Recently, a landmark decision has just been reached by the European Court of Human Rights with respect to children separated from parents when these move to work to other cities or countries. The case of the Filipino mother separated from her son for more than six years highlights a global phenomenon that governments and the public have chosen to overlook. The total number of children left behind worldwide is difficult to assess with precision. Given the high number of women and men who annually leave their communities in countries such as China, Honduras, India, Mexico, Moldova, Nicaragua, Pakistan, the Philippines, Romania, and Sri Lanka to work elsewhere, we can safely assume that the number of children left behind is in the millions.
Who exactly are these children and why exactly are they left behind?
They are children of all ages, including very young ones, who cannot be taken by their parents and who are left with relatives, friends and sometimes older siblings. The reason they are left behind is that countries everywhere have introduced policies and legislations that often prevent mothers and/or fathers from bringing their spouses and their children with them. The argument is that these people are coming to work for relatively short periods of time, although in fact they usually end up staying years in a row or even decades. The rationale behind these policies is that countries want to prevent immigration even though their economies depend on foreign workers.
What happens to these children and families has become a major ethical and public health concern. Over the last 40 years, the world has seen and abetted a growing disruption and disorganization of families in poor communities and countries from where people are forced to move to seek work. Vast demographically biased populations have been created, denuded of complete family units and often characterized by children who grow up in the absence of their biological parents. Generations of children are being raised in circumstances that still need to be evaluated. The impact of parental separation on the psycho-emotional and physical development of children left behind needs to be assessed in order to inform governments and communities of best ways to deal with parental migration and child development in the context of increasing population mobility.
The decision by the European Court of Human Rights will hopefully open the door to more humane policies. Its decision to condemn Switzerland should have been differently worded to condemn all countries that depend on and use workers in this fashion. Currently ICMHD is working on a multisectoral project for Children Left Behind and we could use your support!