June 19 2020

Refugee Week: What can we do for refugee children?

Erminia Colucci, Associate Professor in Visual and Cultural Psychology at MDX looks at the growing number of child refugees and the perilous journey they face to escape their own countries.

The prevalence and persistence of religious, racial, political and other forms of persecution, conflict, generalised violence, and human rights violations  in the twenty-first century has seen millions of people flee their countries of origin. Many seek permanent protection, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR).

The flow continues and global forced displacement has increased in 2015, with record-high numbers. The UNHCR states by the end of 2020, 65.3 million individuals were forcibly displaced worldwide. This is an increase of more than 50% in five years and are the highest levels of forced displacement since the aftermath of the World War II.

Growing number of child refugees

Among the millions of people who have made the perilous journey across the Mediterranean in an attempt to reach Europe, one striking feature has been the growing number of children. In June 2015, one in ten of the refugees and migrants was a child and by the end of December it was one in three, according to UNICEF.

In some places, children make up 40% of the asylum-seeking population.  This sums up to currently between 20 and 30 million children and adolescents being forcibly displaced and in need of asylum worldwide. The number of unaccompanied or separated children seeking asylum on an individual basis has increased significantly over recent years, reaching the highest levels since the UNCHR started systematically collecting this data.

Throughout Europe, these unaccompanied asylum seeking children (UASC) are exposed to a contentious institutional conflict; they are treated according to their asylum seeking/refugee status and not primarily as children and adolescents in need of protection during a crucial developmental period.

Easy prey for traffickers and smugglers

A 2016 report by UNICEF-France recorded the plight of unaccompanied children who were living in a number of different camps in northern France and along the coast of the English Channel. As highlighted by this report, throughout their journeys, refugee children suffer poor living conditions and are an easy prey for smugglers and traffickers as well as other powerful adults.

Unaccompanied and separated children are particularly at high risk of exploitation, violence and abuse. UNICEF observed:

“Most of the children who reach Europe come in search of safety and protection, and with the hope of a better future. But reaching Europe does not bring an end to the dangers they face.”

The report also identified practices involving the exchange of sexual services for the promise of passage to the UK or to pay for or speed up their journey. Boys and girls are regularly sexually abused, often by traffickers and their friends. There have also been recordings of children being exploited on cannabis farms in the UK, in Strasbourg and in Paris.

The situation reported in France is not isolated and similar accounts of exploitation and abuse (including sexual assaults committed against both girls and boys) have been reported also in studies in the UK. Findings have also included experiences of neglect, abuse and exploitation at the hands of humanitarian workers and foster carers who were charged with protecting and assisting these children.

The rising global burden of forced migration in the Mediterranean territories is a major social challenge that is increasingly recognised as an urgent issue in international public health and in global and cultural mental health.

Refugee children and young people have been identified as a group with particularly high vulnerability for mental health problems and to suicidal behaviour, due to their experiences of trauma, exposure to violence (whether individually experienced, witnessed or feared), forced migration, stressors associated with their resettlement journey (particularly post-migration detention), experiences of insecurity at a formative stage of child development and other factors.

Risk of mental health problems

Unaccompanied asylum seeking children (UASC) have been shown to be at higher risk of emotional and behavioural problems, anxiety and depression and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders. A number of the UASC interviewed for the UNICEF report expressed the need to be hospitalised in a psychiatric ward following instances of ‘mental breakdown’ and aggressive and violent episodes directed towards themselves or other young people.

A recent report from Medicine Sans Frontiers (MSF) and Save The Children International (SCI) have indicated that child refugees on Lesbos (Greece) are increasingly self-harming or having suicidal thoughts and behaviours linked with the deteriorating conditions in the camp and access to medical care.

Save the Children developing suicide prevention tools

Save the Children has officially recognised child and youth suicide as an unspoken issue in humanitarian context and published a cry for help disclosing the devastating impact of the EU-Turkey deal on child refugees and migrants.

SCI has, in fact, started developing suicide prevention protocols and training. I am honoured to have recently started providing their staff who are working with children in conflict afflicted areas, gatekeeper training based on the Suicide First Aid Guidelines, for people from immigrant and refugee backgrounds.

Yet, in spite of the increase of UASC refugees, research on their experiences of exploitation and abuse during their journeys, what is in place to protect them and, later, to provide support and help, is very limited.

This means that while high-income countries of resettlement such as France, UK and Australia, have introduced mental health and psychosocial support policies and programmes for children and young people, these are based on limited evidence.

More research needed to help vulnerable children

A review by Lancet on displaced and refugee children indicated the need for research into specific groups of children such as trafficked children, community and social contexts affecting their experiences and mental health outcomes, as well as the impact of specific types of exposures to abuse and violence.

In particular, more research is required to document (also by means of visual methods), understand and improve the mechanisms (e.g. structures, agencies and adult figures) in place throughout the refugee journeys to protect these resilient but vulnerable children from exploitation and abuse, complementing the work carried out by agencies such as Humans for Rights.

Applied and activist research is needed to develop and provide socio-culturally relevant and adequate psychosocial and mental health support (including suicide prevention) to those children and young people who have experienced abuse/violence and exploitation along these journeys.

Erminia is happy to supply a bibliography of references used in this post if required. Please email: e.colucci@mdx.ac.uk.

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