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Defending Children on the Move

An interview with Dr. Jacqueline Bhabha, Professor of the Practice of Health and Human Rights at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the Jeremiah Smith, Jr. Lecturer in Law at Harvard Law School, and Adjunct Lecturer in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. She is also the Director of Research at the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights, Harvard’s only university wide Human Rights research center (also available in the full documentary film):


My name is Jacqueline Bhabha and I'm a Professor of the Practice of Health and Human Rights at Harvard’s Chan School of Public Health. My work as a lawyer has always been focused on human rights. That's why I became a lawyer. I knew from the start that I wanted to do human rights work, but I did a broad spectrum of different types of work. I gradually started specializing in issues to do with immigration and refugee protection and that's the area then that I really dedicated myself to and so I've been working in that area or well over 20 years.

A refugee is someone who is eligible for international protection because they're fleeing persecution. And they're fleeing persecution for reasons of their civil or the political status. Somebody is discriminating or attempting to harm them because of their race or their nationality or their political opinion or the social group they belong to or their religion. So if you're fleeing, leaving a country because you're frightened of being persecuted for one of those reasons, then you are eligible for refugee status, and a refugee is a term that's recognized all over the world. It's an international term where a country gives protection to someone who is not a citizen of that country for one of these reasons.

When I started working in this field, the only group of children we really talked about were refugees, or asylum-seeking children. We used to think that any child arriving alone or arriving in a distressing situation was seeking refugee status. But gradually we realized that actually there are many different types of situations. Some children come alone because they're trying to join parents who traveled earlier, who may be documented or undocumented because they want to find work. Some children come because they've been trafficked. Because somebody wants to exploit them. Some children come because they've heard that everybody gets jobs, the streets are lined with gold, and so they have a dream. Increasingly, those of us who work in this field have moved towards a general term of description and that term is children on the move, so it's children who are affected by migration. The reason it's a useful category is because there's certain principles and certain important protections that apply to all children on the move, whether you're seeking refugee status or whether you're trying to reunify with your family, you need to have certain things that you need to be protected from harm. You need to have access to education. You need to have access to health care. You need to be looked after by somebody who has your best interests at heart. These are basic principles that apply to any child and so it's useful to have that classification of children on the move and that's why we increasingly use that term as a sort of umbrella term.

We live in a world in which there is a lot of migration of different sorts. For some groups of people migration presents no problem at all. And for others migration could be the beginning of a nightmare. People have always moved and it's a normal thing. It's a good thing, and migration brings lots of possibilities but of course, migration can also bring very severe risks. I tend to think of it really as a protection crisis. It's a crisis in the ability of societies and governments that have the capacity to extend humanitarian protections and I think that's what really needs attention.

One of the great things about the U.S. is that any child documented or undocumented has a right to be in public school. And that's a wonderful protection that the Supreme Court decided on many years ago in a famous case, when the Supreme Court said you can't punish children for things that parents might have done wrong, so if a parent brings in a child without documents and puts the child in school it's not the child's fault. Secondly, it's not good for the country to have children who've never been educated. Do we want to have kids who can't read and write? Do we want to have kids who have never socialized with other children? No, so really teachers don't need to worry about the child's legal status. They are right within their rights to treat every child equally. If you come in and you're seeking refugee status, you're seeking asylum, you are legally here while you're waiting for that status. It's just like somebody legally waiting in a queue to get into the cinema. You know, you're not disturbing the peace, you're standing on the pavement, you're waiting there. You're allowed to be here. International law and U.S. law makes it quite clear there's nothing illegal about applying for refugee status, so it's, it's a very important point. I think for teachers it's important to include in the curriculum a range of different subject matters. Not just on international day or newcomer welcome day, but as a general fabric of the education so that it's not just the newly-arrived children who are made to feel different, but settled children see that part of their society are these new ingredients. That's what I mean when I say that inclusion is a two-way process.

None of us live in a world now where there's just one culture. New teachers working with refugees have a tremendous opportunity. They have an opportunity to really be a change maker in somebody's life. So often when you talk to young people who have been forced to flee home and have had to leave so much behind and you ask them about how they got to where they got to, they will mention a special teacher as being transformative in their life. And they'll reflect on how one individual really believed in them and helped them to navigate a difficult path. A teacher has that privilege of really affecting a child's life and often the school can be a haven, a safe haven, compared to maybe the outside world. Maybe the home, maybe the family, having children who have an extra need for attention, is of course an added responsibility, but I think the silver lining is they could have this tremendously transformative impact. And I've seen it myself, in so many young people, when they look back at school and they have such positive things to say.

Journey to Refuge ebook cover

Download the eBook at New Prairie Press

Published April 2019

Recommended Citation: Harlow, Trina D., "Journey to Refuge: Understanding Refugees, Exploring Trauma, and Best Practices for Newcomers and Schools" (2019). NPP eBooks. 26. https://newprairiepress.org/ebooks/26

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

See the full Refuge in the Heartland documentary

For more information about the eBook or film, please contact Dr. Trina Harlow, Book Editor and Film Co-Director, at drtrinaharlow@gmail.com.