Nurturing the learning and development of children who are refugees

Full reference
Harris, P. (2019). Nurturing the learning and development of children who are refugees. NZ International Research in Early Childhood Education Journal. Special issue presenting position papers, 22(2), pp. 26 – 34.
Retrieved from

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Page 26

Original Position Paper
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Nurturing the learning and development of children who are refugees

Phillipa Harris


This position paper provides a plea for children who are seeking asylum as refugees to be detained in an environment that supports their health, wellbeing, early education and care. Being detained in a refugee facility can lead children to suffer chronic fear, chaos, unstable access to food and water, and the witnessing of atrocities (Silove, Ventevogel, & Rees, 2017). Children who are refugees usually have suffered traumatic events and are entitled to “recovery and reintegration” in a safe environment that nurtures their health and wellbeing, and where freedom and equality prepare them to prosper as an individual within society. Although Australia is a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, children being detained in Australian refugee camps are vulnerable to depression, and this experience may cause them to adjust in developmentally dangerous ways (Minas, et al., 2013).

Key words: Refugees, asylum seekers, trauma, children’s rights, wellbeing, vulnerable children.


Refugees in Australia

Throughout the world there are people who are forcibly displaced every day owing to war, persecution, conflict and generalised conflict (United Nations High Commission for Refugees [UNHCR], 2017). Many of these are refugees, others are asylum seekers. The Refugee Council of Australia defines a refugee as “people who are forced to leave their homes for many reasons, including conflict and violence. Sometimes ‘refugee’ is used to refer to a person displaced due to a natural disaster environmental change” (2017, para. 2). While asylum seekers are people who have sought protection as a refugee, their claim for refugee status has not yet been assessed (Refugee Council of Australia, 2017). By 2017, 68.5 million people had been forcibly displaced globally, with 16.2 million being displaced in 2017 alone (United Nations High Commission for Refugees [UNHCR], 2019).

More than 67% of the 16.2 million refugees in 2017 came from just five countries: Syrian Arab Republic, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Myanmar, and Somalia, and 52% of the refugee population were children (UNHCR, 2019). Children who are victims of adverse situations are one of the most vulnerable groups both nationally and globally. Furthermore, when children are detained in a refugee facility it may cause them to adjust in ways that are developmentally dangerous (Marans & Adelman, 1997, cited in Garvis & Austin, 2007). Governments have a responsibility to provide holistic intervention strategies that support the welfare of both children and their families whilst remaining in refugee detention. In 2017 Australia took in 15,100 refugees (adults and children) and resettled them (Refugee Council of Australia, 2017).

Australia, in conjunction with other parties, is signatory to both the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol to host asylum seekers and refugees (UNHCR, 1996; 2018). The 1958 Migration Act, which prohibits a person to enter Australia without a valid visa, was introduced to protect Australian borders and ensure effective monitoring of migration (Federal Register of Legislation, 2019). The introduction of mandatory detention in 1992 was implemented as an interim, a ‘temporary’ procedure for immigrants seeking refuge in Australia without a valid visa. The then Minister for Immigration, Gerry Hand stated that “the Government is determined that a clear signal be sent that migration to Australia may not be achieved by simply arriving in this country and expecting to be allowed into the community” (Hand, 1992, p.2372).

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