Exploring the "Barrel Children" Cycle: Parent-Child Separation Due to Migration

Mala Jokhan
The University of the West Indies, Trinidad & Tobago

Globalization has resulted in interesting shifts that bring volatile and inevitable change to socio-cultural, political, and economic landscapes. At the heart of these global dynamics is the movement of persons in search of “greener pastures”; this migration has numerous effects on family life. One such effect is parent-child separation. In the Caribbean, migration for financial reasons often takes the form of serial migration—a parent leaves to seek economic opportunities elsewhere, while the children remain behind. The parents plan to send for the children to join them once they can afford to do so. While they are leaving in the hope of securing a better financial future for their families, they are often leaving their dependents without economic providers and caregivers at home.

As a social researcher, I am interested in the livelihood strategies people develop and employ in order to cope with and adapt to difficult circumstances, including socio-economic issues of poverty, crime, underemployment, and unemployment. It is within such a context that serial migration from the Caribbean developed—out of a struggle for betterment and security. It emerged as an economic survival strategy as families could only afford to emigrate gradually over time, with the long-term goal of the entire family settling abroad on a limited budget. This path to securing financial stability unfortunately means families are living separately.

In the Caribbean, children waiting to reunite with their migrant parents are often referred to as "barrel children," a term coined by Jamaican social workers in the 20th century and used across the larger islands of the English-speaking Caribbean. The phrase originated in reference to the cardboard barrels used to ship consumer goods to family members back on the islands. Interestingly, the term is used very loosely to refer to all children whose parents migrate, whether or not they receive material support from their migrant parents. Recently, mainly in the case of Jamaica, some parents are sending money through wire transfers rather than sending material goods. Thus, the children are also being called "remittance children."

It is important to bear in mind that while the term “barrel children” is unique to the Caribbean, the experience of parent-child separation as a consequence of migration is very much a global experience. Caribbean, Latino, and Filipino families are particularly affected by this practice of serial migration. Once a need for economic survival arises in the face of insecurities and limited options back home, a continuous penetration of borders (legally and illegally) develops, as it is only human nature to want better. Serial migration is not characteristic of a specific ethnic group, but rather is an economic survival strategy employed by low-income families of all ethnicities. The practice can recur over several generations, as family members abroad encourage those in the homeland to make the journey, sponsoring their airfare and lodging.

In my own research, I seek to understand the dynamics involving this form of separation and the physical and emotional strains it can have on the family. Using experiential data from Trinidad and Tobago, the southernmost island of the English-speaking Caribbean, I explored childhood as affected by parental migration. Through in-depth conversations, I came to understand that the term "barrel children" is considered derogatory. Nor do the children like the term "left behind," as it could imply a level of abandonment and neglect they did not experience.

While serial migration as a strategic plan for economic survival fails for some families (they are not able to improve their financial standing), it does work for others. Families that are better able to manage during the separation generally have strong kinship support systems, quality surrogate caregiving, and reliable and consistent means of remaining in contact with the migrant family members. Children who have access to the internet and mobile phones are able to stay in closer contact with their parents.

For families with strong kinship ties, the extended family (aunts, grandparents, uncles) and family friends play a central role in terms of child care in the absence of the parent. The Caribbean transnational family can be highly resilient, providing a “social buffer” in the face of adversities and making adjustments in roles and responsibilities to compensate for the absence of migrant family members.

Exploring how the system is viewed from an insider’s account, it was interesting to learn how individuals who had been separated from their parents due to migration felt about the experience and whether they themselves would want to migrate as parents. Their views about the safety and suitability of alternative child care support provided in the absence of their parents are telling. For instance, some of them felt “cheated” out of their childhood because they had no stable place to call “home.” They often moved from one household to the next, which is referred to as “child-shifting.” Also, eldest children were often expected to take care of their younger siblings. One interviewee did describe the migration of his parents as a blessing, because his father was abusive and he was happier and safer with his grandmother on the island. However, in other cases where a grandparent became the substitute caregiver, the generation gap contributed to some irreconcilable differences. Also, a grandparent may be in need of care and attention, meaning the child would not receive supervision or attention and may even have to care for the grandparent.

As they reflected on their experiences as children affected by their parents’ migration, the adults I spoke with said they would not migrate. One mother had already migrated as a parent, but had returned after realizing the toll it was having on her child. Even though they all had a network of familial support to provide child care, they were not going to leave their children in Trinidad and Tobago to work abroad. They would tell me, “My parents did it so that I would not have to do it for my children” and “There is no way I am migrating without my children because of the emotional strain.” In these cases, the cycle of migration can break.

The conversations I had also revealed a disparity in terms of how the participants viewed their parents’ roles and responsibilities. While children received material goods in barrel shipments and money through wire transfers, they often experienced an emotional deficit—a care drain—as a result of the separation. The child waiting at home and the parent working abroad may conceptualize “care” differently. The parent perceives sending money and barrels of consumer items as caring for the child, but the children may interpret those efforts as parents compensating for not being physically present and trying to convince the children that they are not forgotten. In the Caribbean, the colloquial term used is mamaguy, which is a form of deception. Such a contradiction can cause major fissures in the parent-child relationship if parents do not make the extra effort to nurture the relationship by also catering to their children’s emotional needs through regular contact and including their children in decision-making. Most of the participants felt voiceless during their childhood, with no input into family decisions. When both material and emotional support are provided, when the child does not feel neglected or abandoned, and when children believe their parents are being honest and are keeping their promises, a child will likely have a much more positive outlook about the separation.

Undoubtedly, macro-level factors have implications on recurrence of serial migration. For instance, immigration policy changes. My research indicated that the United States was the main destination for these migrations from Trinidad and Tobago. Therefore, it is possible that changes to or elimination of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals into the U.S. (DACA) and the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA) can lead to a reversed flow of migration and fracture the cycle, as parents might no longer be able to sponsor their children to come from abroad. Families might be permanently separated or have to reunify in their home country.

In the Caribbean, more strategic regional development for job creation is critical if families are to be self-sufficient. This approach would address the root causes of familial separation, as a secure financial positioning in the homeland would decrease the likelihood that parents look beyond the border to support their families. Investing in job creation initiatives and the development of human capital could also reduce crime and help to create a sustainable economy that attracts investors, deters emigration, and creates a haven that might encourage the return of Caribbean people to their homeland. In a more immediate sense, local efforts are needed to increase awareness of parent-child separation and revamp existing social programs to assist these families. Also, workshops can be organized to equip stakeholders (surrogate parents, social workers, school teachers, police officers, counselors) with the knowledge necessary for working with children whose parents are abroad.