Refugee Children: The Challenges They Face and the Efforts to Overcome Them

Source: Action Against Hunger
Source: Action Against Hunger


In 2018, there were 25.9 million refugees globally- the highest number ever seen.[1] Over half of these refuges are children.[2] The refugee crisis is a global issue that affects more than any one country or region. However, two countries account for nearly half of the child refugees in the world: Syria and Afghanistan.[3] The refugee crisis in Syria began in 2011 and has increasingly become more violent, causing refugees to flee in large numbers.[4] This violence and resulting migration affects all migrants but is particularly detrimental to migrant children. This paper discusses the main challenges that refugee children face during their experience as refugees. These consist of neurological challenges, mental health challenges, and legal challenges. This paper also looks at efforts to help children overcome these challenges. These challenges have serious implications not only for the foreseeable future, but also well into future decades. It is important to increase efforts to rehabilitate these children and reintegrate them into their new communities so the effects of the violence and conflict that these children face are mitigated. These efforts must be pursued by more than just a single government or organization. If there is to be real improvement, the entire international community will need to work together to improve the lives of refugee children, which will benefit society for many generations to come.

Neurological Challenges

i.  Stress Response Regulation

Stress has a dramatic effect on the development of a young brain. The body produces cortisol, among other hormones as a response to stress.[5] Cortisol helps the body regulate its response to stress and cope effectively with adverse situations.[6] Cortisol is meant to be released in short bursts, but sustained stress causes cortisol to be released frequently. High, sustained levels of cortisol result in damage to the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain that is critical to both learning and memory.[7] Therefore, sustained activation of the stress response system can lead to impairments in learning, memory, and stress response regulation.[8]

Some recent research on animals has indicated that the neurological effects of stress are not limited to the generation experiencing the trauma.[9] The results indicate that parent-caused stress affects the brains of the offspring, but also that these traits are trans-generationally inheritable.[10] This means that the neurological effects of stress that refugee children develop can eventually be passed down to their children, and even their children’s children. These findings implicate the refugee population in significant ways. Millions of children are born into an unstable world, witnessing violence firsthand every day. In addition, there are many other circumstances that act as stressors such as lack of safety, inconsistent or nonexistent schooling, and unstable community and family support systems. Perhaps the most significant and lasting stressor is uncertainty about the future. To ameliorate the effects of stress, it is important to provide a nurturing and stable environment to these children.

ii. Poor Access to Education

Another important aspect of a child’s upbringing is their access to education. This access to meaningful education is compromised in regions of conflict. In 2011, Syria reported universal enrollment in primary school and near universal enrollment in lower secondary school.[11] As of August 2019, within Syria, over 2 million children (1/3 of Syria’s child population) are out of school and 1.3 million children are at risk of dropping out.[12] In refugee host countries, over 800,000 children remain out of school.[13]

There are several circumstances contributing to the lack of enrollment and the risk of additional students dropping out. For refugees that are located in rural areas outside of refugee camps, access to schools can be extremely limited.[14] Since 2014, the United Nations has verified over 385 attacks on education facilities and military use of over 50 schools.[15] Many refugees located in rural areas do not have a school located near them, therefore the children cannot make the journey because they do not have reliable means of transportation.[16] In addition, when refugee children migrate to neighboring countries, they must learn a new curriculum.[17] Oftentimes, the new curriculum is in a new language, so the refugees must learn this new language before they can continue their education.[18] Many children also face discrimination and harassment from other students when enrolled in school.[19]

In urban areas of host countries, there are often inadequate resources. Some host countries already struggle with capacity issues when enrolling their native children, so integrating refugee children would bring those schools above capacity.[20] Many schools in host countries have policies requiring refugees to obtain government-issued documentation or legal status before they are allowed to enroll in school.[21] In 2016, Turkish authorities introduced a new “pre-registration and screening” step in order to obtain government-issued documentation.[22] This created a backlog with waiting times up to six months.[23] In some areas, Turkish public schools refused to allow Syrian children to enroll even if they had these identification cards, or the school officials demanded other documents.[24] Policies like these create a significant barriers to access to education.

Even within refugee camps, access to meaningful education still has its challenges. The deterioration of Syria’s education system means that many children arrive at refugee camps already at a disadvantage. If there has been a disruption in their schooling, refugee children will have to catch up in their subjects while simultaneously adjusting to an entirely new cultural and social environment.[25] In addition, the emotional trauma from their migration and the previous violence many children have witnessed affects their cognitive, emotional, and social development which will increase their academic challenges.[26]

Mental Health Challenges

In addition to neurological challenges, refugee children face mental health challenges. Displaced children experience severe distresses during all periods of migration.[27] During the pre-migratory stage, refugee children have often experienced profound physical and emotional traumas from witnessing violence within their home countries.[28] Many have been deprived basic necessities such as adequate food and clean water.[29] Many children have missed years of school, disrupting normal development and severely compromising their futures.[30] Those who are not being educated are more likely to feel marginalized and helpless, which heightens their vulnerability and increases their chances for radicalization.[31] During the process of migration, children may become separated from their caregivers.[32] In addition, they also may suffer from exposure to harsh living conditions, violence, and poor nutrition.[33] Underlying the physical hardships is an overall uncertainty of the future. Gaining access to a host country is fraught with stress and uncertainty: requiring interviews, screening, security checks, and administrative hurdles.[34] Post-migration, refugee children and families face a new set of challenges. Upon arrival in a new country, refugee children may experience severe stress related to their family’s adaptation and acculturation, family conflict, difficulties with education in a new language, and experiences of social exclusion and discrimination.[35]

i. Risks

Refugee children are at a significant risk for several mental illnesses. Most notably, they are at risk for PTSD, anxiety, depression, and other emotional and behavioral issues which can cause disturbed sleep, inattention, and social withdrawals.[36] Refugee children are also vulnerable to radicalization.[37] Radicalization means the process of committing to political or religious ideologies that espouse change through violence.[38] When refugee children are exposed to trauma, they can feel post-conflict stress and anger.[39] When no psychosocial intervention is provided, this trauma may cause grievances about injustice and perceived threats, which are both risk factors for radicalization.[40]

Mental health problems not only affect the individual experiencing these challenges, but they affect society as a whole. Persisting mental health issues require more resources in school and during the transition to work and can hamper a society’s recovery when conflict is at an end.[41]

ii. Rehabilitation and Reintegration

In order to help treat children with mental illnesses, there should be significant efforts to rehabilitate and reintegrate refugee children. There are several methods that can help alleviate mental health issues in refugee children and work towards rehabilitating and reintegrating them. One such method to do this is to normalize a routine.[42] Normalizing a routine can take many forms, but one of the most important and most effective would be to enroll more children in school.[43] School provides an environment that is predictable, structured, and meaningful for children. Another important tactic is to provide intervention programs for children.[44] Intervention programs are implemented by health professionals to normalize living conditions and assist in rehabilitation for those who suffer from mental illnesses.[45] They can take many forms, and can be community-based, family-based, or individual-based.[46]

Community-based intervention programs are the broadest type of intervention. These programs involve a large group of community members and are used to create feelings of trust and comradery between members of a local community.[47] Community-based intervention programs are usually the easiest to implement because they require less resources than more individualized intervention programs.[48] One successful example of a community-based intervention program, called the Profound Stress Attunement (PSA) framework, was piloted with adolescents affected by the Syrian refugee crisis.[49] The program explained that resources for psychosocial support programs for Syrian refugees in Jordan are scarce, amounting to just over 1% of the total joint UN appeal for the country in 2016.[50] The program included both Syrian refugee youth and the Jordanian local youth.[51] The program started with establishing a “safe space” within the community as a base for activities.[52] The social support approach allows a safe space for open expression.[53] Structured, group-based activities promote stress management and coping skills development which enhance group cohesion.[54] The intervention was found to be accepted and effective for the Syrian and Jordanian youth, increasing trust between Syrians and Jordanians, perceptions of safety and protection in their communities, and confidence in their future, including employment prospects.[55] Community-based intervention programs are effective and efficient because they include many children in a single program.[56]

In addition to community-based interventions, there are also family-based interventions. The purpose of family-based intervention is to help families remember, rediscover, plan, and implement routines, rituals and traditions that are meaningful and comfortable to all family members.[57] In most refugee families, the adults have also suffered trauma and could benefit from family-based intervention programs.[58] Family-based interventions allow for families to be comfortable sharing their experiences and perceptions, and then identifying family patterns of coping mechanisms which in turn help rehabilitate both the adults and children of a family.[59]

Finally, there are individual-based interventions. These programs target individual children and their specific needs.[60] These types of programs include school-based services and counseling programs that address learning and language needs.[61] Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), with its emphasis on mastering negative emotions, thoughts, and actions by addressing dysfunctional cognitions and behaviors, can be well suited to address fear, helplessness, and anxiety.[62] As discussed above, many schools struggle to handle the capacity of adding more refugee programs.[63] Supplying individual counseling is not feasible in most schools that accommodate refugees.

iii. Welcome Sesame

One interesting new hybrid intervention program, involving a mixture of community, family, and individual intervention, has been created by a partnership between Sesame Workshop (the creators of Sesame Street) and the International Rescue Committee.[64] The purpose of this program is to deliver educational content through a television show titled “Ahlan Simsim,” meaning “Welcome Sesame,” to nearly eight million refugee children.[65] The program will also use in-person services like home visits and learning centers to bring early learning tactics to nearly one million children in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria who have been affected by the Syrian conflict.[66] The primary focus of the show is not on the traditional school subjects like letters and numbers, but on emotions like fear, anger, loneliness, and determination.[67] The first season of Ahlan Simsim will focus on the “emotional ABCs,” showing children practical self-regulation techniques like belly breathing, counting to five, and “drawing it out” to help kids name and manage their feelings.[68] The characters in the show explain experiences similar to those faced by refugee children.[69] The show will air in twenty countries in the Middle East, North Africa, and the Gulf starting in February 2020.[70] To measure the impact of the program, Sesame Workshop and the International Rescue Committee has partnered with NYU’s Global Ties for Children to develop, test, and refine the best early childhood models for crisis settings.[71] Over the course of five years, independent evaluators will measure the show’s impact on children’s social-emotional skills as well as the impact of the partnership’s direct services for both children and caregivers.[72]

Legal Challenges

In addition to neurological and mental health challenges, refugee children also face legal challenges. The main barriers creating legal challenges are not so much the creation of protocols and guidelines but is the implementation of these protocols.[73] There are various leading authorities which provide these protocols and guidelines. Among them is the United Nations (UN), including the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).[74] Modern-day refugee rights are rooted in the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. The Convention was designed to address the numerous refugee situations around the world following WWII and contained time and geographical limitations.[75] Along with the creation of the Convention, the UN created the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), tasked with

providing international protection, under the auspices of the United Nations, to refugees who fall within the scope of the present Statute and of seeking permanent solutions for the problem of refugees by assisting governments and, subject to the approval of the governments concerned, private organizations to facilitate the voluntary repatriation of such refugees, or their assimilation within new national communities.[76]

The UNHCR was initially launched with a budget of $300,000 budget in 1950, but now has an annual budget exceeding $7 billion, and operations in 134 countries.[77]

The UN reconvened in 1967 to address the geographical and time restraints of the Convention, wishing to make the rights set forth applicable to any refugee situation on the planet.[78] This new meeting was where the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees was adopted.[79] There are currently 145 parties to the Convention and 146 parties to the Protocol.[80]

Another significant convention created by the UN is the United Nation Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Convention was ratified in 1989, and currently has 194 countries as “state parties.”[81] It is the most rapidly and widely ratified human rights treaty in history.[82] The purpose is to establish global standards to ensure the protection, survival, and development of all children without discrimination.[83] “Children” is defined as all persons under the age of 18.[84] The Convention specifically recognizes refugee children as rights-bearers in Article 22 and requires that these children receive appropriate protection and humanitarian assistance in the enjoyment of the rights set forth in the Convention.[85]

Despite nearly universal commitment to the Convention on the Rights of Children, many states fall short in implementing these guidelines in domestic immigration and legal systems.[86] There are economic, political and technical restraints to the implementation of the Convention. Economic restraints include overstretched resources.[87] Many neighboring countries to crisis zones are overwhelmed by a wave of travelers and become settlement zones for those who cannot travel further.[88] Some transit countries have poor refugee policies and facilities, and do not have the means to fully implement the rights set forth in the Convention on the Rights of the Child.[89] Countries that ratify the treaty must submit reports every five years to the Committee on the Rights of the Child.[90] The committee examines not only each country’s reports, but also information from nongovernmental organizations and UN sources to identify areas of progress and concern and to recommend steps that the country should take to improve the lives of children.[91] The UN adopted an optional communications procedure in 2011 which allows individuals to file complaints with the Committee on the Rights of the Child for violations of their rights under the convention if domestic remedies have been exhausted.[92] The committee may then investigate the complaints and make recommendations to the country responsible for the violation.[93] These mechanisms to hold countries accountable are not enforceable against them; the Committee only offers suggestions and guidelines for countries to improve themselves if they are failing to meet the standards set forth in the Convention.[94]

Looking Ahead

There are several approaches that could alleviate the challenges experienced by refugee children. Better data collection could improve what we know about refugee children and the experiences they face. It is difficult to gather data in regions of conflict and instability, but improved collection and analysis would help to identify the areas most in need of extra resource allocation, and a better overall understanding of the issues facing refugee families and children.[95] Organizations who collect data should focus on identifying who these children are, where they are travelling to and from, how old they are, and their overall well-being. In addition, there should be more consistent efforts to adopt techniques for determining the ages and origins of children who arrive without documentation. Technology can help with some of these challenges. Data can come from all types of sources, including cell phones, social media, and other relatively new technological developments. These sources can provide geo-spatial and temporal information about population movements in real time, facilitating timely and more relevant responses for people on the move.[96]

The access to education in regions of conflict needs to be improved. Increased spending on education will have significant effects in the long run. One idea would be to increase the number of Syrian teachers in temporary education centers in their host country. Many host countries do not allow Syrian teachers to work, thus taking away a job from a professional and limiting a child’s access to an educational environment that they are comfortable with.[97] Another suggestion would be to introduce Syrian curriculum to schools in host countries. Many host countries implement their own curriculum in their own languages which drastically hinders the refugee children’s ability to learn at the pace that they should be.[98]

Non-formal education programs like the partnership between Sesame Workshop and the International Rescue Committee are effective ways to educate refugee children in more aspects than just traditional schooling. More resources should be allocated to initiatives that provide hybrid programs to educate and rehabilitate refugee children. Like with education, improving mental health programs will have significant effects in the long run. Improving the mental health of refugee children will allow them to remain in school and eventually retain jobs when they start to work, which in turn will speed up the region’s recovery period when the conflict finally comes to an end.


The neurological, mental health, and legal barriers facing refugee children are detrimental not only to the individual children, but to present-day society and future societies. In addition, the well-being of refugee children affects more than just the regions affected by conflict; it has implications on a global scale. Many of these children will eventually settle permanently in a region and will have to work to support themselves and families of their own. Providing durable solutions to help rehabilitate and reintegrate these children are necessary to improving the chances of them living a better lifestyle and contributing to society in the long run. Improving the well-being of refugee children will take concerted efforts from governments, international organizations, non-governmental organizations, and local communities. Developed countries have the ability to significantly contribute to various aspects of humanitarian aid, whether it be monetary contributions, conducting research and data analysis, or providing physical aid.

  1. Refugee Statistics, UNHCR, (last visited Nov. 25, 2019).
  2. Id.
  3. Forced to flee: Top countries refugees are coming from, World Vision, (last visited Nov. 25, 2019).
  4. Selcuk R. Sirin & Lauren Rogers-Sirin, Nat’l Migration Policy Institute, The Educational and Mental Health Needs of Syrian Refugee Children 3 (Oct. 2015).
  5. Harvard Center on the Developing Child, Excessive Stress Disrupts the Architecture of the Developing Brain 3 (2014),
  6. Id.
  7. Id.
  8. Id.
  9. John Thomas & Dorothy E. Stubbe, Psychiatric, Epigenetic, and Public Health Challenges Facing Refugee Children, 36 Quinnipiac L. Rev. 635, 657 (2018).
  10. Id.
  11. UNESCO, Bridging learning gaps for youth: UNESCO education response to the Syria crisis (2016-2017) 12 (2016)
  12. UNICEF, Syria Crisis Facts, (Aug. 2019)
  13. Id.
  14. UNESCO, Enforcing the right to education of refugees 25 (2019)
  15. UNICEF, supra note 12.
  16. UNESCO, supra note 14.
  17. World Economic Forum, Why Refugee Education is a Problem – and Six Solutions, (May 20, 2016)
  18. Id.
  19. Human Rights Watch, Education for Syrian Refugee Children: What Donors and Host Countries Should Do (Sept. 16, 2016)
  20. World Economic Forum, supra note 17.
  21. Human Rights Watch, supra note 19.
  22. Id.
  23. Id.
  24. Id.
  25. Sirin, supra note 4.
  26. Id.
  27. Thomas & Stubbe, supra note 9, at 661.
  28. Id. at 662.
  29. Id.
  30. Id.
  31. Sirin, supra note 4.
  32. Thomas & Stubbe, supra note 9.
  33. Id.
  34. Id.
  35. Id. at 663.
  36. Isra Hussein, Mind the Gap: Why Mental Health Care Matters for Rebuilding Syria, Center for Strategic & International Studies (2018)
  37. Id.
  38. Barbara Sude, David Stebbins, & Sarah Weilant, Lessening the Risk of Refugee Radicalization, RAND Corporation (2018)
  39. Hussein, supra note 36.
  40. Id.
  41. Sirin, supra note 4.
  42. UNHCR, Refugee Children: Guidelines on Protection and Care 18 (1994) available at
  43. UNESCO, supra note 14, at 38.
  44. Thomas and Stubbe, supra note 9, at 667.
  45. Id.
  46. Id.
  47. Mercy Corps, Advancing Adolescents: Evidence on the Impact of Psychosocial Support for Syrian Refugee and Jordanian Adolescents (Nov. 2016) available at
  48. Id.
  49. Id.
  50. Id.
  51. Id.
  52. Id.
  53. Id.
  54. Id.
  55. Id.
  56. Id.
  57. Thomas and Stubbe, supra note 9, at 668.
  58. American Psychological Association, Working with Refugee Children and Families: Update for Mental Health Professionals, 7 (2009)
  59. Id.
  60. Id.
  61. Id.
  62. Id.
  63. World Economic Forum, supra note 17.
  64. Leslie Stahl, Sesame and the IRC join forces to help Syrian refugee children, CBS News (Nov. 17, 2019),
  65. Id.
  66. Ahlan Simsim, Sesame Workshop (last visited November 25, 2019).
  67. Id.
  68. Id.
  69. Id.
  70. Stahl, supra note 64.
  71. Id.
  72. Id.
  73. Implementation of the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, UNHCR (last visited March 31, 2020).
  74. UNHCR, (last visited March 31, 2020).
  75. Thomas & Stubbe, supra note 9 at 644.
  76. G.A. Res. 428 (V), annex, Statute of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, ch.1 ¶ 1 (Dec. 14, 1950), available at
  77. Thomas & Stubbe, supra note 9 at 643.
  78. Id.
  79. UNHCR, Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, (last visited Nov. 25, 2019).
  80. UNHCR, States Parties to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol, (last visited March 31, 2020).
  81. Human Rights Watch, 25th Anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (Nov. 17, 2014),
  82. Id.
  83. Id.
  84. UN Office of the High Commissioner, Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989),
  85. Id.
  86. Jeanette Lawrence, Agnes Dodds, Ida Kaplan, & Maria Tucci, The Rights of Refugee Children and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child 8(3) Laws 20 (2019).
  87. World Food program USA, 10 Facts About the Syrian Refugee Crisis in Jordan,
  88. Lawrence, Dodds, Kaplan, & Tucci, supra note 86 at 10.
  89. Id.
  90. Human Rights Watch, supra note 81.
  91. Id.
  92. Id.
  93. Id.
  94. Id.
  95. Child Migration, UNICEF, (last visited March 21. 2020).
  96. Id.
  97. UNICEF, Ensuring quality education for young refugees from Syria, 21 (2014)
  98. Id.