A child washed up on the shores of Turkey after drowning at sea; the images of youngsters climbing across fences of barbed wires on Lampedusa; a boy sitting dazed and bloodied in the back of an ambulance after surviving an airstrike in Syria – these are some of the images that, once seen, can never be unseen. The moments, captured in these images pass, but the cycles of displacement continue.

Some startling figures illustrate the magnitude of the challenge:

  • One in three children living outside their birth country is a refugee;
  • One in eight migrants is a child;
  • Around the world, around 28 million children have been forcibly displaced; and
  • Seven out of ten children seeking asylum in Europe in 2016 were fleeing conflict in Syria, Afghanistan or Iraq.

While the British public may be forgiven for thinking that this is a novel phenomenon, which threatens the fabric of our society with an unprecedented influx of desperate people, it has to be stressed that neither is the phenomenon of war-induced flight, expulsion or other forced migration new; nor is the UK anywhere near the epicentre of the displacement weather-front.

Staying with the meteorological analogue - we are feeling not even a light breeze - despite our acceptance of several thousand refugees over four years or the acceptance of a few hundred unaccompanied children. To put the societal challenges in the UK in context:

  • More than 85% of African regugees find asylum in other African countries;
  • Africa and Asia together host three out of every five child migrants;
  • In 2015, African countries hosted almost 5 million refugees, nearly one third of all refugees under UNHCR's mandate; and
  • Nearly 90% of Asia's refugees find asylum in another part of Asia.

In short - displacement is a global issue, and the burden is being shared globally, with much of it falling on the regions of origin.

Working with a wide range of academic and non-academic partners across the globe, researchers at the University of Birmingham are currently exploring challenges faced by war-affected children. Our doctoral training network addresses the life courses of children born of war, children who were fathered by foreign soldiers and born to local mothers during and conflicts. www.chibow.org

Using interdisciplinary research in history, psychology, psychiatry, cultural studies, political and social sciences, doctoral researchers explore what those different disciplines have to offer to each other in trying to make sense of the complexities of conflict and post-conflict societies in gaining a more nuanced understanding of the social upheaval caused by armed conflict.

Participatory research includes conversations with those who were fathered by foreign soldiers during World War II and the post-war occupation. This engagement has led not only to interesting and impactful insights into the historical and psychosocial factors around identity, stigma and childhood adversities, it has also initiated processes that have allowed conversations to take place between children born of war in different geopolitical and chronological settings. This is helping to destigmatize a topic that is still a taboo in many contemporary societies, whose experience of conflict is sadly, much more recent.

Stereotypes and preconceptions hinder healing. Evidence and knowledge help to create policies to overcome adversities - both for children born of war as for the children whose images have captured the public imagination and more so, still, for those children whose images never find the way on to the front pages of the news.

Professor Sabine Lee,
Professor of Modern History, University of Birmingham

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham.