Rights, compassion and invisible children: A critical discourse analysis of the parliamentary debates on the mandatory detention of migrant children in Canada

Kronick, R.; Rousseau, C. (2015)

Journal of Refugee Studies

28(4) | 544-569

From 2011 until 2012, members of the Canadian parliament debated three iterations of legislation relating to the detention of asylum seekers. The final bill, unlike its predecessors, exempted children under the age of 16 from mandatory year-long detention, opening the door to children’s prolonged separation from parents or invisible detention as guests alongside mandatorily detained parents. Using a critical discourse analysis approach, we examine parliamentary debates and seek to determine how speech acts within the Canadian parliament construct a (detained) migrant child. Our results suggest that parliamentarians invoke logics of human rights and humanitarianism and that a reconfiguration of these paradigms places the state rather than the refugee in need of protection, thus introducing a hierarchy of compassion. Within this discourse, children are rendered so vulnerable as to be voiceless, enforcing the corollary image of the threatening adult refugee, which ultimately allows detention of children to be framed as a protective measure. We hypothesize mechanisms that make such constructions possible and discuss the implications for advocacy efforts.