Skip to content
Skip to main content

About this free course

Download this course

Share this free course

Supporting children's mental health and wellbeing
Supporting children's mental health and wellbeing

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

2.4 Refugee children

Refugee children are those who have been uprooted from their country through war, persecution or natural disasters. In doing so, they may have had to leave behind (possibly quite abruptly) some of the following:

  • Family members who are unable or unwilling to leave, or who may have been tortured and/or killed (as encountered in some of the case studies during this session).
  • Their childhood home and possessions, thus carrying with them only a small amount of luggage and personal goods in bags, rucksacks and suitcases.
  • A sense of who they are – their previous identity and the meanings they had about life and connections may become very confused and dislocated.

How do you think you might feel if in just one day you lost all your close family, your home and possessions?

Loss, grief and bereavement are processes that have so far been under-researched as part of the refugee experience. Grief is very painful for most people and, although loved ones are missed and mixed feelings such as sadness and anger prevail, the intensity of such feelings might lessen over time. Furthermore, social support networks, spiritual beliefs and practices can all help the grieving process. Refugee children who are accompanied by surviving carers and siblings may also be more resilient in the face of the challenges and adversity they have faced, depending on the strength and security of the attachments they still retain.

This is a photograph of a family in silhouette standing by a fence.
Figure 9 The experience of being a refugee

Activity 4 Settling into a new setting as a young refugee child

Timing: Allow about 15 minutes

To illustrate the experience of a refugee child who has arrived in England, read the case study of Aamira. The case study is based on the experiences of one of the course authors working with a child who had similar experiences to Aamira. Then consider the following questions:

  • How do you think Aamira’s experiences have contributed to the difficulties she is having in settling into nursery?
  • What are your thoughts about Aamira’s experiences?

Case study: Aamira, a refugee child

Aamira is 4 and has recently arrived in England from Sudan. She is with her family: her parents and a brother and sister who are all seeking asylum. The family have been housed close to a children’s centre and Aamira is to join the nursery for morning sessions. Aamira’s key worker, Ellie, is very concerned about Aamira. Following a meeting with Aamira’s mum, Ellie learns about some of the events that Aamira and her family have experienced since they had to leave their home.

Six months previously, rebel soldiers arrived in the village and Aamira’s family ran into the bushes and hid. However, Aamira’s big brother, Amani, who was 14, was taken by the rebel soldiers and after being beaten, he was burnt to death along with several other boys. Aamira and her family saw what happened to him. The family could not remain in the country because they would have suffered the same fate as Amani. Following a long and dangerous journey, the family spent three months in a refugee camp before they arrived in England.

Aamira is finding it difficult to settle into nursery. She is very still and rarely smiles. She is small for her age and tires easily; she picks at the unfamiliar food. She has not been heard to speak at nursery, although her mum says that she will speak in her native tongue occasionally at home. Ellie is trying to find out what play choices and activities will appeal to Aamira; she is longing to be able to support her and help Aamira to feel as if she belongs in the nursery.

To use this interactive functionality a free OU account is required. Sign in or register.
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).


Aamira has experienced significant trauma in her young life; seeing her brother murdered, being forced to leave home and make a long and dangerous journey will all have taken a toll on her physical and mental health. The time in the refugee camp is likely to have been difficult for the whole family. They were grief-stricken and, with minimal resources, there was little that any of them could do to pass the time, which may have helped them to take their minds off their situation.

Aamina is expressing her response to her situation by exhibiting signs of depression and the effects of the trauma she has experienced. Most telling is her refusal to speak: her ‘selective mutism’ is a sign that she is experiencing considerable anxiety. Ellie knows that she will need lots of patience and gentleness to support Aamira; it will be important not to push her, especially in relation to her speech and communication. Finding play activities that Aamira likes will be potentially therapeutic for her; however, Ellie will have to observe her carefully and work with her mum to discover what these may be.

Children can experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in much the same way as adults and can experience similar symptoms such as flashbacks, trouble sleeping, nightmares, reluctance to engage in activities they used to enjoy, as well as headaches or stomach aches. They may also repeatedly revisit traumatic events through play. However, the details of how young refugee children experience loss, grief and bereavement as a result of losing significant carers and then being forcibly removed from their homes is currently an under-researched area.

It is only more recently that research has focused on the experiences of unaccompanied minors, and how caring for each other through migration may have been key to the survival of these children. Think back to Session 3, where you learned about attachment processes and how they help to build a child’s sense of worth and who they are in the world. You can perhaps see how, by caring for each other in adverse conditions experienced through migration, children may form significant attachments to each other (as with street children). Furthermore, the need to adapt to potentially hostile environments relatively quickly may even help child refugees to develop essential social skills such as empathy and emotional intelligence more rapidly, as well as greater individual and group resilience.

The following section looks at the experience of children who are separated from their families.