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Unaccompanied minors: the vulnerability of children

By Jennifer Wilson - posted Friday, 10 June 2011

As American philosopher and academic Judith Butler puts it in her book, Precarious Life: the Powers of Mourning and Violence, the condition of childhood is "the condition of primary vulnerability…a primary helplessness and need, one to which any society must attend."

The face of the child makes a powerful moral claim on us, none more so than the face of the suffering child. Children have no capacity to represent themselves. If we are unable to represent ourselves we "run a greater risk of being treated as less than human," Butler observes.

Vulnerability is an inescapable fact of existence and a child alone without country, home, family and protectors, is in a state of extreme vulnerability. That vulnerability can be respected, exploited, or denied. In situations where it is exploited and/or denied the child is radically objectified, constructed as less than human, and left bereft of the basic entitlements available to children who are part of a political community.


As Hannah Arendt observed, rightlessness follows from statelessness. The child seeking asylum is a child who is stateless and without rights. Human rights are dependent upon being part of a community that enacts these rights on our behalf, and offers a framework in which these rights can be realised. Refugee children have lost their place in the world: they do not belong to a political community from which they are able to claim even the right to human rights. U.N. Conventions such as the Rights of the Child supposedly offer avenues for the protection of such children. But for these to have any meaning, signatory countries must be trustworthy enough to abide by our undertakings.

When signatory countries like Australia do not honor the rights the U.N. Conventions bestow on a stateless child, when we disregard our serious obligations, unaccompanied refugee children remain stateless, rightless, and utterly vulnerable.

As long as we do not grant the unaccompanied child dignity and sovereignty by honoring our commitment to the Convention, we continue to treat refugee children as objects. If you have no human rights accorded you, you are not recognised as fully human.

We are defined by where we belong, who cares about us, and the observation of our fundamental rights. The destruction or denial of those rights causes profound damage.

As survivors of such abuse will agree, the journey back from that rightless position to the point where one can come to believe that one has even the right to have rights, is a journey of hardship, and struggle. In sending unaccompanied refugee children to a country that does not acknowledge the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child we are condemning them to a rightless life, and denying them an opportunity that could be provided in this country for healing, and a productive adulthood.

Even in Australia, signatory to all the Conventions, the U.N. has no power to enforce observation of the treaties. Since 2001 this body has been critical of our treatment of children in detention. This has not made any difference to our practices, and we have ignored the UNHCR's reprimands and calls for change.


In view of this it's nothing less than despicable hypocrisy for any Labor politician to state that he or she will only agree to the Malaysian transfer of unaccompanied children if it's approved by the UNHCR. Such approval will be as meaningless and unenforceable in Malaysia as it is in Australia, and every politician knows this.

Yesterday I heard comments to the effect that if the government allows any children to stay here, rather than sending all of them to Malaysia, people smugglers will seize this opportunity to load their boats with underage cargo. Yes, that's probably true. But, the commenter went on, if there should be another Christmas Island tragedy, and a boatload of children are drowned, this will be a political catastrophe.

What struck me about his observations was that it's perfectly acceptable in Australian public discourse for anything to do with unaccompanied child asylum seekers to be framed in purely political terms. Not in human terms, involving compassion, understanding, desire to assist, and responsibility. Not in terms that prioritise moral and ethical concerns for the welfare of kids, even when they are not Australian. If child asylum seekers drown it will first be a political catastrophe for the Labor government.

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About the Author

Dr Jennifer Wilson worked with adult survivors of child abuse for 20 years. On leaving clinical practice she returned to academia, where she taught critical theory and creative writing, and pursued her interest in human rights, popular cultural representations of death and dying, and forgiveness. Dr Wilson has presented papers on human rights and other issues at Oxford, Barcelona, and East London Universities, as well as at several international human rights conferences. Her academic work has been published in national and international journals. Her fiction has also appeared in several anthologies. She is currently working on a secular exploration of forgiveness, and a collection of essays. She blogs at

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