My volunteer work over the past year has allowed me to work with refugee children from 21 countries worldwide as an academic and personal mentor at a shelter in London. Through this I have seen firsthand the challenges children and young people face when they are forced to flee their homes.
1. Mental Health: “I don’t feel so good.”
While a lot of emphasis is placed on physical health and rehabilitation, the mental state of children is often overlooked. When issues are ignored, the problem itself intensifies and can have an effect on the rest of a child’s life. It is estimated that 50 percent of refugee children fleeing Syria have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder due to the horrors they have witnessed or experienced, however, only 5 percent of them who have resettled in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey are receiving psychological support. The dire shortage in mental health services, both in transit and in the destination country, need to be addressed urgently in order to give children back what they most desperately deserve: a childhood free from worry.
2. Lack of Education: “Why can’t I go back to school?”
Education, no matter a child’s background, is the key to a successful future. UNHCR estimates that only 50 percent of refugee children have a primary education as opposed to a global average of 90 percent. The impact of education affects girls more than boys – if all girls in Sub Saharan Africa (a region hosting many refugees) were educated to secondary level, child marriage would fall by two thirds and 59 percent of teen pregnancies would be prevented. Educating both girls and boys is the best route to lasting success for a country; if all young people are educated, together they can hopefully rebuild the country they left behind.
3. Integration: “Where do I belong?”
Imagine you are nine years old, coming to a completely new country, possibly one where you don’t know anyone, or how to speak the language. Daunting isn’t it? Well, this is the scary reality for millions of refugee children who find themselves in a new country – isolated and alone. In order for children to feel included in their new home, schools and communities should incorporate programmes that foster harmony between children from different backgrounds and help them learn about each other’s cultures. Small steps such as these will prevent societal exclusion and help make the transition to a new life easier.
4. Internal Displacement: “When can I go home?”
Internal displacement produces a different set of challenges as people are forced to flee to a different region, due to factors such as environmental change. In Africa in 2015, of 3.5 million new displacements, 1.5 million were caused by environmental disasters. The issues faced by internally displaced children differ from those who become refugees; countries can have such massive cultural and linguistic differences that adapting to new situation becomes even harder. Staying inside a national border limits international help, which some refugees receive. Being stuck in limbo can also affect a displaced person’s mental health and education; if they are unable to enroll in a new school they may have a lesser sense of belonging in their own country.
5. Unaccompanied Children: “Where is my family?”
Conflict is a terrible ordeal for any child to face: doing so alone makes the situation even worse. 100,000 children under 18 years old made an unaccompanied journey to Europe in order to seek a better life. Put yourself in a child’s shoes – can you imagine travelling thousands of miles, scared and unfamiliar with your surroundings, without the protection of your parents? Much more has to be done to help these children. Without the support they risk being trafficked and abused as they continue to fend for themselves. In such a tumultuous time for children affected by conflict worldwide, I ask you to think about how their lives have been turned upside down. If you were in the same situation, what challenges would you want the global community to address? If you know anyone who has been in a similar situation, what can you do to support them? The problems children face are only going to be solved when those of us with a voice speak out for those without, and do whatever we can to help.