3 Ways the Pandemic is Affecting the World’s Barrel Children

By Tiffani Knowles

A Christmas barrel is one of the most anticipated items a kid in a developing nation can receive all year. A blue plastic 77-gallon container bursting with new Nike sneakers, Levi jeans, Mattel toys and Kellogg breakfast cereal typically serves as the warmest extension of a mother’s love — considering she lives abroad and hasn’t seen her kids’ smiling faces in months, or worse, years.

So, for the world’s barrel children, Christmas is always the happiest time of the year.

But, since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic last year, these children were hit hard — especially over the holidays.

Barrel children, as they were first dubbed by University of the West Indies academic Dr. Claudette Crawford-Brown  in 1999, rely on the finances and material goods sent to them from parents who live and work in first-world nations like the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom.

While it is not the best arrangement, it is a common first step to family migration. Immigration is easier when one family member can establish a firm, legal footing in the developed nation rather than migrate a 5-member family all at once. So, it isn’t rare for a 32-year-old mom to move to New York or Toronto or London, leaving behind three children for a grandmother to raise. The home country matriarchs don’t mind as long as the barrels keep coming.

But, over the past nine months, parents have found it increasingly difficult to ship their teeming barrels or send regular remittances back home, leaving the barrel children wondering, “Where is mama?” and “Where is our barrel?”

Here are three palpable effects that the pandemic has had on the world’s barrel children:

  1. No or Low Remittances during the Pandemic

Payments to families back home through companies like Western Union and Money Transfer are known as remittances. But, since last March, there has been a drop-off in these payments, affecting the lives of millions around the globe who rely on the cash for food, fuel and medical care. Families from South Asia to the Caribbean to Latin America are having trouble paying for housing, uniforms and school fees for the barrel children.

Why? Migrant workers like Trinidadian nannies in Connecticut and Filipino cruise-ship workers in the Caribbean, have lost their jobs due to the pandemic. Thus, they have run out of cash to send home, delivering a severe blow to the fragile economic health of the developing world.

According to the World Bank’s October estimates, the amount of money migrant workers send home is projected to decline 14 percent in 2021.

Remittance is big business, bigger than you may think. In 2019, payments sent to lower- and middle-income countries actually touched a record high of $548 billion. That was larger than foreign direct investment flows ($534 billion) and overseas development assistance ($166 billion). However, remittances to these countries are projected to plummet to $470 billion in 2021.

Besides low employment levels in migrant-hosting countries, other factors driving the decline include weak oil prices and the depreciation of the currencies in home countries against the US dollar, said the World Bank. When we look at the Caribbean and Latin American region, the average cost of sending $200 to the region rose slightly to 5.8 percent in the third quarter of 2020. It’s worse in poorer countries like Haiti and the Dominican Republic where the cost of sending money currently exceeds 8 percent.

Jessalyn Tanedo, a 27-year-old call-center employee in the capital of the Philippines, told the Wall Street Journal in March that her mother, a maid in a household in Sicily, stopped wiring the usual $130 a month that paid for food and electricity at Tanedo’s grandparents’ home.  Lockdown measures across Italy had made it impossible for her mother to visit her client’s home on the Italian island. So, since she couldn’t clean houses, she couldn’t send money.

According to research by Alvin Ang, an economics professor at Ateneo de Manila University, and Jeremaiah Opiniano, a journalism professor who runs a research nonprofit on migration, remittances to the Philippines could fall this year by 10 to 20 percent. This would represent the largest decline in the nation’s history.

  1. No Summer Vacations in America

For barrel children who have had the luxury of procuring a 10-year visa to places like the United States, summer vacations with mommy in Miami or daddy in Los Angeles are normally the highlight of every year and a major form of family reunification, even if temporary. Yet, due to both the ban issued on non-immigrant visas and restrictions on travel into the United States, these visas remain unused and these barrel children received another disappointment — no summer vacation with mom/dad.

In an article in NEWD Magazine, a Guyanese barrel child Yolanda Bailey remembered the confusion she felt being away from her parents for years. They had migrated to America when she was just a few months old but, as a toddler, she longed for her parents’ presence. She and her older brother, Errol Jr., lived with several aunts during that time.

“I would cry for a long time because I always wanted to be with them,” she said.

When it comes to the psychological development of the child, the time the parent spends apart from their child has a great impact on them — often leading to feelings of resentment when they get older. Sometimes the child may feel that their once absent parents should not have any authority over them.

But, does this child not have a right to feel this way?

“I consider it an emotional response, not a right,” Dr. Melrose Rattray, a professor at Medger Evers College told NEWD Magazine. “You feel the distance and the lack of connection. What is required is an understanding of the time lost.”

A Jamaican native, Rattray began her research on the subject of immigration in the late ’80s during the mass Caribbean exodus. Her focus was on the psychological effects of the children involved and the implications of parents leaving.

She and Crawford Brown worked to develop the concept of “barrel children.”

“Our children won’t remember where we were, they will only remember where we were not,” Rattray said.

  1. No Christmas Visits from Mom

As it pertains to where parents “were not,” most migrant parents were absent around the holiday dinner table this past season because of the firm travel regulations in place. While migrant workers in the construction, domestic work, restaurant and agricultural industries in the U.S., are often undocumented and cannot venture back to their home countries until their immigration status has been adjusted, there are plenty of migrants who can freely move about the world with permanent green cards. But, in 2020, they could not even do that.

Per the president’s executive order, foreign nationals were prohibited from re-entering the United States after visiting countries like China, Iran, Brazil and others. Additionally, even when restrictions were relaxed, traveling to see family over the holidays was still too risky for primary breadwinners who:

  • Could not afford to get sick when their families, at home and abroad, depend so heavily on their financial contributions for survival
  • Could not afford to get stuck in a foreign country and potentially lose their job while employment prospects were so bleak

Dr. Peter Kleponis, assistant director of Comprehensive Counseling Services in West Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, said keeping in contact is crucial during this time of separation.

Sometimes the child may feel that they are to blame for their parents’ absence so “it’s so important to have communication with the children,” he said.

In a case like this, regular WhatsApp video calls and family Zoom time can be vital to the barrel child’s emotional wellness, especially during occasions like birthdays, holidays, graduations, weddings, funerals and barrel-unveilings.

Both Rattray and Crawford-Brown explored the roles of surrogate parents like aunts, grandmothers and older siblings who are often unable to give the children the emotional support that they need. These children don’t, after all, belong to them.

And, with financial support diminishing, these barrel children may suffer ill-treatment at the hands of sub-par caregivers. The logic is, “you left me with your kid to take care of, but you’re not sending me enough funds to send them to school, to feed them or to take care of their everyday needs…why should I bother?”

Jamaican author Pamela K. Marshall created a work of fiction from this very plight entitled Barrel Child. The book was released in 2011 and it follows the story of a girl’s struggle to find her place as a former barrel child in the United States since reuniting with her mom as a late teen.

“The younger the child, the more resentful,” said Kleponis. “A teenager can understand that the parents have to leave for a better life for them. [But] the early years of life is for bonding. This is where the child feels they are loved… It’s crucial. When they are separated, they lose that sense of security.”


Tiffani Knowles is a professor of communication and the co-author of HOLA America: Guts, Grit, Grind and Further Traits in the Successful American Immigrant and the online course series by the same name.

For immigrants interested in a pathway to citizenship, here’s a free download to my Ultimate Naturalization Timeline.

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