Understanding the needs of refugee and forced migrant families

refugee children

According to the UNHCR, over half of those who are forcibly displaced are under the age of 18 and are exposed to unpredictable, often dangerous, migratory pathways. I am currently undertaking a doctoral research project which aims to understand the needs of refugee and asylum-seeking families and their experiences of maltreatment and risk. The project is funded by a Global Challenges Scholarship and sits within the Institute of Research into Superdiversity (IRIS) and the Risk, Abuse and Violence (RAV) research programme. 

Through interviews with refugee parents, children and young people who are seeking refuge in England, I hope to explore the migratory journeys of those who are forcibly displaced, to identify the specific points at which children are particularly vulnerable to maltreatment and what can be done to mitigate such risks. In addition, I am speaking to individuals who provide support to refugee and asylum-seeking families and have an understanding of issues relating to child maltreatment and safeguarding within the context of forced migration.

A look at the literature shows that maltreatment within and outside of the family continues to be a pressing issue for refugees and other forced migrants during all parts of their migratory journey. Whether this is witnessing torture in their home country, travelling in unstable boats with traffickers or arriving to a hostile country, forced migrants are exposed to a range of risks that can leave children vulnerable to maltreatment. In addition, the daily stressors associated with life in the UK and stringent policies act as forms of structural violence that have a detrimental impact on children and families. A recent participant told me that often, the trauma of forced migration and witnessing conflict will manifest after resettlement at a stage where it is assumed the individual is no longer in need of support.

My early findings relating to the support that families and young people receive suggest that those working with refugee and asylum-seeking children feel that the current support offered to children is insufficient in meeting their unique needs. One community worker described that children and young people will have often ‘seen people die in front of them, they’ve seen their parents murdered, they’ve seen their mother raped, they’ve seen their brothers and sisters killed but they’re expected to just get on with things and when they do start saying they’re having trauma, it’s really difficult to get them some kind of support here. It’s just not available in the same way, you have to really fight for it and then it’s often not specialised enough’.

Furthermore, my findings show that refugee parents and those working with families are increasingly concerned about bullying and have highlighted that parents often feel helpless. Recently, the issue of bullying experienced by refugee children has received increased attention as the Black Lives Matter movement has brought the case of Shukri Abdi to the forefront. Twelve year old Shukri arrived with her family through the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme and unfortunately drowned in a river after allegedly being bullied by classmates in Greater Manchester. Campaigners have reiterated that prior to Shukri’s tragic death, her mother had repeatedly raised concerns about bullying with the school and these concerns were ignored and dismissed.

Moving forward with my project, I am looking to interview refugee and asylum-seeking parents, as well as children and young people, about their specific experiences and journeys. As we all strive to be anti-racist amid a pandemic that disproportionally impacts BAME communities, we must highlight the systemic racism and violence that negatively impacts children who are forcibly displaced. Importantly, we need to listen to the voices of children, who are so often excluded from these conversations. The theme for World Refugee Week was ‘imagine’, and it is apparent that we need to work with families to find better ways to support those who imagine nothing more than a safe world for their children.

Blog written by Rafiyah Khan, a Global Challenges PhD Researcher at IRiS and RAV.

To find out more about this project or to take part, please contact Rafiyah Khan. 

Read more about the Institute for Research into Superdiversity (IRiS) and the Risk, Abuse and Violence (RAV) research programme at the University of Birmingham.