Leon, Lucy and Rachel Rosen (2023) ‘Unaccompanied migrant children and indebted relations: Weaponizing safeguarding’, Child & Family Social Work, online first.
UK statutory guidance for practitioners suggests that indebtedness is an area where safeguarding red flags should be raised and action taken to minimize the risk of exploitation. Yet, our research shows that unaccompanied migrant children have complex indebted relationships, which can range from extractive to connective. Drawing on interviews with unaccompanied children, we show that these indebted relationships can include financial debt to smugglers, responsibilities to support transnational families, as well as social obligations to peers and others. Their accounts present a nuanced understanding of the taboo nature of indebted relationships, not to be shared with the practitioners in their lives. This is due, in part, to the potential threat of reporting to the Home Office, which might jeopardize their immigration status. In response to this weaponization of social care, we demonstrate how children turn to peer networks of support, creating their own alternative forms of social protection. In so doing, we complicate critiques of adultification, which traditionally highlight the ways that racially minoritized children may be treated as adults—to their detriment. In so doing, we show that because indebtedness is normatively linked to adulthood, unaccompanied children’s hopes and fears may be rendered unsayable and therefore unsupportable in social care, all in the name of safeguarding.