The news media typically cover refugee and migrant crises in the moment they happen – the civil war in Yemen, Syria’s devastation and the U.S. border crisis, for example. But rarely do we ever hear about the children and families of the aftermath.
What happens when family members are separated? What happens to refugee and migrant youths who lose parents? Journalists rush to cover these stories inside refugee camps and immigration shelters, but do not follow the lives of these young people any further. With a few exceptions, these narratives simply do not exist in the news and the children are forgotten.
But we can’t forget them. They are people like us whose lives matter.
Their story is both timely and timeless. Migrants and refugees have always been a universal part of human history and experience. At this moment, migrants are a hot topic in American politics because of the crisis at the southern U.S. border. News stories every day lately have covered the tense political climate, border wall and recent government shutdown. Regardless of where you stand politically, you should know more about the families and children involved. We don’t all agree on what to do, but I think we can agree that something should be done. And the best place to start is by educating ourselves.
Today, I want to share with you a little more behind-the-scenes information about what happens to refugee and migrant children after a major humanitarian crisis.
First, we need to understand a few definitions.
What does “unaccompanied children” even mean?
“Unaccompanied Refugee Minors” (URM) are refugee children who don’t currently don’t have a parent or relative able to take care of them long-term. These children can’t be returned to their home countries because of persecution or extreme danger. Some of these children end of up in Europe. You can read letters written by four Syrian refugee children in their own words here. Others are resettled in the U.S. The URM program, a branch of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), works with the State Department to identify refugee children overseas who are eligible for resettlement in the U.S.
Once in America, these children are typically placed in short-term foster families, group homes or shelters. The ultimate goal is to help reunite children with their parents/relatives—but in some cases, family members are dead or missing and children are placed in a long-term foster family, where they receive foster care services and benefits. Since 1980, ORR has helped 13,000 young refugees in care in states across the U.S.
The Office of Refugee Resettlement currently works with only two NGOs recognized to help with refugee and migrant youths:
- The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), and
- Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS)
Other groups doing similar work have achieved nonprofit status, but do not directly work with ORR.
The second major group is “Unaccompanied Migrant Minors” (UMM). These are immigrant children who arrive in the Unites States alone or who are required to appear in immigration court on their own. The technical term is “unaccompanied alien child” (UAC), and the gist is that: 1) the child doesn’t have lawful U.S. immigration status, 2) is not yet 18 and 3) has no parent/guardian with them.
Who are they?
Unaccompanied refugee youth often come from countries where devastating circumstances have spun out of control – such as Yemen or Syria.
Most unaccompanied migrant children come from Latin America and the Caribbean, and the number of children coming without guardians has increased. The majority come from Central America’s “Northern Triangle”—Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador—and are fleeing violence.
Because these children travel alone and often do not speak English, they are highly at risk of abuse, exploitation and trafficking.
Even if unaccompanied children make it safely into the foster system and are placed in care, the struggle is far from over. Within just weeks of being placed in a home, children must register for English language lessons and start school.
Refugee and migrant children, especially those who are unaccompanied or who have lost family members, often deal with PTSD and have a long healing journey ahead as they recover from trauma, according to Thomas M. Crea, Ph.D., Professor of Social Work at Boston College.
Hidden in plain sight
Perhaps the first question is: why don’t we hear about these thousands of unaccompanied children? The answer is a paradox. To raise awareness and meet the kids’ needs, more people need to know about them. But to keep the kids safe, it’s sometimes better if the public knows less about them. It’s an unusual public relations challenge for organizations helping these youth—educating the public about the issue without drawing too much negative media attention.
Organizations that work with unaccompanied youth must work hard to maintain privacy and confidentiality. For most immigration and refugee shelters, it can be dangerous to reveal names, contact information or even their location. Patricia DiNucci, Chief People and Risk Officer at Morrison Child & Family Services in Portland, Oregon, prioritizes the safety of the children in her shelter because she has their best interests in mind. The sad fact is that because of the political tensions and anger associated with this issue, people have tried to harass and demonize organizations that work with refugees and migrants. That means that DiNucci regularly has to deny reporters’ requests to meet children, and has only let them view the empty facilities.
So, what now?
Let’s keep reading about humanitarian crises across the world so that we are educated. But we can’t stop there. Here are seven things you can consider doing to get involved.
Learn more about this issue by following the links above in this article.
Read stories about migrant and refugee families.
Educate others about refugee and migrant youth. You can start by sharing this article.
Volunteer for or give money to an organization like Morrison Child & Family Services or SOAR.
Help reunite children with their families.
Host a Refugee Sunday event in your community.
Open your home to a refugee/migrant youth—become a foster family.
Let’s not forget the children and families of the aftermath. Let’s keep learning, talking and taking action together.
Featured photo: source