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The impact of flight experiences on the psychological wellbeing of unaccompanied refugee minors

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - CHILDMOVE (The impact of flight experiences on the psychological wellbeing of unaccompanied refugee minors)

Reporting period: 2020-02-01 to 2021-07-31

Increasingly since 2015, media confront us with horrible images of refugee children drowning in the Mediterranean, surviving in appalling conditions in camps or walking across Europe. Importantly, little scientific work explored the impact these flight experiences have on refugee children’s emotional wellbeing. On their way to safer living environments, minors often endure life-threatening experiences, suffer harsh living circumstances in transit camps and refugee centres, are confronted by racism, and are subject to the violence of smugglers and border police. Yet, no systematic research exists to fully capture the experiences of Unaccompanied Refugee Minors (URMs) during their flights. We lack insight into the impact these experiences produce on children’s psychological wellbeing, in relation to past experiences in the homeland and living conditions in the country of arrival.

Based on innovative methodological approaches this project addresses these gaps through a longitudinal follow-up study of a large group of unaccompanied refugees moving across different countries and international borders. Accordingly, we document the psychological impact that flight experiences have on URMs, and analyse how care and reception structures can contribute in reducing this mental health impact.

As such, the project introduces a whole new area of research and novel methodological approaches to the field of migration studies, and it contributes innovating also other fields such as trauma studies – e.g. through the focus on cumulative trauma and the attention for particular stressors (e.g. racism, detention). It also significantly improves clinical, educational and social work interventions for victims of multiple traumatic experiences. Due to the focus on reception and care structures, the findings will be of great importance also for policy makers and practitioners, and they will advance knowledge in non-forced migration-related contexts – e.g. detainees.

The following research questions guide the study:

• What experiences do unaccompanied refugee minors have while fleeing from their home country to the country of settlement?

• What is the impact of these experiences on URMs’ psychological wellbeing, with particular attention to racism and detention/reception conditions?

• Can we differentiate the psychological impact of flight experiences from the impact of past traumatic stressors (home country) and current daily stressors (host country)? What is a possible theoretical alternative?

• Which types of care and support systems for URMs in both transit and settlement countries have a beneficial impact on their psychological wellbeing?
The first 56 months of the project focused on the data collection, with several publications already out or in preparation. The following actions were implemented:

. Completion of WP 1: submission of ethic deliverables.

. Study 1: An in-depth, mixed-methods study in each study country (months 1-24). Data collection (months 9-18) began after a preparation phase (months 1 – 8). The analysis of data (months 18-24) concentrated on surveys, interviews and observations.

. Study 2: A longitudinal, cross-country follow-up study of URMs (Months 1-48). Data collection: follow-up of minors after 6-12 months and after 12-24 months

. Study 3: Integration and theoretical advancement (Months 25-60). All the data gathered up until month 23 about the settings in which the young people were staying were brought together. The article ‘The development of an analytical framework to compare reception structures for unaccompanied refugee minors in Europe’ (European Journal of Social Work) constitutes the first academic item discussing these findings. The article ‘Continuity and Social Support: A Longitudinal Study of Unaccompanied Refugee Minors’ Care Networks’ (Journal of Immigration & Refugee Studies) also discusses these data.

. Meeting advisory board/stakeholders: Local Advisory Board in Greece (month 6) and Belgium (month 14), Advisory board of international experts (month 14 and 36), Meeting with independent ethical advisor (month 14), Stakeholder’s meeting in Greece (month 25) and in Italy – in Palermo and Torino (month 29).

. Academic output: Presentations of preliminary research results at a number of conferences, preparation of about 6 articles and 4 book chapters.
The overall objective of this study is to increase knowledge on the impact of experiences occurring during the flight on URMs’ psychological wellbeing, in relation to the impact of past traumatic experiences in the home country and the daily material and social stressors in the host country. The project will lead to important breakthroughs and advances in five areas:

1. It challenges the distinction between ‘past traumatic events’ and ‘daily stressors’ by pointing at the ‘cumulative’ impact of URM’s difficult migratory experiences. It also innovates the field of trauma studies by focusing on the interrelationship between ‘trauma’ and ‘daily stressors’ within prolonged traumatic experiences. It contributes to other non-forced migration-related fields – e.g. (criminal) detention.

2. It increases knowledge on the risk factors associated with the longitudinal evolutions of URMs’ psychological health, with specific attention to the impact of racism and detention. We have submitted a book chapter (accepted with revisions) on the mental health impact of detention in Greece and a second article (also accepted with revisions) on the impact of detention in Libya. We submitted also other articles on this theme.

3. It adds innovative data collection strategies within migration studies: namely, the longitudinal, cross-country follow-up of young people through in-depth interviews, self-report questionnaires, participant observations and contacts through social media. 12 book chapters and articles have been submitted (two of which are already published) to analyse these rich data. We also have a large collection of photographs of the ‘graffiti’ that refugees made in different in/formal facilities - see the book chapter ‘Graffiti as an innovative research tool in refugee studies’. We also developed unique insights into the ethical challenges of studying URMs 'on the move', and related to specific researchers' profiles.

4.It assesses the typologies of care and support models beneficial for URMs’ psychological wellbeing, thus enabling governments to create/adapt services by considering URMs’ emotional wellbeing, and impacting clinical, social work and educational interventions – see the article ‘The development of an analytical framework to compare reception structures for unaccompanied refugee minors in Europe’ for an analytical framework to compare reception structures and those characteristics which are beneficial for URMs’ psychological wellbeing. Large attention will be devoted to the dissemination of these findings, including a strong set of recommendations towards policy makers and practitioners. Through a number of meetings with EU policymakers and other specialists, we have already set our dissemination strategy to engage with European and national stakeholders during the closing months of the project.
overview collection study 1