Disrupted Lives: The Forceful Displacement of Refugee Children and New Directions for Research

Marcelo Suárez-Orozco is the Wasserman Dean of UCLA’s Graduate School of Education & Information Studies. His research in cultural psychology and psychological anthropology focuses on mass migration, globalization, and education.

We talked with Dr. Suárez-Orozco about the subject of his recent Foundation-sponsored grant, “Humanitarianism and Mass Migration,” through which he convened a two-day workshop at UCLA in partnership with the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the Ross Institute. Here, Dr. Suárez-Orozco discusses ideas presented at the workshop, which will be collected in an upcoming volume of papers addressing potential policy levers to interrupt the marginalization of new refugees and immigrants and, ultimately, reduce inequality in youth outcomes.


The Context & The Population

What was the purpose of the workshop and the volume of commissioned papers that followed?

Our purpose was at once precise and urgent: as the world faces the largest number of migrants in history escaping a myriad of catastrophes, we need to determine: a) what is the state of knowledge and b) what are the levers of change to disrupt so much suffering and wasted human potential?

You call mass migration the “existential crisis of our time.” Can you explain your statement, particularly through the lens of children and youth?

More than sixty-five million people across the world have been forcefully displaced by unchecked climate change, war and terror, and violence in their countries of origins. For the first time in history, over half of all refugees under the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) mandate are minors. More than 30 percent of sea arrivals in Europe since October 2015 have been children and youth; for some nationalities, including Afghans and Eritreans, minors constitute the majority of asylum applicants. By 2017, the data revealed even greater numbers of unaccompanied and separated minors arriving in Europe via the Mediterranean Sea passage from North Africa: “92 percent of children who arrived in Italy in 2016 and the first two months of 2017 were unaccompanied, up from 75 percent in 2015.”.

Likewise, on the United States’ southern border, the flow of unaccompanied minors—migrants age 0 to 17—reached 10,620 in June of 2014, or five times what it had been two years earlier. Worldwide, one in every two hundred children is a refugee, almost twice the number of a decade ago. According to UN figures, in 2016 there were twenty-eight million children forcefully displaced. Another twenty million children were international migrants. Their combined number is now larger than the populations of Canada and Sweden combined.

The data from the new research we commissioned reveal that the structures in place to protect the health and mental health of refugees and asylum seekers are in many ways anachronistic and out of touch with current dynamics.

What are risks to child and youth development and learning by social upheaval or catastrophic migrations?

Catastrophic migrations and violent family separations disrupt the developmental pathways necessary for children to establish basic trust, feel secure, and have a healthy orientation toward the world and the future. Catastrophic migrations tear children from their families and communities. Furthermore, the new data collected for this project suggest that physical, sexual, and psychological abuse are normative features of forced migrations, both during the journey and in the subhuman conditions that prevail in many migrant camps.

Catastrophic migrations are life-thwarting, harming children’s physical, psychological, moral, and social well-being by placing them in contexts that are inherently dangerous.


New Approaches & New Research

What can research tell us about the kinds of policies, practices, and programs that are needed to improve the outcomes of refugee, immigrant, and undocumented children and youth?

The data from the new research we commissioned reveal that the structures in place to protect the health and mental health of refugees and asylum seekers are in many ways anachronistic and out of touch with current dynamics. Richard Mollica, who directs the Harvard Program in Refugee Trauma, at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, goes further, claiming that the model of guaranteeing safety and security to refugees used by the United Nations and Non-Governmental Organizations “is outdated… badly broken and inadequate.” He claims, “This inadequacy is in part due to the siloing of safety/security, humanitarian assistance, health care, mental health care, economic and cultural development: Major barriers exist across each of these critical humanitarian domains. Linkage to mental health and systems of health and mental healthcare is almost non-existent.”

The general principles that emerge from the new research include mining the inherent agency, cultural resources, resilience, and capacity for self-healing in forcefully displaced populations. Dr. Mollica proposes a holistic and comprehensive model to address: human rights (beginning with the “Trauma story,” which helps in overcoming recovery from humiliation (feelings of helplessness and worthlessness), healing, health promotion (to recover from trauma that can result in poor physical and mental health), and a new area of refugee mental health research, habitat (the quality of housing and its relationship to trauma recovery). He describes the five H’s as synergistic, and explores several promising projects in a variety of contexts.

The refugees are actively engaged in the design, execution, interpretation, and communication of the research tools and findings. This represents a crucial contribution…

Theresa Betancourt, Director of the Research Program on Children and Global Adversity at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, elaborates on the theme of refugee agency. She and her colleagues present a locally based, culturally relevant community-based participatory research (CBPR) model to develop, implement, and evaluate a family intervention aimed at promoting positive caregiver–child relationships, family functioning, and child mental health among Somali Bantu and Lhotshampa Bhutanese refugees resettling in the United States. The refugees are actively engaged in the design, execution, interpretation, and communication of the research tools and findings. This represents a crucial contribution, as there has been limited application of CBPR methods in mental health research, particularly with refugees.

Betancourt states, “In discussing problems and syndrome terms, emphasis was given to understanding community and cultural resources that might improve coping and resilience in children and families. Specifically, we aimed to learn about and bolster—through preventive measures—those resources that support healthy parenting and mitigate the effects of past trauma, acculturative, and resettlement stressors.” The preliminary data show promising results in deploying familial, community, and cultural resources to promote healing, family communication, and well-being. The consensus in these papers is clear: refugees, asylum seekers, and the forcefully displaced need to be the architects of their healing. Indeed, their agency and familial and cultural resources are essential to healing.

What kinds of studies are still needed to improve youth outcomes along these lines?

Hirokazu Yoshikawa, the Courtney Sale Ross University Professor of Globalization & Education at New York University, and his colleagues suggest that while we have learned much, much more is needed to better serve these populations. First, we need better longitudinal data, and, second, we need better measures of child and youth development and learning in these populations. They summarize their findings in the following way, “We have called for a process-oriented approach, in which specific risk-exacerbating or mitigating processes are measured in research and evaluation and inform program and policy development and improvement. Conversely, policy approaches such as those that increase access or quality of health, education, or social protection for these children and youth should inform research and evaluation. There is a lack of controlled evaluations, for example, of programs that increase either enrollment in or quality of education in contexts of conflict, displacement and forced migration, with a few exceptions….” There is an urgent need to evaluate high quality programs.

First, we need better longitudinal data, and, second, we need better measures of child and youth development and learning in these populations.

What can we learn from our counterparts overseas about improving outcomes for immigrant origin youth in the U.S.?

Comparing notes with our overseas counterparts has been quite productive. We learned how frameworks in various national education systems that are now receiving large numbers of immigrants and refugee students make a difference in student outcomes. Maurice Crul, Professor of Sociology at the Department of Sociology at Erasmus University Rotterdam and the VU University Amsterdam and his colleagues, for example, compare the ways in which Germany, Sweden, and Turkey—three countries that have received large numbers of refugees—are endeavoring to incorporate children into their different national educational systems. It turns out that the time of entrance into compulsory schooling, the expectations and availability of preschools, the kinds of supports for teachers working with refugee students, as well as programs for second language learning and policies for tracking students into vocational and more academic programs of study, relate in complex ways to student outcomes. The approaches vary in each country and the results are disparate. This and other research suggest that high-quality academic language programs for immigrants and refugees students are urgently needed.


Education

Discuss the importance of education in the context of displacement, war, and other traumas experienced by refugee and immigrant youth.

Education is fundamental in the context of forced displacement. First, it brings normalcy in otherwise unpredictable and often chaotic contexts. Forcefully displaced children are first and foremost children, as Jacqueline Bhabha, FXB Director of Research, Professor of the Practice of Health and Human Rights at the Harvard School of Public Health, argues. They have the same curiosity and urge to understand themselves and their world as all other children. They do not stop thinking and learning when they are forced from home. In an essay commissioned for our work, UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova makes a plea for education as a human right and a fundamental instrument for human flourishing and empowerment. She maintains that education “provides women and men with the tools to build resilience and make the most of change.” She writes that “This is especially important in conflict situations, in which learning and going to school can bring a sense of normality and restore hope in the future. Learning provides young minds with confidence when horizons are bleak, making education the best long-term way to break cycles of violence and set communities on the path to peace.”

We learned how frameworks in various national education systems that are now receiving large numbers of immigrants and refugee students make a difference in student outcomes.

James Banks, the Director of the Center for Multicultural Education at the University of Washington, writes about civic education and how it could help improve outcomes among refugee children. Can you say more about this?

Dr. Banks claims that in high- and middle-income countries the world over, racial, ethnic, cultural, linguistic, and religious groups are often denied structural inclusion in the nation state. The children of immigrants and refugees both register and are affected by how they are viewed in their new societies and the structural barriers that they face. The alienation and lack of belonging in the children of stigmatized populations are but one instance of what Banks has called “failed citizenship.” The children of refugees, immigrants, and other marked minorities are in too many cases not making the values and symbols of the nation state their own. The United States, Western Europe, and other advanced post-industrial societies, as Banks suggests, are manufacturing high levels of disconnection, anomie, and social malaise. Here is a paradox: in too many resource-rich, high-income countries, the children of marked minorities often do not feel included.

Civic education must do the work of fostering the development of knowledge, values, sensibilities, and practices required for all children to participate effectively within multiple intersecting regional, national, and transnational communities.

To help improve youth outcomes, civic education must first struggle against damaging stereotypes and caricatures of difference. Educators working to engage immigrant and refugee students alike would be wise to learn their stories and work with the funds of knowledge they bring with them. Indeed, telling multiple stories, which can be incorporated into teaching plays, autobiographies, books, films, and articles about the immigrant and refugee experience, helps stimulate discussions and exchanges about identity formation as immigration, race, class, gender—and how these qualities intersect in complex ways. Civic education must do the work of fostering the development of knowledge, values, sensibilities, and practices required for all children to participate effectively within multiple intersecting regional, national, and transnational communities.

What can you tell us about EL policies and practices that would help to reduce inequality among refugee and immigrant students?

We examined at length what schools are doing and, perhaps more importantly, what schools should be doing when working with new arrivals. Maurice Crul and colleagues write that “high-quality continuing second language instruction offered at all school levels by properly trained teachers and using specifically developed teaching materials is probably the most important institutional arrangement.” The evidence suggests that second language instruction is most successful when learners are placed into a progressive and systematic program of instruction that first identifies a new arrival’s incoming literacy and academic skills. Research shows that consistency of instruction is essential for immigrant and refugee students, as frequent transitions placed them at considerable disadvantage.

Second language learning is most successful when high-quality second language instruction is provided with continued transitional academic supports like tutoring, homework help, and writing assistance as language learners integrate into mainstream programs. Further, assessment of skills growth should be done periodically using portfolio assessment (a systematic, longitudinal collection of student work used to evaluate academic progress over time according to specified instructional objectives and criteria), as well as testing in order to measure progress and adjust interventions.

Administrators must recognize that teachers need support in adjusting to the changing needs of their students, yet they often lack the training and resources they need.

The data show that in addition to developing oral communicative proficiency in the language of their new country, second language learners (SLLs) need to simultaneously build content knowledge—many new arrivals are entering school with weak academic language proficiency skills. Second language acquisition programs (e.g., bilingual education and self-contained SLL programs) focus primarily on literacy development as language proficiency, with only limited attention to academic second language acquisition in content areas. It is a challenge for students to learn content across the academic disciplines while at the same time acquiring new language and literacy skills, and it poses an instructional challenge to many teachers working with new arrivals.

The good news, however, as discussed by Carola Suárez-Orozco in her contribution to the project, is that there are excellent programs in schools in Europe, the US, and elsewhere which address this challenge. The obligation of every school and every teacher is to foster a democratic ethos where immigrant and refugee children come to feel like full members and contributors to the community, and, above all, where they can become autonomous learners. Administrators must recognize that teachers need support in adjusting to the changing needs of their students, yet they often lack the training and resources they need. We hope that our project and the accompanying volume go a long way to provide such tools.


Documentation Status

How does undocumented status impact a young person’s integration into our society and ultimately their opportunities for achievement?

The majority of the children of immigrants are born in the U.S. of foreign-born parents. They are U.S. citizens. Yet 4.5 million of these American-born children have an undocumented parent. In addition, an estimated 700,000 children themselves are undocumented immigrants. Mary Waters, the John L. Loeb Professor of Sociology at Harvard University has examined the effects of unauthorized status on development across the lifespan, and has found that they are uniformly negative, placing millions of U.S. children and youth at risk of lower educational performance, economic stagnation, blocked mobility, and an ambiguous sense of belonging. Waters’s data suggest that unauthorized status traps children in a labyrinth of insecurity, anxiety, and unequal opportunity.

The children of the unauthorized pay a substantial penalty for their parents’ status. The effects are tangible and devastating. Waters writes, “Research has shown that children of undocumented parents are less likely than their peers to receive benefits for which they are legally eligible. They are also more likely to experience anxiety and depression in adolescence and have lower levels of educational attainment in middle childhood. Undocumented immigrants and their relatives live in constant fear of being apprehended, and families are often separated by the deportation process.”


In the United States immigration is both history and destiny. The pathways to success for refugee and immigrant origin youth, their psychosocial flourishing, their civic engagement, their connection to the labor market, and their identification with the narrative of the nation will profoundly shape the remaking of the social contract. Reducing inequality by fostering best practices in education, health and wellness is at once doing good—it is the ethical thing to do for youth in crises—as well as doing well–it is the smart thing to do for a shared future.