The Obstacles of Refugee Children

one little child in green jacket standing on ruins of destroyed buildings in war zone

Being a child isn’t always easy, and neither is being a refugee. What about when you’re both? Consider these unique obstacles refugee children face and how we can better support them as they resettle.

No matter what your childhood looked like, chances are you agree that children deserve a safe, secure home to focus on learning and growing. In fact, research shows stable housing is associated with better health outcomes—including social determinants of health—for children. 

Stable housing doesn’t last for every child, however. In fact, more than 11 million refugee children worldwide have been displaced from their homes. These youth are forced to leave their homes due to violence, conflict, or natural disaster and must navigate the extremely difficult task of resettling in a new country. 

While resettlement is never an easy process, refugee children face unique obstacles that add an additional layer of difficulty.

Living through formative years as a refugee means that social-service agencies, communities, and individuals should take special care to meet the needs of these children. The better we understand the obstacles they face, the better we can help support refugee children in creating successful, fulfilling lives.

Obstacles Refugee Children Face

Perhaps the biggest “unknown” for refugees is knowing where they will go. Refugees, whether child or adult, don’t choose where they flee to. Instead, resettlement organizations help coordinate migration based on each country’s policy.

The United States has reduced its refugee acceptance in recent years, allowing just 11,411 individuals into the country in 2021 (compared to the 132,000-person peak in previous decades). A rigorous screening process helps determine who will be accepted.

Once refugee children have migrated to their new country, the obstacles continue to rise. Specifically, these children must learn to navigate:

  • Language barriers
  • Cultural differences
  • Getting education
  • Access to healthcare
  • Family finances or unemployment 
  • Social connectedness
  • Surviving potential trauma

Language Barriers

Perhaps the most obvious obstacle refugee children face is learning a new language. While not all refugees are relocated to a nation with a foreign language, most are. For refugees entering the United States, this means learning English. 

While children generally have an easier time learning a new language, this also means they are often expected to act as translator between their families and their new community. This can add an undue pressure to children, particularly as this means helping translate official documents they might not even have the understanding for in their native language, depending on their age. 

Cultural Differences

Again, one of the most prominent obstacles refugee children face is adapting to cultural differences. Children may not understand social cues and expectations as well as adults, which means they must often learn through uncomfortable and confusing trials by error.

Cultural differences are sometimes the hardest obstacle communities have assisting refugees with because it’s hard to imagine the counterfactual. Importantly, some of the most common cultural shocks for refugee children include:

  • Learning to eat new foods
  • Living in communities that are more spread out and isolated
  • Wearing new types of clothing
  • Participating in new community traditions and expectations

Then there’s education.

Getting Education

According to UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, about half of refugee children aren’t in school. This educational gap becomes even more prominent for refugee children coming to the United States, who are often overplaced (i.e., put in over-difficult classrooms) or underplaced (i.e., put in too-easy classrooms). The right level of difficulty may be hard for educators to properly assess, again due to language and cultural barriers. 

Additionally, there may be external pressure—particularly to teenage refugees of a working age—to drop out of school and support their families through work. 

Access to Healthcare

Another obstacle refugee children face is accessing proper healthcare. In line with other obstacles listed here, the US healthcare system can be incredibly confusing to navigate. Even for those with a firm grasp of the language, technical terms and multi-step processes can act as barriers preventing children from receiving essential care. 

If left unchecked, minor health problems can quickly become serious issues for refugee children. The potential for these issues highlights just why care coordination is so critical. Refugee children and their families best succeed when their resettlement agency works through coordinated care to ensure that access to healthcare and other social services doesn’t fall through the cracks.

Family Finances or Unemployment

Refugees relocated to the United States don’t receive unlimited assistance. While resettlement agencies help refugee families get established, it is up to the refugees themselves to secure steady employment.

As mentioned earlier, this financial pressure can translate into children working to support their family. In such a way, refugee status may force youth to “grow up sooner” than what might otherwise be expected of them.

Social Connectedness

One of the most important aspects of successful child refugee resettlement is establishing social connectedness. Refugee children with a strong network of friends report improved sociocultural and psychological adaptations. It’s not hard to imagine why—having a support network of friends can help the child better assimilate into their new home.

Schools act as the primary source of social connectedness for refugee children, which again highlights how critical it is for these youth to access proper education. 

Surviving Potential Trauma

Perhaps the most daunting obstacle refugee children face is that they must handle potentially traumatic experiences.

Of course, not all refugees experience trauma—for some, relocation and resettlement can be a very positive experience—but they are certainly at a heightened risk.

Consider what the American Psychological Association reported:

Research indicates that the various stressors refugee children experience before, during and after displacement are associated with various types of mental health problems. For instance, evidence suggests that 25% of refugee children suffer from loneliness and 24% report feeling depressed (Hamdan-Mansour et al., 2017). Additionally, there are reports of high rates of probable PTSD (30.4%), generalized anxiety (26.8%), somatization (21.4%) and traumatic grief (21.4%). These symptoms are usually accompanied by academic problems (53.6%), behavioral difficulties (44.6%), and attachment problems (38.89%)

The sooner these potential mental and behavioral health concerns are addressed in refugee youth, the sooner they can begin to heal from them. However, language and cultural barriers serve as yet another obstacle towards surviving potential trauma.

How to Help Refugee Children

As mentioned earlier, care coordination is one of the most effective ways to help refugee children.

The obstacles that these youth face—from school to mental health to financial security—influence one another. For instance, as communities answer challenges surrounding language barriers, other difficulties like social connectedness or cultural differences may also be alleviated.

When resources are pooled and care becomes coordinated, then the mutually reinforcing benefits can be exponentially increased. The key to this coordination? Social service organizations that know how to work together. 

Perhaps more than anything, raising awareness of the unique obstacles refugee children face can help our communities better support those who need it most. Consider doing your part to raise awareness by sharing this article, donating to a refugee resettlement agency, or volunteering with local efforts to help refugee children in your area.

Together, we can do our part to make sure every refugee receives the childhood they deserve.

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