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  • Introduction:Migration, Refugees, and Diaspora in Children's Literature
  • Philip Nel (bio)

This special issue is about displacement—voluntary, involuntary, cultural, emotional, geographical—and its effects on children.

Today, 244 million people live outside the country of their birth. Of that number, 65.6 million have been forced to leave their homes. Nearly 22.5 million are refugees. Over half of all refugees are under the age of eighteen. Of the world's 10 million stateless people, one third are children. The numbers of refugees, asylum-seekers, the internally displaced, and the stateless are so extreme that "We are now witnessing the highest levels of displacement on record," according to the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR). Indicating the severity of this crisis, the UNHCR estimates that "nearly 20 people are forcibly displaced every minute" (UNHCR, "Figures").1

As I write these words in June 2018, my country's government is actively working to make this crisis worse. In 2016, the final year of Barack Obama's presidency, the United States resettled 15,479 Syrian refugees. That is a small fraction of what Germany (which has much more humane refugee policies) has done. As of December 2017, Germany (population 82 million) had admitted 530,000 Syrian refugees; the United States (population 324 million) had admitted 33,000 (Connor). That is also far more than the US is doing today. A week after his inauguration in 2017, President Trump suspended the country's entire refugee program for four months, and then imposed stringent quotas. By the end of that year, the US had admitted 3,024 Syrian refugees. During the first six months of 2018, the US admitted only thirteen. Meanwhile, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has been attempting to deter people from seeking asylum by violating their human rights. Tactics include the separation of infants and children from their parents, at a rate of forty-five children per day. The children are then imprisoned in Office of Refugee [End Page 357] Resettlement facilities run by private state-licensed providers or on military bases, where they await a hearing (frequently without a lawyer, which means that children are representing themselves in court) and likely deportation. If, that is, officials even know where they are. In April 2018, the Department of Health and Human Services admitted that it had lost track of 1,475 children who had crossed the US–Mexico border and had allegedly been released into the custody of relatives or family friends—or people claiming that status, since some of those children are now believed to be in the hands of human traffickers.2

The words migrants, refugee, and diaspora—the theme of this special issue—track the effects of physical and emotional displacement on those who have been othered geographically or culturally. Mr. Trump's description of some non-White migrants as "animals" invokes the word's etymological and racist roots. In the seventeenth century, the word migrant referred to migratory animals; by the nineteenth, its application to human beings figured migratory people as less human ("Migrant"; Gálvez 168). Although the word retains some of that pejorative flavor, it is no longer in itself a dehumanizing term. Another word describing the movement of people, diaspora derives from the Greek prefix dia ("through") and verb sperein ("to sow" or "to scatter"). As Brent Hayes Edwards points out, the word is itself "a translation," used to render a range of Hebrew words in the Torah, all of which describe "literal or figurative processes of scattering, branching off, departure, banishment, and winnowing" (77, 76). It is a translated word for a transplanted community that shares a religious or cultural tradition. Refugee originally described a "Protestant who fled France to seek refuge elsewhere from religious persecution in the 17th and 18th centuries," but it has come to describe anyone who has been "forced to leave his or her home and seek refuge elsewhere, especially in a foreign country, from war, religious persecution, political troubles, the effects of a natural disaster, etc." ("Refugee").

Giorgio Agamben suggests that reactionary governments (such as the United States', right now) fear refugees because they expose the fiction of statehood. Stripped of nationality, the refugee...


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