Children as Moral Subjects in Ethics of Migration

Jonathan Josefsson
Department of Thematic Studies – Child Studies, Linköping University, Sweden

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Ingår i: Proceedings from The 49th Societas Ethica Annual Conference 2012; Theme: Ethics and Migration; August 23-26; 2012; Lucian Blaga University Sibiu; Romania

Linköping Electronic Conference Proceedings 97:13, s. 147-160

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Publicerad: 2014-04-24

ISBN: 978-91-7519-297-0

ISSN: 1650-3686 (tryckt), 1650-3740 (online)


In 2011 almost 50% of the displaced persons around the world were children but still there is a lack of migration research about children’s experiences; roles and perspectives (Special issue in Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies Volume 37 Issue 8 2011). The aim of this paper is first and foremost to demonstrate how the leading theories and debates in the debate about ethics of migration lack a discussion of children as moral beings in their own right and that the debate is characterized by an adult discourse and traditional rooted assumptions about children. Secondly; the paper argues that the ethics of migration should acknowledge children as moral beings with agency; interests; rights and experiences in their own right. If children´s rights are acknowledged as morally relevant and if ethical theory should play a relevant role in the future debate of migration and policymaking then it is crucial to take a critical view on the construction of children as moral beings. Thirdly; the paper examines what the implications of future research in ethics of migration can be; if children are acknowledged as moral subjects in their own right.

In migration research children are traditionally represented as “passive; needy and different” (Ibid p. 1159). When children are in focus it is often in a fragmented fashion; with a perspective on children as future adults and as passive members of the family. However we can see an increased interest in challenging the traditional rooted assumptions about children in the latest years in the field of migration research as well as in some fields of philosophy. We have not yet seen a similar development in the ethics of migration. This paper analyses some of the leading contributions in the debate about ethics of migration represented by particularly Joseph Carens and David Miller that represents arguments for and against open and restricted borders. The analysis demonstrates how children to a great extent is invisible and that their roles; interests and experiences to a great extent have been left out of the debate. When children are mentioned it is in a fragmented fashion; in an adult-centric discourse; portraying children as reduced to family members and as vulnerable with a special need of protection and care. The paper suggests that more expanded conceptions of children will lead to new and important ethical questions. It concludes that many theoretical questions remain unanswered about the moral status of children in the ethical debate about migration and that the case of children point at gaps and weaknesses in some of the dominating theories about borders. A way to fill these gaps is to a greater extent take into account existing empirical research on children in migration and a growing philosophical research interest in children as moral subjects. The recognition of children as moral beings in their own right is put forward as one way of making ethical theory more applicable and relevant to policymaking and research of migration in the future.


Ethics of migration; Moral status of children; Children rights; Joseph Carens; David Miller; Children as moral subjects


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