Children and Forced Migration

Jason Hart

The Oxford Handbook of Refugee and Forced Migration Studies, 2014

Edited by Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, Gil Loescher, Katy Long, and Nando Sigona


Approximately half of UNHCR’s ‘people of concern’ (including refugees, asylum-seekers, IDPs and recent returnees) are under the age of 18 years and classified as children. This article examines some of the key features characterizing the study of children and forced migration, in three broad, overlapping areas: (a) mental health and social work; (b) laws designed to protect the rights of displaced children; and (c) ethnography.

Mental health and social work approach

  • Research in this area has explored the effects of displacement on the mental and emotional health of children, coping strategies in situations of continued danger, and interventions to promote healing and closure in situations of refuge.
  • In the 1990s most mental health research focused on ‘trauma’ with particular emphasis on the development of diagnostic tools to measure Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in war-affected and displaced children, as well as interventions for the resolution of trauma. This research has been criticized for an overly simplistic view of children as inevitably traumatized objects of concern, requiring expert assistance.
  • More recent mental health research focuses on ‘resilience’, based on the view that children’s response to trauma is mediated by numerous environmental factors, and that children are potentially resilient social actors who may act in meaningful ways to overcome the challenges to their mental and emotional health caused by potentially traumatic experiences.
  • Social work scholars have focused on the challenges of resettlement and integration. Much of this work is focused on social work practice with displaced children, particularly unaccompanied or separated children. Research has been conducted largely in high-income resettlement countries, where social work is carried out on an individual or family basis, rather than within clans or villages, and consequently it tends towards the individualistic.

Legal approach

  • A body of research explores how international, regional and national legal systems relate to children. A particular emphasis has been on how children, their families and officials negotiate legal systems in specific jurisdictions, with a view to influencing policy.
  • Research is often conducted in accordance with categories of experience (e.g. trafficked, unaccompanied/separated, internally displaced etc.) or violations common as a cause or characteristic of flight (e.g. sexual violence, forcible recruitment, detention, denial of access to basic services).
  • The legal/human rights research conducted in settings of displacement has paid particular attention to the issue of child recruitment, with a passing consideration of the connection between forced migration and involvement with military groups (e.g. fear of abduction causing children to flee). There is a small body of research that has examined the ways in which displacement may render the young vulnerable to recruitment. Studies have also considered whether former child soldiers may be considered ineligible for asylum under Article 1F the 1951 Refugee Convention which stipulates that an application may be refused on the grounds that the individual has committed a war crime.

Ethnographic approach

  • Ethnographic research tends to locate study of forced migration in historical terms, including documenting the process of displacement and resettlement/encampment to contextualize data emerging from participant-observation and other methods. Study may also explore children’s experience as members of a generational cohort situated differently from parents or grandparents in a setting of long-term encampment. It may also document the life history of displaced children, locating their experiences within a historical context.
  • The ethnographic approach has been principally but not exclusively pursued by anthropologists, sociologists, and human geographers, and focuses on displacement not primarily as cause but as context for children’s experiences.
  • The possibility is held open that forced migration may present opportunities, for example for the renegotiation of conventional hierarchies built around age, gender, or socio-economic class. Like mental health scholars interested in resilience, ethnographers consider children as social actors who may mediate the negative experience of forced migration for themselves and others. Some studies have sought to explore the experiences that children themselves find distressing rather than assuming that certain events and stressors conventionally associated with displacement will inevitably have the greatest negative effect.
  • Themes explored by ethnographers in displacement settings have included children’s political engagement, their education, and their friendships and support networks. Research findings (for example, research showing that children actively engage in confrontational politics) challenge assumptions that commonly inform policy and programming at a global level (for example, that young people have limited agency and limited role as social actors).
  • Some ethnographic research explores children’s experience of humanitarian organizations’ assistance, often revealing questionable assumptions that inform humanitarian work. Research on experiences of unaccompanied children negotiating their way around the demands and assumptions of immigration officials have revealed shortcomings in the asylum system.

The author concludes by arguing that the mental health and social work approach may be encouraged by policymakers and practitioners (e.g. UN agencies and international NGOs) because it conceptualizes the needs of young forced migrants in primarily psycho-emotional terms (enabling these organizations to appear efficacious) while sidestepping those priorities articulated by young people themselves that might be politically sensitive to address. A stronger involvement by scholars undertaking ethnographic and legal research in debates surrounding policy and practice could help to challenge the current status quo, confronting donors and major agencies with their obligations to act in ways that are accountable to displaced populations and to international law.