh realities of life as an undocumented child migrant

No way in no way out

Image credit: Shutterstock

Undocumented child migrants face multiple vulnerabilities: as children, as migrants, and on account of their legal status. The problems of legal status for children and young people stem in part from increasingly restrictive citizenship, migration and asylum policies. At the same time the rights of the child require that the welfare of children to be protected and upheld. Undocumented migrant children are caught between these contradicting policy frames.

Often child welfare is neglected in favour of stronger migration controls. A critical first step in resolving this policy tangle is to understand the experience of migrant children. Research into undocumented migrant children by COMPAS has, amongst other things, provided material for a group of students to tell these children’s stories to a wider audience and to challenge assumptions about migrants.

Bridget Anderson at COMPAS, School of Anthropology heads a project designed to raise young people’s awareness of the difficulties that undocumented migrant children face in the UK. Over a 10-week period the students rehearse a theatrical piece with Ida Persson, COMPAS, building an understanding of issues around irregular migration for children and families and creating a performance piece to reflect their interpretations and feelings on the subject.

I feel humbled, when I think about what my parents and grandparents when through to give me a better life that I can enjoy - London student who took part in the project

Migration is an emotive issue that often draws on misleading stereotypes. Part of the COMPAS remit is to encourage and enable a more informed public debate with evidence based research, and in this case this includes thinking about the basic assumptions underpinning the category of ‘child migrant’. The western conception of ‘childhood’ is not globally shared, and it certainly does not reflect the reality of many millions of children around the world. Although classed by the UK authorities as a ‘child’, a seventeen year old could well have been financially independent, even financially responsible for family members, for many years. In policy terms, child migrants are usually categorised with their parents or guardians. When children are unaccompanied, it’s often assumed that they are victims of human trafficking. What is common to all these ways of representing children is the removal of their agency and their own sense of who they are.

Some migrants arrive in the UK without extensive documentation, because of the circumstances in which they left their home country (fleeing conflict or persecution for instance) or because of intentional destruction. Many migrants come from countries with no efficient bureaucracies, and may simply not have certificates to prove births or marriages. Insufficient documentation can leave individuals struggling to prove who they are. Unable to prove their age or status it becomes impossible to think beyond short term solutions resulting in long term instability as they either face a cliff edge of removal when they reach 18, or becoming ‘permanently temporary’. A limbo situation which is hard to escape as children are rarely deported yet regularisation options are minimal. This uncertainty can have extremely detrimental social and psychological consequences for children and adolescents, faced with, quite literally, unimaginable futures.

In early 2015, pupils at Capital City Academy in Brent, northwest London, discussed and interpreted five scripted monologues, based on interviews with migrants conducted in the “Undocumented Migrant Children’ project by Nando Sigona, at drama classes after school. After working on themes through interpretation and improvisation, they staged a public performance at their school. It explored issues such as getting into a school or finding a doctor. 

You realise that in the news it's always about being for or against immigration, and that's not helpful.  It's about people - Lord William's School student who took part in the project


The school performance was followed by a panel discussion involving the audience, the student participants and the research team (Bridget Anderson, Ida Persson and Vanessa Hughes). This process was also conducted at Lord Williams’s School, at the end of 2014. The students’ responses on both occasions were impressive.


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School of Anthropology