Start the conversation: What is a Refugee?

How to talk to your kids about refugees

By Melanie Gasmen-Fleck

Photo by Siddhant Soni on Unsplash

In issue 11, we talk about Olympian Yusra Mardini’s challenging journey as a refugee. She fled her home in war-torn Syria to seek asylum in Germany. To help prep you for an open and more in-depth dialogue with your child about refugees, we’ve consulted humanitarian professional Devon Cone. Devon is a senior advocate at Refugees International. Read her pointers on how to appropriately explain this difficult topic to kids.

Refugees and the principle of protecting people who seek safety, has become a common topic of conversation and political flash point over the last several years, especially in the United States. It is therefore important to talk to your kids about refugees so they can better understand how to process so many viewpoints and why our role in welcoming refugees is so essential to their survival and wellbeing. Some important questions to raise when you discuss these issues with your children include: who are refugees, where do they come from, why do they flee, what challenges do they face, how do communities treat them, and what we can do to improve their lives and increase their opportunities?      

I have spent my entire career working with refugees and other forcibly displaced people, so I think about these issues every day. But for a busy parent, it might be a little overwhelming to talk to your kids about such a broad and intense topic. Discussing the situation of refugees brings up conflict, war, violence, and persecution, all topics that can be scary for children. Therefore, the first step as a parent is to learn for a little more about these issues yourselves. This will lead to greater confidence in answering questions from your children about refugees. It will also help you engage in discussions that are meaningful and thought provoking.  

Who is a refugee?

A refugee is someone who is forced to flee his or her country because he or she fears being persecuted for at least one of five reasons: race, religion, nationality, political opinion and/or membership of a particular social group. This definition comes from the 1951 United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees. As the date suggests, this is a UN Convention written and adopted following World War II. During the war, an enormous number of people desperately seeking safety were denied entry into other countries, leading to their eventual deaths. This prompted countries of the world to come together and agree, that when people are not safe in their own countries because of who they are, other countries have a responsibility to welcome them and provide them with refuge. Hence the origin of the legal term, “refugee.”

Today there are more than 71 million forcibly displaced people in the world. 26 million of them are refugees because they have left their own countries for one of the five recognized reasons. These are the highest numbers that have ever been recorded in human history; even higher than the number of refugees during WWII. Over half of the world’s refugees are children, most who have been separated from family members and many who have witnessed extreme acts of violence.

There are a few more key definitions important to understand when talking about refugees.

Asylum seeker: A person who has fled his or her country and has applied to be recognized as a legal refugee. Seeking asylum is the process by which someone who applies to become a refugee and is waiting on his or her case to be decided.

Resettlement: The process by which countries such as the US, Canada, Australia, and some other European and Latin American countries select a very small number of refugees who are still particularly unsafe and relocate them to their own countries. For the US resettlement program---which has existed since 1980---government staff interview, screen, vet and these refugees while they are still overseas and before they can travel. Once they are approved, government agencies assign these refugees cities where they resettle and start new lives. When people speak about refugees living in the US, they are usually referring to resettled refugees. After five years most of these refugees receive US citizenship, therefore resettled refugees are not counted as part of the 26 million refugees in the world today.  

Where do refugees come from?

The highest number of refugees are from Syria and the second country that produces the most refugees is Afghanistan. There are currently more than 6 million Syrian refugees and close to 3 million Afghan refugees. Huge numbers of people from South Sudan, Myanmar, and Somalia have also been forced to flee and are refugees, most in neighboring countries. Indeed, one of the biggest misconceptions is that most refugees are trying to get to Europe or the US and that we host large numbers of refugees. In fact, the largest numbers of refugees live in Turkey, Pakistan, Uganda, and Sudan in that order. Almost 70% of refugees live in low or middle- income countries. There are actually very few refugees in the US and new policies continue to make it more and more difficult for people fleeing violence to find safety here.   

Why do refugees flee?

Refugees flee their countries for a variety of reasons, but the bottom line is that they leave when it is so unsafe that they absolutely cannot remain at home. Either they will be arbitrarily arrested, or they are in a war zone and the conflict is escalating, or they have witnessed friends and family members killed. Many refugees have already moved from place to place within their own countries before they finally take the difficult decision to leave their country altogether and cross a border.  

What challenges do refugees face?

Refugees face so many challenges that it would be impossible to spell them all out. From undertaking harrowing journeys, to losing family members, to living in appalling conditions, to being mistreated by law enforcement, to being physically and sexually abused, to being legally barred from working, refugees face challenges that continue and in fact sometimes get worse once they leave their own countries. 

For many refugees, one of the greatest challenges is the extreme uncertainty that is an ever-present factor of daily life. Not knowing how they will buy food when they are not allowed to work, not knowing how the governments in the countries where they live might change refugee-related policies, not knowing if they will be forced back to their own countries where they are unsafe. All of this uncertainty means that many refugees feel like their lives are in limbo and they cannot move forward. Many refugees also feel like they have little control over their own lives, but rather live at the mercy of others.  

How do communities treat refugees?

Some communities where refugees live treat them with respect and try to include them in the community writ large. There are examples all around the world of refugees and host country citizens engaging in business together and working together to create better neighborhoods and cities. But far too often, people fear refugees and scapegoat them for the problems in the community or the country. Most refugees either live in poor urban areas or in refugee settlements and camps. These different environments pose distinct challenges for refugees, but one thing they both have in common is that refugees are usually always considered as outsiders.  

What we can do to improve their lives and increase their opportunities?

Whether it be resettled refugees in our own communities or refugees we read about living in countries far away, the best thing we can do is educate ourselves and our children about injustices globally that result in people becoming refugees in the first place. Understanding the conflicts and persecution taking place in the world is crucial to understanding why refugees seek safety elsewhere. It also helps us recognize that refugees are incredibly resilient and have remarkable capabilities, all they need is opportunity. Encouraging political leaders around the world to respect the rights of refugees and to allow refugees safe entry into our communities is the most influential action that we can take to improve the situation that seems so overwhelming. 

Devon Cone is the Senior Advocate for Women and Girls at the advocacy and human rights organization, Refugees International based in Washington, DC. She has significant expertise in refugee issues, having worked to promote the rights and safety of refugees for over 15 years. Devon worked for eight years with the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, in Kenya, Egypt, Uganda, and Lebanon conducting resettlement interviews and focusing on child protection. Subsequently, she advised the US State Department on its refugee programs and led refugee assistance programs worldwide for various non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Devon has spoken around the world at human rights conferences on the challenges that refugees face and she has written articles for a dozen publications. Devon has degrees and certificates from Tufts, Harvard, and Oxford all focused on human rights and forced migration.

Interested in more articles about how to talk to your kids about difficult subjects. Check out our "Start the Conversation" series.