The past two years have seen the largest refugee crisis since World War 2, and it is children that are paying the heaviest price. According to UNICEF, nearly 50 million children have been displaced from their homes, with 28 million fleeing brutal conflict and millions more escaping extreme poverty. One in every 200 children worldwide is now a refugee. In fact, children make up almost half of all refugees.
The crisis shows no sign of abating, and with conflict, famine and water shortages in many countries, it is likely that we will see a further increase in the number of displaced people. While only a tiny proportion of these children will end up in the UK, as early years practitioners and advocates for children, it is important that we understand the impact of forced migration, how it affects children and how we can support any families that we may meet in our settings.
To support refugee families effectively, we need to recognise that they are not a homogeneous group; rather, each family is unique and will have diverse cultural, social, religious and ethnic backgrounds, varied experiences and different aspirations for the future. However, they may have experienced some of the adversities so commonly faced by refugees.
Life in war zones
Studies have shown that while war affects children in all the same ways as it does adults, some of its impact is peculiar to children. Bereavement, injury, disruptions to social and cultural life, food shortages and psychological trauma affect all ages. However, children may also experience disturbed attachments, substitute care arrangements or even the loss of all adult protection.
They may become ‘unaccompanied children’ and, in turn, be vulnerable to risks of sexual exploitation or conscription into combat. Their education may be nonexistent or disrupted for months or years, making it difficult for them to acquire essential skills, other than those linked to survival. Depending on the age of the child, their entire remembered life may be that of war and crisis.
Experiences in transit
Many refugee families will have experienced treacherous journeys across land and sea. They may have given their life savings to smugglers in order to help them reach a place of safety. If they had no money, they may have been forced to pay for their passage in other ways. Cramped conditions on lorries or non-seaworthy boats may well have been part of the experience. Some families will have travelled across continents on foot, resulting in injury and fatigue. The trauma of the journey itself may have been compounded by losing loved ones en route, or witnessing horrors during transit.
Life in refugee camps
Many of the families will have spent time in refugee camps, either on the borders of their home country or further afield. Conditions and facilities within these camps vary significantly. However, one thing is certain: a refugee camp is not an optimal place to bring up children.
In June and October last year, we visited refugee camps in northern France, where we were able to spend time talking to volunteers, parents and children. The starkness of the environment shocked us; at Dunkirk, row after row of wooden huts dominated the landscape. Some people had tried to personalise their living spaces, adding flowerpots or painting artwork onto the huts. Then there was the poignant graffiti, ‘Still human after all!’
Further along the coast in Calais, unaccompanied children were living in desperate conditions. Charity workers estimated that 129 children had disappeared from the camp in the previous six months and were extremely concerned for their safety. Families were living in appalling conditions in accommodation that ranged from shipping containers to makeshift tarpaulin shelters.
The poor hygiene and cramped conditions made the camp a perfect breeding ground for diseases such as respiratory illness, scabies and measles. Far more profound, however, was the impact of trauma, loss and ongoing stress on families’ mental health and well-being.
In the case of the children, disruptions to their routines combined with a lack of stimulation and limited opportunities for play were affecting their physical, cognitive, social and emotional development. Parenting within such conditions was challenging and some parents’ desire to keep their children safe meant that children’s opportunities for exploration and independence were greatly curtailed.
The number of refugees entering the UK is still very small (39,000 in 2016). However, with national schemes such as the Syrian Refugee Resettlement Programme being implemented, many early years settings across the UK could find themselves welcoming refugee families for the first time. To create a positive environment in which a refugee child can thrive, consider the following:
Prepare staff and other children
There are various resources that can be used with staff to help them understand the refugee crisis and its impact on children (see More information). Having strong inclusion and diversity policies in place will also support staff’s understanding and practice.
Also available are a variety of picture books to help children understand why some families need to leave their homes (see column). Persona dolls, puppets and emotion stones can also be useful when beginning to develop empathy and understanding in children.
Work with parents
Talking with the child’s parents and building up a strong supportive partnership is essential. There may well be language barriers, so you will need to think carefully about how best to communicate with them. Without being intrusive, find out as much as you can about the child’s country of origin. Think about including foods from the child’s home culture at snack-time; audit your resources to see how well they are supporting diversity. What is vital is that you avoid making assumptions about the family; true understanding can only be gained by getting to know the family well.
Also important is ensuring that parents and carers fully understand the practices of the setting. For example, in many cultures play is seen as unimportant, and independence in young children is not encouraged. Therefore ongoing dialogue will help to build understanding and support home-setting links.
For some refugee children, their difficult experiences and overwhelming emotions may manifest themselves in behaviour that is seen as challenging in settings. It is important that practitioners see beyond the behaviour to the reasons driving it. In some cases what were effective survival behaviours in refugee camps (for example, taking more food than is needed) may now be seen as unacceptable.
Children may also find it difficult to adapt to routines. Angry outbursts or exaggerated startle reflexes may also be present. Because of previous experiences of loss and change, the child may find it difficult to form relationships with adults in the setting, or conversely may very quickly develop overly strong attachments. Putting positive strategies in place that are bespoke to the child will help support the child to move forward.
Work in partnership
Find out what other organisations in your area are doing to support refugee families. You may be able to share ideas and practice as well as to signpost the families to additional help and support. Some areas have established practitioner networks and these can be a helpful source of information, advice and practice exchange.
And finally, see the child first
When Alison recently asked a refugee parent what he would most like practitioners to know about his situation, he replied, ‘I would like them to know that I am more than my refugee status.’ In the same way, as early years practitioners, we need to see the unique child before we see their background and situation. That child may have experienced trauma, but they may also love dinosaurs and hate raisins. Spending time with the child, tuning into their interests, aspirations and feelings is the very best thing you can do to support their well-being and development – just like you would with any other child.
Welcome by Barroux
Swept away from their icy home, Polar Bear and his friends seek refuge in a new land. But when turned away from one place after another, they wonder if they will ever find somewhere they will be made welcome.
My Name is Not Refugee by Kate Milner A boy discusses the journey he is about to make with his mother; leaving their town, saying goodbye to friends and loved ones; and having to walk, walk and walk.
Lost and Found Cat: The True Story of Kunkush’s Incredible Journey by Doug Kuntz and Amy Shrodes
An Iraqi family flee their home, taking their beloved cat with them, only to be separated during the crowded boat crossing to Greece.
The Little Refugee by Anh and Suzanne Do The story of one Vietnamese family’s journey to safety and settling in to a new way of life.(Age 4+)
The Journey by Francesca Sanna Inspired by two girls the illustrator met in a refugee camp in Italy, this book explores the unimaginable decisions made by a family escaping the tragedy of war.(Age 5+)
University of Worcester runs a one-day CPD course, ‘Including refugee and asylum-seeking children into your setting’, https://www.worcester.ac.uk