Refugees are often confused with “asylum seekers” or “illegal immigrants”, which they are not. To be assessed as a refugee the individual must meet the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) definition of a “refugee”, which applies to any person who:
“owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and … not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable .. to return to it” (10).
In this way, refugees are distinguished from economic or environmental migrants, who leave their country for better economic opportunities (10).
The Plight of Young Refugees
Many of the refugees who resettle in Australia are children (4). The UNHCR estimates that nearly half of the world’s refugee population of 15.4 million, are children under the age of 18 years (11). Of the 20,019 refugees accepted for resettlement in Australia in 2012, 39.2% were children and young people under the age of 17, with many of these children unaccompanied (4).
During pre-migration and flight, refugee children can be exposed to many traumatic incidents, such as witnessing or experiencing violence, bombardments, protracted detention, injury and famine. Young refugees may have become separated from their families through the confusion of flight or lost their families to illness or malnutrition. These children are also at greater risk of abuse, neglect, exploitation, trafficking or forced military recruitment.
In addition, young refugees may have spent prolonged periods in countries where service infrastructure is poorly developed or disrupted as a result of conflict. Normal child development can be impacted by poor access to food, health care, education and normal social interactions. Subsequently, many experience various psychological symptoms that limit their capacity to adjust to the changing circumstances around them as they deal with displacement and resettlement (6).
The significant difficulties of adjusting to a totally new country mean that resettlement is usually avoided and is a last resort; considered optimal for the future stability of only about 1% of the annual 10.5 million refugees under UNHCR management (10).
Common resettlement difficulties include language barriers, material issues, occupational issues, and lifestyle changes. This can include adjusting to an urban first-world way of life, when one has come from a rural developing culture (7). Thus, while resettlement to a third country brings the promise of safety to a small percentage of refugees, it also brings with it new challenges and difficulties.
While resettlement in a third country may offer refugee youth a chance to reach the potential they would have been inhibited from achieving in their country of origin, the task of resettlement itself can be immense and daunting. For example, they often find it easier than their adult carers to acquire the new language, often acting as translators and advocates for their adult carers in the new country. This can cause tension in the parent-child dynamic relationship (7).
Secondly, refugee youth may experience pressure from their family to stay loyal to their ethnic values; values which may clash with those of the host culture they are trying to come to terms with at school (3).
In addition, refugee youth must deal with the fact that their migration was forced, not chosen, and has often occurred under circumstances of violence and loss. The psychological vulnerability associated with the difficulties of flight and pre-flight can make the stress related to resettlement more difficult for young refugees to deal with, with previous stress sapping psychological resources so less are available for new stresses and challenges. Young people with refugee backgrounds have increased prevalence of mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder when compared with young people without refugee backgrounds (6).
Helping Young Refugees
To investigate some of the factors that support young refugees as they navigate resettlement, one study followed 97 young refugees settling in Melbourne over three years and identified five major protective factors that were associated with positive resettlement outcomes. These were:
- The pace at which the host language is learned;
- Experiencing educational achievement;
- Developing positive relationships with the broader community;
- Living with a supportive family; and
- Attending a supportive school (3).
School is important for young refugees in a number of ways. It is usually the primary location for young refugees and their families to learn about and engage with the host culture, and also provides the primary location for support.
It can also provide the young refugee with an important sense of routine and normalcy, and re-establish a familiar student identity that may have been lost through the troubles of flight, thus allowing a reconnection with the pre-flight self.
School can also foster a future orientation by providing skills and education that can be used to establish the young person in a productive way in their new community. Achieving at school can also give the young person a new identity that is distinct from their refugee identity, which can be important for acceptance in mainstream schooling (8).
Services for refugees that are school-based can be targeted at treatment and primary and secondary prevention. Successful interventions often require multidisciplinary approaches with collaborations between mental health, social services and education workers (1). If the child feels supported by members of the school community, has a positive experience of school and feels a sense of security in school, the educational environment can help the child develop resilience to help navigate future difficulties (1; 7).
What can You do to Help?
Research has demonstrated that gaining a sense of belonging, to their school, community, family and neighbourhood is supportive and healing for young refugees. If the young person feels connected and supported they are able to build on personal strengths, growing a sense of mastery of the systems of Australia and integrating within them.
However, without this support, a sense of alienation and marginalisation is likely (2).
Developing a sense of belonging can be supported by:
- Reducing racism and stereotyping in the broader community (including in schools and the media);
- Providing access to culturally-appropriate sport and recreation opportunities;
- Positive dialogue between young people and community/religious leaders.
- Opportunities for meaningful participation in community structures, groups and environments (2).
Recognising the benefit to the Australian community of successful integration is also important. Refugee youth can contribute dynamically to the community, bringing qualities such as:
- Resilience and resourcefulness;
- Strong commitment to the family and the value of community;
- Strong desire to achieve educationally;
- Broad international knowledge;
- Multilingual skills and awareness of many cultures and communities (2).
Thus, successful resettlement of young refugees doesn’t just improve the future of these young people, it has the potential to enrich the Australian community as a whole.
Greta Neilsen has worked in the areas of adult mental health, child assessment and treatment and private practice. The subject of her Masters thesis was the Factors Contributing to Acculturative Stress in Refugee and Migrant Adolescents.
Please note: Greta Neilsen is no longer practising at M1 Psychology.
- Anderson, A. (2003). Resilience. In R. Hamilton & D. Moore (Eds.), Educational Interventions for Refugee Children: Theoretical Perspectives (pp. 53-63). Hoboken: Taylor & Francis.
- Centre for Multicultural Youth Issues. (2006). Refugee Young People and Resettlement. Melbourne, CYMI.
- Correa-Velez, I., Gifford, S. M., & Barnett, A. G. (2010). Longing to belong: Social inclusion and well-being among youth with refugee backgrounds in the first three years in Melbourne, Australia. Social Science & Medicine, 71, 1399-1408.
- Department of Immigration and Border Protection, (2013). Fact Sheet 60 – Australia’s Refugee and Humanitarian Program. Retrieved from http://www.immi.gov.au/media/fact-sheets/60refugee.htm#d on 09/02/2014.
- Department of Immigration and Border Protection, (2014). Migration Program Statistics. Retrieved from http://www.immi.gov.au/media/statistics/statistical-info/visa-grants/migrant.htm on 26/10/2014.
- Lustig, S. L., Kia-Keating, M., Knight, W. G., Geltman, P., Ellis, H., Kinzie, J. D., … Saxe, G. (2004). Review of child and adolescent refugee mental health. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 43, 24-36.
- McBrien, J. L. (2005). Educational needs and barriers for refugee students in the United States: A review of the literature Review of Educational Research 75, 329-364.
- Mosselson, J. (2007). Masks of achievement: An experiential study of Bosnian female refugees in New York City schools Comparative Education Review, 51, 95-115.
- United Nations High Commission for Refgees (UNHCR). (2012). A New Beginning in a Third Country. Retrieved from http://www.unhcr.org/524c31666.pdf.
- UNHCR. (2012). Protecting Refugess and the Role of the UNHCR. Retrieved from http://www.unhcr.org/509a836e9.html.
- UNHCR (2014). Global Trends 2013, retrieved from http://unhcr.org.au/unhcr/images/Global%20Trends%202013.pdf on 16/10/2014.