Trauma Inflicted on Child Refugees Threatens the Planet’s Future
A new age of grief has fallen over the 21st century
“This is a war against normal life.” So said CNN correspondent Clarissa Ward, describing the situation at this moment in Syria, as well as in other parts of the Middle East. It was one of those remarks that should wake you up to the fact that the regions the United States has, since September 2001, played such a role in destabilizing are indeed in crisis, and that this process isn’t just taking place at the level of failing states and bombed-out cities, but in the most personal way imaginable.
It’s devastating for countless individuals—mothers, fathers, wives, husbands, brothers, sisters, friends, lovers—and above all for children.
Ward’s words caught a reality that grows harsher by the week, and not just in Syria, but in parts of Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia and Libya, among other places in the Greater Middle East and Africa. Death and destruction stalk whole populations in Syria and other crumbling countries and failed or failing states across the region.
In one of those statistics that should stagger the imagination, devastated Syria alone accounts for more than five million of the estimated 21 million refugees worldwide.
Sadly, these numbers do not reflect an even harsher reality—you only become a “refugee” by crossing a border. According to the U.N. Refugee Agency, in 2015 there were another 44 million people uprooted from their homes who were, in essence, exiles in their own lands. Add those numbers together and you have one out of every 113 people on the planet—and those figures, the worst since World War II, may only be growing.
Rawya Rageh, a senior crisis adviser at Amnesty International, added troubling details to Ward’s storyline, among them that deteriorating conditions in war-torn Syria have made it nearly “impossible to find bread, baby formula, or diapers … leaving survivors at a loss for words.”
Meanwhile, across a vast region, families who survive as families continue to face the daily threat of death, hunger and loss. They often are forced to live in makeshift refugee camps in what amounts to a perpetual state of grief and fear, while the threat of rape, death by drone or suicide bomber, or by other forms of warfare and terror is for many just a normal part of existence, and parental despair is the definition of everyday life.
When normal life disintegrates in this way, the most devastating impact falls on the children. The death toll among children in Syria alone reached at least 700 in 2016. For those who survive there and elsewhere, the prospect of homelessness and statelessness looms large.
Approximately half of the refugee population consists of young people under the age of 18. For them and for the internally displaced, food is often scarce, especially in a country such as Yemen, in the midst of a Saudi-led, American-backed war in which civilians are commonly the targets of air strikes, cholera is spreading, and a widespread famine is reportedly imminent.
In a Yemeni scenario in which 17 million people now are facing “severe food insecurity,” nearly two million children are already acutely malnourished.
That number, like so many others emerging from the disaster that is the 21st-century Middle East, is overwhelming, but we shouldn’t let it numb us to the simple fact that each and every one of those two million young people is a child like any other child, except that he or she is being deprived of the chance to grow up undamaged.
And for those who do escape, who actually make it to safer countries beyond the immediate war zone, life still remains fragile at best with little expectation of a sustainable future. More than half of the six million school-age children who are refugees, reports the UNHCR, have no schools to attend.
Primary schools are scarce for them and only one percent of refugee youth attend college—compared to a global average of 34 percent. Startling numbers of such refugees are engaged in child labor under terrible working conditions. Worse yet, a significant number of child refugees are traveling alone.
According to the United Nations Children’s Fund, “at least 300,000 unaccompanied and separated children were recorded in some 80 countries in 2015-2016… easy prey for traffickers and others who abuse and exploit them.”
Such children, mired in poverty and dislocation, are aptly described as growing up in a culture of deprivation and grief. At least since the creation of UNICEF in 1946, an agency initially focused on the needs of the young in the devastated areas of post-World War II Europe, children at risk have posed a challenge to the world. In recent years, however, the traumas experienced by such young people have been rising to levels not seen since that long-gone era.
A heartbreaking story by Rachel Aviv in the New Yorker catches the extremity of both the plight faced by child refugees and possible reactions to it. She reports on a group of them in Sweden, largely from “former Soviet and Yugoslav states,” whose families had been denied asylum and were facing deportation. A number of them suffered from a modern version of a syndrome once known as “voodoo death,” in which a child falls into a coma-like trance of severe apathy. Doctors have termed this state “resignation syndrome, an illness that is said to exist only in Sweden, and only among refugees.”
Fearing ouster and threatened with being deprived of the ties they had already formed in that country, they simply turned off, physically as well as emotionally.
While this is certainly not the first time grief has engulfed parts of the world, children have felt the brunt of its woes. By its nature, warfare breeds destruction, dislocation and grief. But America’s never-ending war on terror, its “longest war,” has contributed to the instances of trauma suffered globally among children and continues to undermine their chances for recovery.
As psychologists and psychiatrists who specialize in grief have found, it takes time as well as help to absorb and deal with such trauma and the grief for lives lost and worlds destroyed that follows in its wake. Psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, who famously identified the five steps involved in reacting to grief, has underscored the time it takes to recover from such traumatic experiences.
Unfortunately, for refugee children and those uprooted in their own lands, there is usually no time for such a recovery, no safe space in which to experience those five steps. Instead, year after year, the trauma, like the wars, simply persists and intensifies.
One thing seems guaranteed—children who suffer long-term trauma are likely to develop physiological and psychological symptoms that persist into adulthood, rendering it hard for them to parent in a healthy and supportive way. And in this fashion, the wounds of the wars of the present will be handed on to the future.
In the technical language of the experts, “Adverse childhood experiences increase the chance of social risk factors, mental health issues, substance abuse, intimate partner violence, and adult adoption of risky adult behaviors. All of these can affect parenting in a negative way,” and so perpetuate a cycle of dysfunction and trouble.
Living casualties of this new age
There are many ways to think about this twinning of trauma and childhood, which is becoming such a signal part of our age. After the era of the concentration camps in Nazi Europe, psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim, who had himself spent almost a year in one, studied the effects of trauma on those who survived exposure to extreme deprivation and the constant threat of death.
Adults, he concluded, face the possibility of schizophrenia and the destruction of their personality structures, but children, he wrote, faced worse—the destruction of the self before the ego even came into being. Having been exposed to “extreme situations,” they ended up feeling overwhelmed, powerless and “deprived of hope.”
Many of them had also been forced to grow up without parents who might have helped them through the trauma. Worse yet, some of those he studied had actually seen their parents—or siblings—killed.
What he learned remains, unfortunately, applicable to children in our moment. Isn’t it time to begin paying more attention to the cost of losing so many children to the forces of deprivation, soul-crushing devastation, and the culture of death at both a global and the most personal of levels? Isn’t it time for the rest of us to begin to imagine just what millions of damaged children will mean both for our world and for the world they will inherit as adults?
Some of them, of course, will rise above the damage done to them in their youth, but many will not and so will lead lives of loneliness, confusion and pain, and will potentially pose a danger both to themselves and to others.
As Bettelheim’s work, which almost anticipated Sweden’s “resignation syndrome,” suggests, the early years of the 21st century are hardly the first age of grief, nor will they likely be the last. They are, however, ours to deal with and their ravages are already evident not just in the Middle East, but in the rest of the world, too.
In Europe and the United States, terrorist attacks tied ideologically to the war on—and of—terror and targeted against civilians, continue to undermine the sense of security to which the citizens of such countries were until recently accustomed.
Children are not only part of this cycle of death and destruction, but in a recent instance—the suicide bombing in Manchester, England—were its target, as they also have been elsewhere, as in the abduction of hundreds of young girls by Boko Haram in Chibok, Nigeria, in 2014. Meanwhile, teenage boys are being targeted as recruits for ISIS in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere.
Strikingly, the United States has shown remarkably little concern for the children of the war-torn and violence-ridden areas of the Greater Middle East. Those young people could be thought of as the worst of the collateral damage from the years of invasions, occupations, raids, bombing runs, and drone strikes, including the children or youthful relatives of targeted, designated American enemies like Anwar Al Awlaki.
This lack of concern is strikingly reflected in the anti-refugee policies of the Trump era. Refugee children refused admission to the United States and other advanced countries and, forced to live in a state of limbo, are being harmed. Such policies and “bans” are exactly the opposite of what’s needed to heal the world and move forward.
Recently, as if to make just that point, an old photograph of a child has been appearing on Twitter over the caption “Denied refuge and murdered in Auschwitz: the human cost of refugee bans.” As a signal of what to expect from the United States in the age of Trump, consider his administration’s proposed budget, which calls for a cut of more than $130 million in funding for UNICEF, the signature agency providing relief and services to children in need globally.
The United States and its allies may one day defeat ISIS and other terror groups, but if what’s left in their wake is only bombed-out, unreconstructed landscapes and millions of uprooted children, what kind of victory will that be? What kind of future will that ensure?
There will be no “winning,” not truly, if the crisis of grief, the crisis of the children who are the living casualties of this new age, is not addressed sooner rather than later.
For every dollar that goes toward a weapon or the immediate struggle against terror outfits, shouldn’t another go to the support of those children, to the struggle to stabilize their lives, to provide them with homes, education, and care of the sort that they so desperately need? For every short-term prediction about the possible harm refugees could bring to a country, shouldn’t there be some consideration of what the children who are taken care of will want to give their new homelands in return?
Shouldn’t some thought be given to the world that the rejected or deported young, if left in distress, will someday create?
In Sweden, where the problems of traumatized refugee children have now been studied for more than a decade, the recommendation of psychiatrists and other experts to that country’s policymakers was simple enough: “A permanent residency permit is considered by far the most effective ‘treatment.’”
The loss of childhood, the crippling effects of trauma, the narrative of grief, and the cruel removal of any sense of hope or of a secure future have been seeping into global discourse about children for many years now. Isn’t it time to begin to see their global crisis for what it is—one of the major threats to a stable future for the planet?
Karen J. Greenberg is the director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School. Her latest book is Rogue Justice: The Making of the Security State, out in paperback this May. She is also author of The Least Worst Place: Guantánamo’s First 100 Days. Rose Sheela and CNS interns Anastasia Bez, Rohini Kurup, and Andrew Reisman contributed research for this article. This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.