Victims or villains? deconstructing the policing of migrant children in South African border towns
ABSTRACT Research surrounding issues of police treatment of migrant children at South Africa’s border areas remains incomplete and often policy-driven. Similarly, theoretical literature on policing often fails to consider the sociological and anthropological complexities that impact upon police officers’ conceptions of criminality, vulnerability, and ultimately, their behaviour. This paper seeks to study the policing of migrant children in a predominantly sociological framework by examining the influences on South African Police Service (SAPS) officers’ behaviour and constructions of criminality and vulnerability in migrant children. The research is grounded within an extensive review of the theoretical and contemporary literature pertaining to policing, policing of vulnerable groups, and the South African policing context, and included approximately three months of ethnographic fieldwork of interviews and participant observation in Nkomazi Municipality at South Africa’s border with Mozambique. Conclusions identified that personal history and experiences, an officer’s perceptions of his or her work within a localized and even nationalized environment of some accountability and culture, as well as external factors ought to be heavily considered and are fluid influences on a police officer’s behaviour toward migrant children. These factors, which can result in seemingly arbitrary policing within a nonetheless structured localized and individualized culture, suggest a unique framework within which to consider policing from a sociological perspective even beyond their specific impact on migrant children or the border area.