Academic journal article Social Work

A Risk and Resilience Perspective on Unaccompanied Refugee Minors

Academic journal article Social Work

A Risk and Resilience Perspective on Unaccompanied Refugee Minors

Article excerpt

Unaccompanied child migration has become an increasingly serious global problem as a result of war, political strife and instability, natural disasters, mass population displacement, and extreme poverty. Two major subgroups of unaccompanied minors are undocumented children who arrive in the United States illegally and refugee children (who account for about half of all refugees entering the United States) (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 2002). Refugees were defined in 1951 by the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees as individuals outside their country of origin who fear persecution related to race, religion, nationality, social group membership, or political orientation (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 2002) In 2004, approximately 6,200 unaccompanied children were referred to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (Amnesty International, 2003). According to a Vera Institute of Justice report, the Office of Refugee Resettlement estimates that about 7,000 to 9,000 unaccompanied, mostly undocumented children have been referred from the Department of Homeland Security annually since 2005 from 30 different countries, mostly from Central America (Byrne, 2008). The composition of specific waves of refugees who enter the United States each year varies in terms of where they are from and why they are seeking refuge from their home countries. In this article, we describe the circumstances and needs of unaccompanied refugee minors (URMs). Using a risk and resilience framework and an in-depth case example, we analyze URMs' situation in relation to risk factors such as extensive losses and traumatic exposure. In addition, we discuss sources of resilience among URMs that have allowed them to adapt and even thrive in a vastly different cultural environment despite exposure to multiple risks. These sources include positive outlook, use of healthy coping mechanisms and religiosity, and connectedness to prosocial organizations. We conclude with recommendations for social work research to better understand the nature of risk and resilience among refugee minors.

URMs in the United States are a diverse and extremely vulnerable group about whom there is little research. These children enter the United States from Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Middle East, many fleeing the trauma of war and others escaping poverty or oppression in their home countries. They find themselves on U.S. soil without parents or kin. Some are orphaned. Others are separated from their parents temporarily, hoping to precede their parents to a new land. Their circumstances render them alone and vulnerable, often naive about what they will encounter when they arrive.

In the United States, a bewildering array of federal agencies are involved in the apprehension, care, and disposition of unaccompanied children, including the U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Border Patrol, U.S. Department of Justice, U.S. Public Health Service, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the U.S. Department of State, and U.S. Department of Homeland Security--a poorly coordinated system that Amnesty International (2003) described as Kafkaesque. The 2002 Homeland Security Act (P.L. 107-296) created the term "unaccompanied alien children" (UAC) to refer to children under the age of 18 who lack lawful U.S. immigration status and who lack a parent or guardian who can care for them. In 2003, responsibility for UAC was transferred from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (formerly referred to as the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service) to the Division of Administration for Children and Family's Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Although the ORR's Division of Unaccompanied Children provides care for unaccompanied immigrant children, little is known about the circumstances that led to their arrival in the United States or their current biopsychosocial functioning or needs.

Adjusting to home life in a radically different cultural environment is a challenge for URMs. …

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