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Asylum Fact 7

Last updated: July 19, 2023

7) Children are Particularly Affected by Trauma

Children can be both primary and secondary torture survivors, the latter term used to describe those whose loved ones have been tortured, causing the secondary survivor to be vicariously affected by the trauma. A refugee client at CVT’s project in Jordan named Jana* was a primary torture survivor. She was only ten when she was abducted and thrown into an underground prison in Syria. After she was released, the family escaped to Jordan, and her mother brought her to CVT for help with her severe symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which included depression and anxiety. Another refugee child was affected as a secondary survivor: Tesfaye was only a boy when he escaped his home in Eritrea and went to the refugee camps in Ethiopia. There, he saw video footage of his brother’s murder by ISIS. He went to CVT Ethiopia where he found help with his nightmares, isolation, and aggressive behavior.

Because of the nature of torture, oftentimes children who accompany their parents who are fleeing persecution experience symptoms of trauma as secondary survivors themselves: Mohammad Abu Yaman, physiotherapist at CVT Jordan, leads specialized group sessions with children and their parents in Amman. He finds that children have both the physical and psychological symptoms of trauma that he sees with adults, as well as “symptoms that are unique to children and require a special approach—symptoms such as nightmares, social withdrawal, development regression, and increased attachment to parents.”

Detention has particularly harmful effects on children, which are compounded when a child is separated from his or her parents. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has written about the effects of detention on children, including problems with adjustment, developmental delays, PTSD, and more, stating that “expert consensus has concluded that even brief detention can cause psychological trauma and induce long-term mental health risks for children.” Despite the known harms of detention on children, the Trump administration worked to roll back protections for children established through the Flores Settlement Agreement, signed in 1979 by the U.S. government.

Under the Remain in Mexico policy, children had to wait with their parents for their court date in dangerous Mexican border cities in crowded shelters, where they were exposed to sexual assault and other types of violence. Every time adults have to go to immigration court, they must go through the “hielera” – notorious Customs and Border Protection (CBP) detention facilities (see Fact 4 for more details) – and are required to bring their children with them. During an assessment CVT conducted at the border, one partner mentioned that children are often terrified beforehand when they know they will have to go through CBP detention.

When it comes to family separation at the border (there are several types of family separation in the immigration context, to learn more see Fact 4) – a practice that the Trump administration embraced – 20,000 medical and mental health professionals have explained that separating a child from parents can have extreme consequences causing an effect known as adverse childhood experience (ACE). ACEs can lead to multiple forms of impairment and increased risk of serious mental health conditions including PTSD.

*Names and some details have been changed for security and confidentiality.