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Last weekend, a long deep dive into my Spotify playlists of 90’s music took me back to secondary school, where I made mixtapes (actual cassette tapes) in my bedroom for hours on end. It was the decade of mixtapes and high top sneakers. I also remembered how some of my friends always got new gears and goodies from their parents who lived “in foreign.”

If you grew up in the West Indies, you know what I mean. We all knew someone who lived “in foreign” and we all had friends who were barrel children.

In her landmark publication, Who will save our children: The plight of the Jamaican child in the nineties, Dr. Claudette Crawford - Brown described barrel children as children whose parents migrated to the metropole seeking a better life for their families while their children remained at home with surrogate parents.

This was particularly acute in the Caribbean in the late 1980's and 1990’s when economic downturns in the region were rife. A number of Caribbean governments sought relief from international financial institutions and everyone knew or felt the sharp pinch of structural adjustment measures. It was at this time that economic prospects abroad became appealing. 

From my experience, it was always the women of the family who decided to leave their native country to seek more lucrative opportunities abroad.  In the nineties, the demand for low skilled workers grew in the US, Canada and the UK, particularly in the domestic work sector. Women from developing countries like those in the Caribbean Region, took advantage of this and pursued domestic work opportunities abroad. Such tasks included household chores such as cleaning, cooking, washing and ironing clothes and taking care of children, or elderly or sick members of a family and even household pets. 

In choosing to provide a better life for their families, absent parents would send material things – food, clothing, and electronics (in lieu of emotional support) back to the islands. These goodies were packed into cardboard brown, cylindrical drums and shipped to exotic locations like Port of Spain, Kingston and Georgetown where expectant eyes and yearning hearts awaited their arrival.

Although the barrel children phenomenon was coined in the 1990’s, it is pertinent even today. According to the International Labour Organization, the domestic work sector has grown significantly between 1995-2010. The number of domestic workers rose from approximately 33.2 million to 52.6 million - an increase of more than 19 million people of which 83% are women.

In the 2015 UNDP Human Development Report entitled Rethinking work for development, there are at least 1.8 million domestic workers in US homes of which 95% are female and foreign born. In the Asia – Pacific Region, Singapore attracts female domestic workers from the Philippines and Indonesia where one household in five employs a domestic worker. Similar statistics can be found in the Gulf Cooperation Council countries as well.

The fact is that women are able to pursue opportunities abroad (which are otherwise scarce or limited in their native country) and earn a living to maintain household both at home and abroad.

Money, in the form of remittances, is a major source of income to their household back in their native country and is sometimes the only income to that household. The statistics are astounding. Remittance flows to developing countries in 2015 was at US$435 billion.

At more than three times the size of Official Development Assistance (ODA), international development agencies recognize the importance of remittance flows and the key role it plays in providing a lifeline to families in developing countries.

Sounds great right? Wrong! No one wins in this situation. According to the 2015 UNDP Human Development Report, the unfortunate tradeoff is children of migrants are often being left behind with family members resulting in a “global care chain parallel to the global flow of domestic workers.” 

The impact of absent mothers on barrel children is devastating for both mother and child. In the receiving country, as a domestic worker, women are subjected to work long hours for lower wages, abuse, even intimidation and restricted freedom of movement especially in cases where the worker is in the receiving country illegally. This coupled with the emotional stress of living away from their family, is also severe, as many mothers experience guilt while they care for their employer’s children whilst being away from their own family.

Their children are often cared for by a close relative or grandmother who acts as the surrogate parent and remittances from abroad as the sole income to the household places undue stress on the new family. Barrel children are subsequently very vulnerable to abuse, exploitation or even susceptible to neglect.

In either case the result can be devastating especially when mothers leave during those crucial formative years. Children become distracted and exhibit psycho - social challenges which impacts negatively on their education. They are unable to concentrate on their studies resulting in poor academic performance and delinquent behavior. Studies conducted in the Caribbean indicated that particularly vulnerable  groups were those transitioning from primary school to secondary school (aged 11-13) and those aged 14-18 who often adopt surrogate parental roles. In 2004, researchers discovered in studies conducted in Trinidad and Tobago that where children were separated from parents as a result of migration were more than twice as likely as other children to have emotional problems in spite of their improved economic standing.

Feelings of abandonment and alienation are heightened when plans to be reunited once “all de papers straight” are prolonged. Delinquent behaviour morphs into confrontations with the law and possible involvement in prostitution, gangs and violence.

So in a nutshell, no one wins.

The current watercooler debates will continue to persist. For as long as people seek to improve their families’ lives and desire to reach their fullest potential, global migration will not cease especially from the developing world to the richer developed countries in Europe and North America.

As we celebrate International Women's Day today, women represent around half of the total population of international migrants worldwide and many of them are domestic workers. So the next time a politician flippantly refers to “a bunch of migrants” or you see a nanny in the park looking after her employer’s children, try for a minute to think about walking a day in her children’s high top sneakers.


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