CHILD REFUGEES

By Vincent Lyn

The world is currently dealing with the largest refugee population on record with at least 80 million people around the world have been forced to flee their homes. Among them are nearly 31 million refugees, around half of whom are under the age of 18. This number has doubled over the last 10 years. This number includes some 13 million child refugees, approximately one million asylum-seeking children and an estimated 17 million children displaced within their own country by violence and conflict.

More than half of the world’s refugees are children. Many will spend their entire childhoods away from home, sometimes separated from their families. They may have witnessed or experienced violent acts and, in exile, are at risk of abuse, neglect, violence, exploitation, trafficking or military recruitment.

Almost one in three children living outside their country of birth is a refugee. These numbers encompass children whose refugee status has been formally confirmed, as well as children in refugee-like situations. In addition to facing the direct threat of violence resulting from conflict, forcibly displaced children also face various health risks, including: disease outbreaks and long-term psychological trauma, inadequate access to water and sanitation, nutritious food, and regular vaccination schedules.

Refugee children, particularly those without documentation and those who travel alone, are also vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. Although many communities around the world have welcomed them, forcibly displaced children and their families often face discrimination, poverty and social marginalization in their home, transit, and destination countries. Language barriers and legal barriers in transit and destination countries often bar refugee children and their families from accessing education, healthcare, social protection, and other services. Many countries of destination also lack intercultural supports and policies for social integration. Such threats to safety and well-being are amplified for refugee children with disabilities. Additionally, North American schools often don’t have the resources needed to support refugee children. Refugee children often have to handle discrimination, low socioeconomic status, have no family, or come to a setting that clashes with their cultural beliefs leading to behavioral issues teachers aren’t always prepared for.

Challenges Facing Refugee Children

Limited access to education. A quality education is one of the essentials to success in life, but this becomes a challenge in refugee emergencies. According to UNICEF, refugee children are 5 times more likely to be out of school than other children, often due to school safety, language barriers in the classroom, and financial issues. Many of these challenges are a reality for Syrian children living in Lebanon (which is host to over 1 million Syrian refugees). The emotional toll of conflict, trauma, and asylum-seeking has left many children simply not ready to enter a formal classroom, and many others end up in child labor, to help families make ends meet.

Compromised mental health and the threat of “lost” childhoods. The causes of forced migration are traumatizing enough for anyone. But they hit children especially hard as they are still developing emotionally and mentally, and lack the same tools that adults often have to navigate trauma. When children grow up in armed conflict, their deep mental scars are often overlooked. Prolonged exposure to violence, fear and uncertainty can have a catastrophic impact on children’s learning, behavior and emotional and social development for many years. All of this adds up to the sense of a “lost” childhood for those who have to grow up too quickly in order to survive.

It doesn’t end with past trauma, either: Displacement can further affect the mental health of children, leaving them to develop a number of unhealthy coping mechanisms in response to their heightened vulnerability. Even if a conflict ends and they’re able to return home, these experiences may remain with them for the rest of their lives.

Shifting family dynamics and responsibilities. Overcrowded housing conditions. The aftermath of traumatic events. Radically different financial realities. These circumstances are common with refugee families living in host communities, which can lead to a dysfunctional shift in family dynamics once they reach asylum. This can have a family-wide impact, and leave children in an especially vulnerable position.

Isolation in host community. Many of the above factors can affect how much “at home” a refugee child feels in their host community. Beyond these challenges, however, xenophobia and discrimination play a big role in isolating those seeking asylum. Amid such lonely conditions, it’s hard to rebuild a life or regain a sense of normalcy. Children are often isolated and this adversely affects how much their own unique needs are heard and considered.

Vincent Lyn

CEO/Founder at We Can Save Children

Director of Creative Development at African Views Organization

Economic & Social Council at United Nations

Middle East Correspondent at Wall Street News Agency

Rescue & Recovery Specialist at International Confederation of Police & Security Experts

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Vincent Lyn

Vincent Lyn

CEO-We Can Save Children. Director Creative Development-African Views Organization, ECOSOC at United Nations. International Human Rights Commission (IHRC)