Barrel Children

The barrel is an object with a great deal of significance in our film Auntie and we are often asked the question, “Why is the project called Barrel Stories?”

When parents leave their children behind and move to another country with plans to reunite at a later date, this is called a stepwise migration. For parents migrating illegally there is no other option, while others may decide to create a stable life first before bringing their children over. In the interim, the child is left in the care of others – a family member or trusted person in the community often referred to as an “auntie” if they are female. During their absence parents who are financially able provide material support both in the form of cash as well as goods packed into barrels which are shipped to the region. The carefully selected contents of the barrel become a way to show love and care – whether household goods, school supplies, the latest fashions or foodstuff. In the Caribbean, children who are parented in this way are sometimes referred to as “barrel children”.

In the best case scenario children are well looked after and loved by their caregivers and benefit from a stable family unit. Even so this arrangement is not without its downside, as neither child nor caregiver can know when their temporary family may be torn apart by the child’s departure. The complicated and expensive process of regularising immigration status can cause such lengthy separations that what starts out as a temporary leads to a completely missed childhood. Parents may find it hard to stay emotionally connected to a child without being able to spend time together. There is also the challenge of reuniting with a child who may see them as a virtual stranger. For children the transition to a new country and culture can be compounded by grief over the loss of the person they have come to know as their parent.

Sometimes the situation arises when parents already resident outside the Caribbean send their foreign-born children “back home” because of financial constraints, lack of adequate child care, for a better education or to be partially raised in a culture they think will provide better discipline, moral grounding or a less harmful racial dynamic.

Whatever the reason, in an unfortunate number of cases, the arrangements suffer a complete breakdown. Parents or caregivers may be neglectful or abusive, failing to provide for the child’s material or emotional needs. Some children may be left entirely without parental supervision or may be forced to parent younger siblings.

The issue is a complex one.  Learn more about the Caribbean’s barrel children on the Resources page.