Defining the Refugee Child: A History
Who is a “child,” when it comes to refugee status? Recently, European democracies have subjected those who claim to be unaccompanied minors to an increasingly technocratic series of measures, such as dental X-rays, to verify their status as children. A recent court ruling in Britain declared that immigration officers cannot simply disbelieve the age given by refugees. Those who have been detained because officers thought they were over the age of 18 are entitled to damages.
The question of who is a “child” for the purposes of refugee status has long been an issue of life and death. During the 1930s, British officials argued over the age limit for Basque refugees, who were fleeing General Francisco Franco’s forces during the Spanish Civil War. On May 21, 1937, the luxury ocean liners Habaña and Goizeka Izarra sailed from Bilbao to Southampton, carrying 3,889 Basque children. The children were transferred from the dock by the busload to a tented camp in North Stoneham, just outside Southampton.
The stakes for defining these Basque refugees as “children” were incredibly high. It was their status as children that allowed the Basques to enter Britain, even as the government clung to its position of neutrality and nonintervention. But the definition of a “child” shifted during the conflict.
At first, Sir Wilfred Roberts, Secretary of the National Joint Committee for Spanish Relief, vowed that no children under the age of 9 would be allowed to enter Britain. But as the bombing of civilians escalated in Spain, new parameters for entry emerged. Some argued for letting in 6-12 year olds, while others pressed for a more inclusive definition of the “child” that ranged from 5 to 15.
Leah Manning, the Labour social reformer who accompanied the Basques on their voyage from Spain to Southampton, denounced these age restrictions. Both younger children and older adolescents faced unique dangers, she suggested. The government’s parameters, she said, “undermined all our ideas about families staying together. … Were these tiny children to be left behind in a city about the fall into the hands of the enemy, the young girls to be raped by the tercio [a division of the Spanish Army], and their brothers shot as traitors?”
Claims about the innocence of child refugees were soon outpaced by anxieties about adolescents.
There were two key fears about adolescent refugees. One was about sexual morality. Many camp leaders lamented that they could not keep the Basques in their beds and night, nor prevent teenaged boys and girls from mixing in camp; adolescents required constant, effective supervision that the chaotic camp could not offer.
The second fear was about the politics of Basque teenagers. The Ministry of Health believed that males over the age of 12 might be intensely politicized, as they were approaching military age.
Some observers claimed that even the younger Basque children were deeply – almost naturally – political, decorating their tents with hammers and sickles, or the initials of political parties. The journalist Yvonne Kapp wrote, “I have seen two hundred children in a Hampshire lane return the cry of ‘Salud!’ from a passing car. A forest of fists went up, a chorus of answering salutes rang out and, as the car passed on they stood, two hundred heads turned, and on every face a reassured smile.”
Kapp argued that the political energies of such young activists must be embraced, not repressed. But others in England were more alarmed. After the devastating news of the fall of Bilbao in June of 1937, scores of “hysterical” Basques fled the North Stoneham camp in despair. Those who remained tore up tent pegs and hedges to threaten their guards and threw stones at the radio van in camp. A sanitary inspector at North Stoneham reported, “There has been another riot the communist kids tried to burn down the Catholics Chapel and when they were stopped they tried to strike it down. Lovely little Basque Babies.”
That same July, several newspapers reported on a “riot” at the Basque camp at Brechfa in Wales. The Basques were accused of smashing windows, and throwing a knife at a policeman; the villagers declared they were afraid to sleep in their beds at night. But there was another side to the story. The conditions at Brechfa were appalling; The Times compared the primitive housing to a concentration camp. One boy said he would prefer to return to Spain and face the bombs than stay at Brechfa. The Brechfa boys, who ranged in age from 8 to 15, were mostly from the industrialized city and apartment blocks of Bilbao. Set down in this remote parish, in a cold and inhospitable camp, with very little adult supervision, one asked, “how do you expect kids to behave?” Britain’s right-wing press branded the Basques at Brechfa as ungrateful and violent, and Home Secretary Selwyn Lloyd sent 24 of the boys back to Spain.
Here, we can see the contradictions that arose from defining the Basques as “children,” who were not supposed to act as political beings. The Basques’ status as “children” was never secure.
The Basques served an iconic purpose in Britain as the victims of fascism, but individual refugees fit uneasily into this rubric. The insistence that all Basque refugees must be “children” – and the contentious efforts to police the boundaries of childhood – served as a way to deny the politics of refugees more generally.
The Basques in Britain dramatized the tension that has haunted many refugees since, a tension between valorizing refugees as innocent (and apolitical) victims and fearing them as radical (and highly politicized) ideologues. In a horrifying new era of “tender age” shelters, it is useful to remember this history of profound ambivalence about child refugees. Just as quickly as the public could mobilize around the presumed innocence of children, it could become disenchanted and vengeful when this innocence appeared to be tarnished. Refugees could lose their protected status as children not only by aging out of the confusing and constantly shifting parameters that the state had set, but by refusing the apolitical stance that the process of seeking refuge forced upon them.
Jordanna Bailkin is the Jere L. Bacharach Professor of International Studies and Professor of History at the University of Washington. She is the author, most recently, of Unsettled: Refugee Camps and the Making of Multicultural Britain (Oxford, 2018).