Refugees: so close but yet so far

Men, women, unaccompanied children; the corridors of refugee camps reveal the stories of those chasing a ‘European dream’, escaping from their national nightmares. The Baltic Review discussed refugee trends with Damien Dermaux of CGRS, and the psychological condition of unaccompanied children with Dr Mina Faze of Oxford University.

Photo: Bibbi Abruzzini

Shyam and Kobita* work with kids in one of the reception centres for asylum seekers in Belgium. Twenty-two-years-old each, both from Nepal, it took them almost one month to reach Europe. “We were very scared because we did not know where smugglers were taking us, they were not talking much,Shyam told The Baltic Review, recalling the odyssey. “We escaped Nepal after our marriage. I am from a low caste, my father married a Tamang woman, while my wife is a Brahim. Her father is a politician and he filed a case against me.  We left Nepal and we reached India; my family paid 9000 and from that moment onwards we were in the hands of the smugglers”. 

Belgian government statistics indicate that the number of asylum applications from Nepal increased over the last few years from 65 in 2009 to 403 in 2011. Nepal ranks are among the top 10 of countries of origin for multiple applications in 2012. There were less Nepali seeking asylum in 1996-2006 when the country was experiencing a devastating civil war. Paradoxical figures explained by Damien Dermaux of the Office of the Commissioner General for Refugees and Stateless Persons (CGRS).

Refugees in Nepal | Photo: Santosh Thatal

Damien Dermaux: There is not always a logical explanation for the increase or decrease of asylum applications. In the case of Nepal – and other countries as well – the number of asylum applications is not always directly related to emerging conflicts or the deterioration of human rights in the determined country. For many migrants, asylum turns out to be the only possible access in order to obtain a legal residence. Reason why asylum is used as an immigration channel; phenomenon which can lead to abuses. Focusing on Nepal, another pull-factor promoting the number of asylum seekers is the presence of an already established Nepali community in Belgium.

European Overview: rising number of people seeking asylum

According to UNHCR’s latest report, ‘Asylum Levels and Trends in Industrialized Countries 2011’,  the number of people seeking asylum in industrialised countries rose by 20% in 2011. In Europe 327,200 asylum claims were made last year; many refugees fleeing conflicts from the Arab world and West AfricaUN High Commissioner for Refugees Antònio Guterres called on EU member states to put such numbers in perspective “Europe is not a continent flooded with refugees,” highlighting the fact that over 80% of refugees are located in developing countries. “The number of asylum claims received across all industrialized countries is still smaller than the population of Dadaab, a single refugee camp in north-east Kenya,” Guterres added with regard to a camp for Somali refugees.

Psycho-emotional status of unaccompanied children seeking asylum

Preliminary government statistics indicate that the number of unaccompanied minors applying for asylum in Belgium during the first four months of this year is much higher than the corresponding period in 2011. When unaccompanied children seek asylum in Belgium, they spend a few weeks in one of two Fedasil (Federail Agency for the reception of asylum seekers) observation and orientation centres. The centres provide food, shelter, trauma counseling, medical treatment as well as some basic schooling.  They are then sent to collective reception centres, where educators and supervisors take care of them.

18th birthday and things change as Damien Dermaux explained “concerning unaccompanied foreign minors (aged under 18 at the time of the introduction of their asylum application), their claim will be treated in the same way as adult asylum seekers, when they turn 18.  The guardianship system in place for minors ceases. We continue of course to keep into account the fact that they were minors when they left their country”.

Dr Mina Fazel of Oxford University deals with the mental health of refugee and marginalized children; she explains in an interview with The Baltic Review the psycho-emotional effects that displacement can have on the most vulnerable social group.

– According to the Office of the Commissioner General for Refugees and Stateless Persons (CGRS), Belgium faced a 75% increase in the number of unaccompanied minors seeking asylum since 2006. What are the psychological implications of displacement for children?

Dr Mina Fazel: There are many potential risks to the psychological well-being of children when they are displaced. Firstly, these children are likely to be displaced for a reason – usually because some insecurity and danger has affected their homes. They might, therefore, have experienced or witnessed violence towards themselves or family members, bereavement, community upheaval with its relevant agencies disturbed such as schools, health care facilities, law and order etc… These can raise the likelihood of children suffering from a number of different psychological disorders such as depression, anxiety disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder. Then these children need to travel to a place of safety and if this involves travel across borders then a range of new stressors might affect them- separation from family members, other dangers, possibly at the hands of smugglers, and the insecurity of whether they might reach a final safe destination. Therefore these children arrive in a country like Belgium having undergone a series of potential serious stressors.

Their arrival into a country of potential asylum is an important opportunity to intervene and provide security and protection for these children who need to grow and develop not only physically and intellectually but also emotionally and behaviourally. However, if at this moment these children are thrown further stressors such as insecure immigration status, detention, frequent house moves, lack of support then they are likely to be placed at significantly higher risk of developing a psychological disorder.

– What may be done to alleviate the potential traumatizing effects? 

Dr Mina Fazel: It is important to be aware, however, that if these children are well supported and given a sense of security and are welcomed in a community most will do well as they are a particularly resilient and resourceful group of children. Therefore, these children need their immigration claims to be rapidly settled, they need secure housing and supportive schools and communities. If they are suffering from a physical or mental illness then this needs to be treated appropriately. They need a support network that is consistent in order for them to build a trusting relationship with their carers.

* Names changed for protection reasons

Bibbi Abruzzini
Bibbi Abruzzini is a foreign correspondent for the BALTIC REVIEW and international news agencies in South Asia. She is Italian, grew up in Brussels and has reported from several countries, including Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Colombia, Croatia, France, India, Italy, Lebanon, Nepal, Tunisia,Turkey and the US – writing largely about social and development issues.