Children of Refugees: Torture, Human Rights, and Psychological Consequences

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There is a wide gap between the psychological needs of the children of refugees and the services provided. Refugees' home countries, cultures, and social make-up are widely diversified, and their needs cannot be readily consolidated. This diversity of interest and need goes unacknowledged by the service-providers who may treat them as a single, homogenous group. Some refugees' needs are exaggerated, while others are ignored. This approach often ignores the justifiable and legitimate interest of refugees' psychological wellbeing. Many children of refugees may struggle with questions of race, ethnicity, language barriers, and other socio-political and economic issues that can influence their mental health and psychological wellbeing. Preoccupations of the child's emotions with those issues therefore have effects on child personality formations. Apart from having an overview of the relevant processes involved in therapeutic work and possible challenges therein, it is also important for the therapist to have an overview of the child's situation in the past and any current issues, which this book provides. In order to provide effective therapeutic intervention to children and young people, whether they are unaccompanied or with family, knowing the legal framework and human right issues is vital.

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Chapter One: What is Torture?

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Torture, whether physical or psychological depends on complicated interpersonal relationships or lack of relationships between the tortured person, the aggressive perpetrator (states and its officers ordering torture), the torturers and bystanders. Torture involves deeply personal processes in all those involved. These interacting psychological relationships, processes, and dynamics form the foundation and centre for the psychology of torture. Torture is about reprogramming the person to submit and surrender to a substitute interpretation of a specific situation, especially a religious one of the world, proffered by the states and its people in power abusing the position they hold. It is an act of, deep-seated, unforgettable, and traumatic indoctrination. There is always a question about applying diagnostic categories and descriptions of symptoms or behaviour developed in Western societies to people from the developing countries with very different personal, political, or religious beliefs and perspectives. One of the most manifest striking differences is between individualist societies where realisation of personal goals often takes priority over the needs of family, community and societal expectations. In collectivist societies the needs of family and community stipulated roles take superiority over personal preferences. Another evident variance between Western and Eastern societies is the belief in a subsequent life in which suffering in this life is rewarded after death. However, in Western society we note a different level of the psychological consequences of war, indeed the method of tackling radicalisations. One example is being on the side of state power like American veterans of the Vietnam War. This clearly could be understood as a political act which labelled the collective distress of a defeated and abused state as individual vulnerability and psychopathology in a distractive manner.

 

Chapter Two: Who is Considered a Refugee and an Asylum Seeker, and what are the Procedures?

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Refugees

A refugee is defined by the United Nations as:

Any person who is outside their country of nationality and is unable to return due to a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.

The 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees has adopted the definition of a refugee (in Article 1.A.2) as any person who:

Owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.

The concept of a refugee was expanded by the Convention's 1967 Protocol and by regional conventions in Africa and Latin America to include persons who had fled war or other violence in their home country. The European Union's minimum standards definition of refugee, underlined by Article 2 (c) of Directive No. 2004/83/EC, essentially reproduces the narrow definition of a refugee offered by the UN 1951 Convention. Nevertheless, by virtue of articles 2 (e) and 15 of the same Directive, persons who have fled a war-caused generalised violence are, under certain conditions, eligible for a complementary form of protection, called subsidiary protection. The same form of protection is foreseen for people who, without being refugees, are nevertheless exposed, if returned to their countries of origin, to the death penalty, torture or other inhuman or degrading treatments. The term refugee is often used to include displaced persons who may fall outside the legal definition in the Convention, either because they have left their home countries due to war and not because of a fear of persecution, or because they have been forced to migrate within their home countries. The Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa, adopted by the Organization of African Unity in 1969 (OAU, 1969), accepted the definition of the 1951 Refugee Convention and expanded it to include people who left their countries of origin not only because of persecution but also due to acts of external aggression, occupation, domination by foreign powers or serious disturbances of public order.

 

Chapter Three: Care and Protection of Children

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In recent years, one of the incidents that the UK public was horrified to learn of was the heart-breaking abduction of young April Jones. As this tragedy gripped national press networks, the protection of children has justifiably come to the forefront. Reflecting and comparing the two horrific acts of child abuse and neglect: the abduction of April Jones and the untimely death of Mrs G and her baby, it is shocking that the incident of Mrs G and her baby failed to take hold of national attention in the same way the abduction of April Jones quite rightly did. It is only when one can consider the media's portrayal of these two unbearable calamities that we are able to distinguish a readily overlooked subliminal discourse of race and social class unfolding, dismissive of egregious and flagrant violations of the human rights of refugee and asylum-seeking communities. Human rights are not just for some, all humans have an inalienable entitlement to all rights regardless of race, culture, class, ethnicity, sexuality, ability, and economic power. Many young asylum seekers and refugee families face multiple social problems including difficulties making an asylum application, finding a proper solicitor, living in poor housing, poverty, difficulty accessing and receiving benefits, and lack of knowledge about services. Some parents we serve feel that their social difficulties are preventing them from being good parents. Specifically depression amongst mothers, caused by social distress and isolation, increases the worry for their children as they are aware that they are not being emotionally there for their children, or their stress causes them to be emotionally absent. In their therapy many asylum seekers express a deep feeling of sadness and isolation, acutely feeling the loss of support networks from their families or extended families, and being isolated due to lack of English language skills, and in some cases a fear of going out in some parts of London or outside London because of the racial harassment and lack of contact with their community. These isolated mothers feel very uncomfortable leaving their young children at child minders or in a nursery from outside their community, especially in a community where no one speaks their home language. The majority of parents we see at the Refugee Therapy Centre are usually unaware of the low cost or free services for young children, such as libraries or toy libraries, or play groups or play sessions in the community centres, sport centres or schools, they are not even aware of the after school clubs or homework clubs for older children at school. All of this highlights the lack of early psycho-social intervention or provision and dissemination of information for asylum-seeking young families, especially where they may have direct experience of racial harassment in the form of being bullied at school or when they change schools or the neighbourhood they live in. Some parents who reported not being able to cope or being violent physically or verbally are quite worried about their parenting skills and that is why they ask for help from us. They are also extremely worried about how social workers and social services perceive their parenting skills. Some parents also expressed worry about teachers because they are aware of the cultural differences of childhood, specifically their understanding of physical punishment as an acceptable form of discipline which may not be shared by a teacher. They are very concerned when child protection issues are raised with them and it is proposed that they get help and a proper assessment. They express a great fear that social workers will accuse them of physical abuse or neglect and take their children away, and they need great support and encouragement to be able to use resources from social services available to them when they are not able to cope. One common fear amongst almost all different cultural backgrounds is separation from their children and lack of trust. Some asylum-seeking families are able to use and get in touch with the refugee community organisations, but they may not live close enough to these organisations to get support and some asylum seekers and refugees do not wish to contact refugee community organisations they do not know personally and they can't trust. Some female clients also indicate that community organisations can be very much male dominated and it is quite unlikely they would get involved in the woman's needs or issues, such as child care or a woman's wish to improve her language. This is especially the case in some communities such as Somalian, Eritrean, and Kurdish communities. Psychological intervention can play an important role in meeting the needs of children and families of refugees and asylum seekers. Combating social exclusion and preventing further stress results in healthy development for children of refugees and further decreases youngsters acting out their aggression in the community, or seeking to join radical groups. Some parents sometimes express concern that their children lose their language and culture of their home country. They are concerned that their children will grow up with very different values to their own and their families and become alienated from their parents as a result. There is a reality that supports this fear as the younger generation of children learn English very quickly in comparison to their parents. This can create a fear in the parents of the children losing the old culture. On the other hand it is also likely that the parents will use their young children as interpreters and translators without recognising that the level of understanding that their child has of the English Language is still only at the level that the child has reached developmentally in their own language and culture. The child's level is not an adult level of language and that in itself can create further trauma to children and young people. As discussed before, with more under-fives than in the general population, and also young children over five and adolescents, refugees and asylum seekers families, especially some of the newcomers, may have a greater need for earlier provision of service. This in itself indicates that it is not good practice to put refugee children in an equal position to the general or indigenous population. The lack of training and courses on refugee's issues, language, working with interpreters, and anti-discriminatory practice, prevents professionals from meeting the refugee children's healthcare and emotional needs and it prevents these children and families from using the healthcare professionals within the community during the early years. Taking care of and protecting the welfare and rights of children should be the primary concern of all professionals involved in the care of children, including staff working within the UK Border Agency and local authorities. Although discussion in this book focuses on refugee children, the principles and practices described apply to all migrant children. The UK Border Agency frequently has poor and inconsistent decision-making in regards to children. Children and their carers report that in their experiences the officials are harsh and insensitive towards refugee children. Having said that, this book's aim is not to criticise any agency, but is intended to look at issues in a constructive and informative method, to share techniques and tactics to challenge the deficiencies in the UK asylum process, and aid those involved in the protection of the welfare of children to consider their practices to see how they can be improved and developed in order to ensure that they play their part.

 

Chapter Four: Human Rights

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The foundations of the human rights obligation to prohibit and eliminate all corporal and all other degrading forms of punishment, lie in the rights of every person to respect for his or her dignity and physical integrity, and to equal protection under the law. The original International Bill of Human Rights adopted and proclaimed by General Assembly resolution 217 A (III) in the 10th December 1948 states that: “The dignity of each and every individual is the fundamental guiding principle of international human rights law”, (paragraph 16) and shows how the Convention on the Rights of the Child builds on these principles. Article 19 of the Convention, requires States to protect children “from all forms of physical or mental violence.” This is helpful although it is limited as the term “all forms of physical or mental violence” does not safeguard or ensure a total protection for so many vulnerable children, and leaves room for some level of legalised violence against children. Corporal punishment, torture, child soldiers and other cruel or degrading forms of punishment are forms of violence and the State must take responsibility and implement appropriate and seemly legislative, administrative, social, and educational measures to eliminate any violence towards children. Abolishing and eradicating violations against children, through implementation of law and other social and political measures, is an immediate responsibility and obligation of all nations states.

 

Chapter Five: The Rule of Law

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In searching for a definition of the Rule of Law, I realised that there is no single universal definition. There is a need for a clear and specific definition of what constitutes torture for children. Such clarification would work towards the deliberation and prohibition of torture on children. The basic principle is that all people and institutions are subject to and accountable to law that is fairly applied to all and enforceable.

The World Justice Project stated that the Rule of Law is:

A system in which the following four universal principles are upheld:

These four universal principles are further developed in the following nine factors of the World Justice Project (WJP) Rule of Law Index, which measures how the rule of law is experienced by ordinary people in 99 countries around the globe. (In: http://worldjusticeproject.org/what-rule-law)

Despite the lack of a clear universal meaning of the concept of the rule of law, some issues that definitely need to be taken to considerations are the following:

 

Chapter Six: The European Convention on Human Rights

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Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) states that, “No one shall be subjected to torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” (1950a). Under Article 3 a person can make a claim for protection based directly on Article 3 of ECHR as states are prohibited from returning a person to a country where they may suffer a violation of their rights.

Furthermore, Article 8 (1950b) of the ECHR states that: “Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.” Article 8 issues may be raised as part of an asylum application, or in the context of an appeal against deportation or removal. Article 8 is a qualified rather than an absolute right and the second part of it sets out circumstances where authorities may interfere with the right. The Immigration Rules amendment in 2012 provides clarifications on the qualified nature of Article 8.

Article 31 of the 1951 Refugee Convention prohibits states from penalising a refugee for illegal entry when the purpose of their entry is to claim asylum. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) is particularly relevant as separated children are some of the most vulnerable people in society. The relevant article is Article 22 emphasising that:

 

Chapter Seven: Children and Mental Health

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The mental health of children of refugees can be affected by experiences of loss, separation, stress, and the various psychological impacts of uncertainties brought about by the refugee experience, including attempts to integrate into a new society and culture. The psychological impact of life in the host country, i.e., the UK, can be both positive and negative. The relief associated with newly found safety and access to food, shelter, education, and other opportunities not previously available to some people is naturally significant. Having said this, often politicians, and other relevant professionals, even social workers overlook or fail to ascertain the extreme challenges that are also entailed in starting a new life as a refugee. Evidence indicates concerns resulting from broken attachments and displacement especially affect children's mental health, with one of the major risk factors being sudden separation from familiar environments. Data from my work at the Refugee Therapy Centre during the last sixteen years and, prior to that, in other charity and community organisations for many years, as well as in the NHS, managing children and family referrals, shows increased levels of psychological ill health among children of refugees, especially post-traumatic stress, depression, social anxiety, withdrawal, and on occasion outbursts of anger. The principles underlying the delivery of mental health care for these children are almost non-existent, as are necessary systematic support and preventions that can be undertaken in the school context, also in the Child and Adolescences Mental Health Service (CAMHS), Social services, and other approved services in the community.

 

Chapter Eight: Socio-Psychological Factors and Institutional Support

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This chapter will address socio-psychological factors and the influence of institutional support or opposition for refugee and asylum seekers. As it is discussed throughout the book, refugee and asylum seeker children may arrive traumatised and disorientated separated from their families, forced by persecution to leave their own countries and come to the UK. In the developmental process, appropriate support provision is extremely important in helping children of refugees and their carers while they are rebuilding their lives in the UK. Sadly, refugee families in Britain do not have equal access to the existing range of services and interventions, even though their need for such provision may be greater, proportional to the general population. Through the narratives shared by refugee and asylum seeker families, and our witnessing this experience during therapeutic intervention, we can recognise this inequality.

Some asylum seekers and children of refugees, young people and their families may also have special healthcare needs, specifically psychological needs, which must be addressed in order to prevent future serious mental health problems. Children of refugees and young people and in some case their parents or family members as their carers, have particular linguistic needs before they are able to take advantage of necessary services. With more under-fives than in the general population in some refugee communities (our statistics indicate the Somali and Afghan families), they may have a greater need for a new dimension of mental health, and psychosocial intervention and education. In such circumstances adult refugee parents are amongst the most vulnerable and are unlikely to take part in any education and go through the process of adaptation and resettlement. Indeed, suffering psychologically and not being able to cope can cause tremendous tension between different generations within the family. This is particularly true for many refugee mothers who have responsibility for their children after having lost their informal support networks and extended families, which itself can lead to stress and psychological difficulties.

 

Chapter Nine: Obstacles to Monitoring and Eradicating Torture

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The reality is that we are far from a world without human rights violations, impunity, and torture of children and adults. As professionals working to support children of refugees, several issues need to be kept in perspective:

The Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict is a protocol of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, formally adopted by the United Nations in 2000. Essentially, the protocol states that while volunteers below the age of eighteen can voluntarily join the armed forces, they cannot be conscripted. As the Protocol reads, “State parties shall take all feasible measures to ensure that member of their armed forces who have not attained the age of 18 years do not take a direct part in hostilities” (2000). Despite this, the ILO estimates that “tens of thousands” of girls and boys are currently forcibly enlisted in the armed forces in at least seventeen countries around the world. Children conscripted into the armed forces can then be used in three distinct ways.

 

Chapter Ten: Community Engagement

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What is community engagement and what does good engagement look like? In reference to refugee children and young people the first thing surely would be communities’ active participation as a whole, including local residents and community groups. It is necessary to develop a range of interactions which are suitable, indeed useful for all parties involved, such as simple information sharing through supporting community activities, and creating connections with existing organisations at the intersection of the local, national and international services for the exchange and dissemination of knowledge. Community engagement strategies may be deployed to hand some of the responsibility from the State to local communities and non-statutory organisations involving the dissemination and publication of good practice and useful projects in developing countries. We need to rethink how we talk about refugee children's needs who have been tortured and to engage with our local and global communities for the rehabilitation and care of those children. This book addresses issues that are provocative, critical, and challenging, and which need careful examination to learn best practices, taking into consideration community engagement as one of the major points. Focusing on the front lines in communities and the extraordinary diversity within each community is needed to uncover best strategies that seek to provide appropriate support to children who have been tortured and seek sanctuary. Based on these strategies, the structure of services needs to take into consideration the characteristics of each individual child and the community the child is from, indeed the common culture and traditions, knowledge and the decisions that affect the child's life.

 

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