Eight million child refugees is a mental health time bomb. Ignoring it now would be a terrible mistake
The Guardian, Wednesday 28 December 2016
Everyone knows there’s an international refugee crisis. But there is a vital issue that’s in danger of being missed – the terrible psychological damage that’s being done to millions of children. Such harm is less obvious than physical wounds, but most European countries haven’t had to deal with childhood trauma on this scale since the end of the second world war.
There are now 8 million of these children, according to Unicef, and they make up nearly half the world’s refugees. It’s hard to make sense of such huge numbers, but they break down into heartbreaking individual stories. Earlier this year Stephen Cowan, a council leader from west London, visited the makeshift camp in Calais, hoping to be able to bring a number of unaccompanied child refugees to England. On a mild autumn day, he spotted a young Afghan boy who was shivering and sweating as though he had a fever. “Is he ill?” asked the councillor. The interpreter shook his head. “No,” he said, matter-of-factly, “he’s been in the camp for two months and it’s driven him mad.”
This anecdote will strike a chill into the heart of anyone who knows about the importance of steady attachments for healthy childhood development. Babies recognise faces at a very early stage, and the adverse effects of disrupting relationships with trusted adults – anxiety, insecurity, self-harm, aggression – have been well documented since British psychoanalyst John Bowlby’s research on children, following the second world war.
In the care system, where resources are already stretched, social workers go to great lengths to try to avoid children from broken families being moved between a number of carers. We know a great deal about the impact of being separated from parents, even in countries that aren’t war zones. But unaccompanied child refugees are among the most vulnerable people on earth, and falling into the hands of traffickers is just one of the hazards they face.
In Afghanistan, some families can afford to pay for one child to make the hazardous journey to Europe, often sending a teenage son to travel on his own. Syrian refugees may start out in family groups, but crossing the sea from Turkey or Libya is so dangerous that some children are rescued only after seeing parents or siblings drown. Syria and Afghanistan account for half of the child refugees under protection of the UN refugee agency, demonstrating the destabilising impact of conflict even on those who survive without physical injuries. They are more or less guaranteed to suffer post-traumatic stress disorder, something that’s hard to treat in over-crowded refugee camps.
Is it really credible that ministers in the British government don’t understand how much damage these children have already sustained? Or don’t they care? This month it emerged that hundreds of child asylum seekers from the Calais camp who were expecting to come to the UK have had their claims rejected, being told instead to apply in France. Only 750 children have been brought over, even though 1,900 were registered after the camp was demolished. And they are only a fraction of the traumatised children already in or on the borders of Europe.
This is shameful behaviour, even if the British government is afraid of headlines in right-wing papers. The tabloids have no qualms about demonising refugees of any age, along with a kneejerk tendency to reject any theory suggesting that childhood damage has far-reaching adult consequences.
But the sight of middle-aged men in the UK breaking down on TV while talking about being raped as children should leave no doubt about long-term consequences, including broken relationships and alcoholism. There have been repeated calls to wind up the accident-prone inquiry into child sexual abuse, as if its failures of process discredit the claims of thousands of victims. Of course they don’t. And recent claims about systemic child abuse at football clubs have revealed another area of life where it appears to have gone unreported for years.
Sexual assault, of boys as well as girls, is such common practice among people-smugglers that British social workers who started assessing children in the Calais camp discovered that many, if not most, were rape victims. They desperately need foster parents who are used to dealing with children who have been sexually abused, and even then it will take years of hard work before they are able to trust adults.
Instead, country after country is trying to shift the problem on to someone else, ignoring obligations under international treaties and conventions. They are also storing up trouble for the future. Boys (who according to some estimates outnumber girls nine to one among child refugees) and girls react differently to horrific childhood events, with boys more likely to become aggressive, fail at school and get involved in petty crime. In the worst-case scenario, they may be vulnerable to radicalisation by extremists.
Organisations dedicated to helping displaced people have been overwhelmed by demand and are struggling to provide for basic needs, such as shelter and medicines. As a continent, we barely seem to have grasped that we have a generation of severely traumatised children already in our midst, and the catalogue of loss they have suffered is unparalleled since 1945.
I know that resources are severely stretched, but the consequences of ignoring the problem are too awful to contemplate. For their sakes and our own, we need to identify these children and gently seek to teach them that the world is not always as evil or frightening as it presently seems.