The unseen challenges of refugee youth in the face of COVID-19

The lockdown period in the UK has variably affected different groups in the country. One group consistently overlooked has been refugees and refugee children, in particular. Official figures state that there are 126,720 refugees in the UK, of which 10,295 are children. Prior to the pandemic, refugee children were already in an unfavourable position in society that affected their access to education, with many schools unwilling to allow their enrolment over fears that they would have an adverse impact on schools’ academic performance and their positions in league tables.

Since school closures began on 19 March 2020, students across the UK have struggled to cope, reporting a variety of detrimental impacts on their mental health including feelings of anxiety and frustration with distance learning. Alongside these consequences, refugee children have faced a plethora of barriers to the learning process through online education that affect both the quality of their education and their mental health, and have resulted in feelings of social isolation. 

The majority of the UK’s refugee students lack access to the appropriate technology required for online education, such as laptops and adequate broadband connectivity. In the few contexts where they do have access, or such amenities have been provided to them, significant struggles remain in terms of navigating online teaching platforms. This issue is especially pronounced for younger students who do not have adequate support from their families or guardians or where their guardians are in the process of learning English. Whilst learning in a second language had already proven to be a struggle for refugee students, learning remotely via online platforms has exacerbated this issue.

Moreover, children’s mental health has been severely affected by the closure of schools. Many refugee children in particular, suffering from conditions related to past trauma, experience symptoms including headaches, nightmares, and trouble managing behaviour in ordinary circumstances. The impacts of school closures have exacerbated such conditions by worsening feelings of uncertainty, fear and re-traumatisation. As school closures, lockdown, and enforced distancing are the typical immediate features of conflict-affected areas, the events of the past year in lockdown are undeniably triggering for refugee youth. The consequences of this are particularly devastating on the refugee youth as the systems which underlie their holistic development are particularly vulnerable to influence during childhood

Relationship development is particularly important for refugee children who have likely recently experienced a loss within their social network. Schools provide the opportunity for refugee children to interact with their peers and develop relations vital to their wellbeing. The closure of schools, and subsequent lockdown, prevents the refugee youth from doing so. The impacts of this are particularly concerning for those living by themselves and lacking familial support networks.

Policy recommendations 

Online learning 

In order to mitigate the impacts of online learning on refugees, the UK government should ensure that refugees are eligible to receive the required devices & connectivity packages for remote education. In particular, local authorities should ensure that refugee youth waiting to be allocated a place in school have access to online learning materials and the relevant devices required for their learning development.

Financial aid

The government should provide financial support to young refugees who are not able to obtain employment during the pandemic, to prevent their withdrawal from education. Further, existing financial support schemes should increase their funding to bring the most vulnerable refugee groups above the poverty line. 

Mental well-being

Finally, the government should support the voluntary sector in their endeavour to provide critical psychosocial support activities for at-risk children, especially refugee youth. Furthermore, the government should ensure that online learning programmes include social & emotional learning activities to support all youth, including refugees, during times of heightened isolation. Jointly, these measures will alleviate the impact of the pandemic on the mental well-being of refugee youth.

By Lameez Siddiqui

Lameez is a final year International Development student. She is looking forward to exploring the ways in which education can reinforce social issues, and what can be done to change this, given the relevance of this topic due to the recent Black Lives Matter movement. She is also interested in the role education plays among migrant and refugee populations.

Image by Mortaza Shahed, 2020,


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