Supporting Child Refugees and Asylum Seekers Through Trauma

Author: Dr Sarah Davidson MBE, Head of Psychosocial & Mental Health at British Red Cross
Supporting Child Refugees and Asylum Seekers Through Trauma
Supporting Child Refugees and Asylum Seekers Through Trauma

The number of people forced to flee their homes due to escalating conflict and the impact of climate change has sharply risen to over 100 million. This is more than 1% of the global population and the highest the world has witnessed since World War II. And it is estimated that half the world's refugees are children.

Many children seeking asylum arrive in the UK after witnessing harrowing events and making distressing journeys, in some cases separated from their parents.  The impact of these experiences can lead to a range of mental health issues, including difficulties with sleeping and eating, behavioural problems, depression, self-harm and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

After a major crisis, young children can still be seen playing and laughing. This does not mean that they are not affected by their experiences; it only shows that they are coping differently from adults.

Children can struggle to cope with their emotions as a direct result of trauma.  Many will display behavioural changes that are out of character. A usually outgoing child may become withdrawn or a normally placid child might become agitated.

It’s imperative that every child is listened to and an assessment is made on the best support required, there’s no one size fits all.  Most cases of PTSD for example might take weeks or months to present.

The Red Cross is leading the way supporting millions of young people and their families in the UK and across the world. When young people arrive in the UK seeking safety, our teams are ready and equipped to support them through their traumatic experiences. Many families, in the first instance, just need their dignity restored with kindness and reassurance, including information about what to expect and where to get further support, whilst they begin to process what they have been through. Children arriving without parents or carers need to be recognised as children. They need to be safe and have the right level of developmentally appropriate support, to protect them from further harm.

Psychosocial support helps families and lone children care for themselves, their loved ones and their relationships with others. This support includes psychological first aid, reuniting family members and providing structured activities for children.  Early intervention with psychosocial support is very important in order to speed up the process of recovery and to prevent problems that children may encounter in the future. The aim is to facilitate and promote natural resilience enabling parents, carers and children to feel safe and better equipped to deal with the lasting effects of their traumatic experiences. 

More often than not, the trauma doesn’t end when people seeking safety arrive in the UK. Adults and children struggle to cope with social isolation; loss of loved ones, community and culture; challenges accessing social, health and education services, and work. These difficulties are often compounded by language barriers and a lack of understanding of the legal process and their rights here in the UK. 

External life stressors such as family difficulties, housing instability and worries about the asylum process inevitably have a detrimental effect on the well-being of children and their integration into new communities and access to education.

It’s crucial children seeking safety here in the UK receive appropriate psychosocial support for their mental health and well-being, to enable them to become resilient and prevent them from experiencing lasting damaging effects. Often this can be done by providing their parents and carers with information about how to soothe children who are struggling, how to facilitate routines and spaces that enable them to express their worries and fears, and how to respond without adding to or escalating their fears. Parents and carers themselves may require additional support in their own right, to enable them to respond in a calming, listening manner.

As well as providing psychosocial support to young refugees and asylum seekers here in the UK, the Red Cross also continues to support millions of children across the world who are living through emergencies, experiencing intense adversity and stress on a daily basis. Ensuring this type of emotional and practical support is available to children in crisis, is critical to nurturing their development, helping them to thrive and have a brighter future.

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