This is a post about the difficulty of addressing a particular issue of justice that exists against a background of unjust economic and politic arrangements. It illustrates how attempts to rectify one kind of injustice risk to aggravate others.

All around the world there are lots of kids who spend many of their childhood years, and sometimes their entire childhood, without much face to face contact with the people who used to be their primary caregivers, and whom they still see as their parents. This happens as a result of temporary migration for work, of the kind that, for legal, economic and other pragmatic reasons, doesn’t allow migrant parents to take their children with them. Temporary migration has always existed, but it has been on the raise recently, thanks to the opening of labour markets and to the increased accessibility of long-distance travel. Moreover temporary migration has become increasingly feminised due to the world-wide abundance of jobs in traditionally feminised sectors such as care for children, the ill, the elderly and menial work, .

And this is the point where some of the trouble starts: parenting, too, is a traditionally feminised activity, especially the bits that have most to do with hands-on care, daily involvement and emotional support. It’s true that a new model of involved fatherhood is becoming popular in some of the richer countries in the world; but most temporary migrants come, for obvious reasons, from the poorer countries that also tend to be more gender conservative. Because mothers are usually the more involved parent, their migration (without the children) is bound to be harmful at least in one way: it deprives children of continuity of care. And children are generally believed to need continuity of care: severing a firmly established bond between children and parents represents significant harm to the child. No doubt, many of the migrants’ children also benefit from their parents’ migration, because parents usually send remittances that pay for better housing, education and creature comforts. It is hard to aggregate the benefits and harms that parental migration entails for children. Some studies suggest that these children are worse off with respect to educational achievements and social relationships with their peers, others deny it. Most studies I’ve seen tend to agree that, compared to their peers, migrants’ children suffer from more feelings of sadness, insecurity and isolation and from lack of adult guidance. So, even if migrants’ children are better off materially, this doesn’t take away from the fact that growing up with very little and sporadic face to face contact with one’s parents is an important kind of deprivation. These children suffer an injustice.

But who is responsible for the injustice – who has the duty to prevent or mitigate it? It is their individual parents, to whom they are already attached, that children need and so it seems that it is these individuals who should make things right. This is a difficult claim to make, for two reasons. First, on closer inspection, it often turns out that the mothers’, rather than the parents’, absence is most harmful. But isn’t it obviously unjust to blame women for ‘abandoning their children’, as the media often puts it? Why aren’t fathers equally involved in parenting in the first place such that they become able to provide practically and emotionally for their children when mothers-only migrate? And second, leaving this unjustified gender asymmetry to the side, in many cases it seems unjust to ask migrants to take the full responsibility for their children’s predicament. Temporary migrants usually cannot find proper – or any – work in their country or region of origin, and migrate in order to provide for basic necessities for themselves and their families. They do not abandon their children merely in order to keep up with the Joneses and, morally speaking, they don’t abandon their children at all; part of their reason to migrate is children’s wellbeing. Migrant parents merely find themselves in the impossibility to provide for all the important interests of their children: in continuity of care as well as in proper housing and reasonable economic security, for instance. It is not their fault that they cannot ensure all these things. And it would be too easy to say ‘they should not have had children under these conditions.’ Maybe it was not entirely their choice to become parents. Maybe they did not, and could not, foresee their current poverty or economic insecurity. And, in any case, it is unjust for people to find themselves in a situation in which they ought not to parent due to (collectively avoidable) economic circumstances.

What do you think?