Dreading my 18th birthday: the plight of refugee children in detention centers

The CSVR Trauma Clinic presented two oral presentations at the 10th annual International Society for Health and Human Rights conference held in Novi Sad, Serbia from the 26-29 September 2017. While the two oral presentations were well received, I would like to focus on one of the interesting learnings from that event: The treatment of unaccompanied minors and the implications for them across countries and age cut-offs. An example of this was a presentation given by Lilla Hardi, Medical Director of the Cordelia Foundation for the Rehabilitation of Torture Victims which operates in Hungary. One of the factors which increases the risk for further trauma in children seeking refuge in Hungary, is the fact that children over the age of 14 years are kept in what is known as a transit zone for the duration of their refuge period. A quote from the UNHCR sums up this transit zone best, “Hungary’s transit zones are really just detention centers, said UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi after wrapping up a two-day visit to Hungary. In his meetings Grandi expressed his concern that asylum-seekers, including children, were being kept in the “transit zones” during their asylum process. “Children, in particular, should not be confined in detention,” he said Tuesday after touring the Röszke transit zone on Hungary’s border with Serbia”. [i]

Similarly, Gunnar Eide and Torunn Fladstad from RVTS South in Norway reported during their workshop session that unaccompanied minors are returned to their country of origin when they turn 18 years old. Essentially, they are returned to the source of their trauma and to a country often still in conflict after having been provided with education and support from the government up to that point. The Nordic Page, reported on the impact that this new legal restriction has on children, “This permit has come under criticism from NGOs and other commentators, and it appears that some permit holders abscond from reception centerss prior to the transition to adulthood in order to avoid return. Also, the number of suicides attempts and anxiety disorders among this group has dramatically increased since the introduction of the law. Norwegian Immigration directorate (UDI) saw a significant deterioration in the situation of UAMs at reception centers.”[ii] Speaking to other colleagues in the field and doing some research on my own, it became apparent that this was not unique to Norway. An organization called The Bureau conducted a study on how different countries in Europe treated unaccompanied minors. Their report can be found here:


Unaccompanied minors appear to have two experiences, either they are sent back to their countries (which are often still in conflict) or they have to apply for asylum as an adult (which may be rejected and then they are deported).

So, what does this mean for the mental health of children? Especially children who have experienced high levels of trauma within country; en-route to refugee receiving countries; and within the country of refuge itself? A research paper written by Catherine Gladwell and Hannah Elwyn in 2012 with the assistance of the United Nations Refugee Agency around the impact of deportation on Afghan children is a good indication of the organic as well as psychological impacts on children who live in fear of their 18th birthday. While other children cannot wait for the 18th birthday as it means that they have greater legal independence from their parents such as the right to drive a car, and in South Africa drink alcohol and smoke legally; other children from around the world, who had no part in the war that has robbed them of their home; family; friends and safety, live in perpetual fear of being sent back to a country where there is a very real possibility that they may be killed. Add to that the fact that they were unaccompanied at the time of seeking refuge; and so often do not know where their family members are or even if they are alive. Add further to that the realization that depending on their age of arriving in their host country, that life is the only life that they know, and you can see the reason why anxiety and depression are at a critical high within this group.

Think of yourself at 18. How equipped were you to navigate the world as an “adult’? Would you have been employable and able to sustain yourself with just a Matric certificate? These children are severely traumatized; they do not have a University degree, they do not have skills that can be used to support themselves back in their countries. They have learned the language of their host country and possibly to read and write in that country. We now send them back to Iraq and Syria and expect them to still be able to speak Arabic; to read and write Arabic, which uses a completely different system to what they have learned. Once again, they need to adapt and adjust into the unfamiliar. This time with no support.

We as Nations need to consider the atrocities that we perpetuate against each other, both “big” and “small”. We need to examine ourselves and our so called humanity and see whether our fear of the other (even children) is able to co-reside with our sense of compassion. As a mental health practitioner we have to ask ourselves some very hard questions. What is our role in ensuring that we stand by our ethics of believing that every person matters, every life matters? Are we doing enough to advocate on behalf of these and other vulnerable groups, whether they are part of our Nation or another’s? Is it enough to sit in a counselling room and deal with the aftermath of these and other practices or should we be extending our boundaries and scope of practices to include the active call for change regarding political migrant/refugee laws and practices across the world? In my opinion, it is unequivocally our job to ensure that all people are protected, not just when they become our clients. Otherwise we are just like these law makers who state that you are worth help only if you are a child and then lose value when you become an “adult”. We should work tirelessly to combat this hierarchy of which people matter and which do not.

By Celeste Matross

[i] (Novak, B. (13/09/2017). The Budapest Beacon. https://budapestbeacon.com/unhcr-chief-says-hungarys-transit-zones-are-really-just-detention-centers/.

[ii] ) (Norway to send back half of unaccompanied minors (UAMs) (07/07/2017) https://www.tnp.no/norway/panorama/norway-send-back-half-unaccompanied-refugee-minors

Published by CSVR Trauma Clinic

This blog represents thoughts of therapist working within the CSVR Trauma Clinic. The focus is on understanding the drivers and impact of violence on individuals, families and communities to work towards violence prevention and the building of peaceful societies

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