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Source: Unicef UK

6 challenges and how we can help

In an article originally published in the International Journal of Birth and Parent Education, Alison Prowle and Janet Harvell from the Centre for Early Childhood, University of Worcester, draw on their own experience of working at the Dunkirk refugee camp to describe the challenges parents face.


The last 18 months have seen the largest number, in living memory, of people forcibly displaced from their homes and/or countries. The scale of the crisis is unprecedented, with the United Nations High Commission for refugees (UNHCR, 2016) estimating that 65.3 million people around the world have been forced to leave their homes.   On a global scale, this now means that 1 in every 122 people is either a refugee, internally displaced or seeking asylum; almost half of these are children, and the crisis shows no sign of abating.

At some point in their journey, the majority of refugees will spend time in a refugee camp. Indeed, the UNHCR (2006) suggests that the average time spent in a refugee camp is 17 years. This means that babies born in camps are spending most of their childhoods in basic, and often hostile, environments. While life in a refugee camp may be infinitely better than conditions in the countries from which families have fled, the long-term impact on children’s wellbeing is cause for concern. Moreover, being a parent in such adverse conditions is extremely challenging and fraught with daily difficulties (Ghate & Hazel, 2002).

Mental health issues

Many parents are themselves suffering from bereavement, loss and trauma.  Médecins Sans Frontières has identified high levels of depression, anxiety and emotional trauma experienced by adults and children within the camps. This, together with uncertainty about the future, and a lack of autonomy, results in feelings of hopelessness and despair. Living in the cramped and basic conditions associated with the camps adds to the families’ stress.


With limited support for breastfeeding (UNHCRC, 2016), coupled with difficulties in finding private and comfortable places to feed, organisations working on the ground have suggested that in some camps, up to half of all babies are formula-fed.  In addition to missing vital opportunities for bonding, the supply of formula can be unstable. This means that when supplies are scarce, mothers are diluting the formula, with a resultant loss of nutrients. Sterilising feeding equipment is also problematic; only basic heating is available, while water has to be transported from communal areas.


Changing nappies and washing clothes are difficult.  Even in the best-equipped camps, overcrowding creates a breeding ground for respiratory infections, and scabies proliferate. Taking care of a sick child in a refugee camp (or indeed being sick yourself) is exceptionally hard.

Brain and physical development

Opportunities for children’s early explorations, such as crawling and toddling, are greatly curtailed with accompanying impacts on development. Medical professionals share stories of 18-month-old children who have no experience of crawling, resulting in being unable to sit unaided. For many parents, their aspirations for providing their infants with positive experiences for play, discovery and learning, are unattainable.


There are many hazards within refugee camps, from unsafe structures to child trafficking. The need to keep their children safe means that many parents accompany their children, including teenagers, at all times. Consequently, opportunities for developing independence and autonomy are restricted. Conversely, some very young children are allowed unlimited freedom, resulting in challenging behaviour, as well as exposure to serious risks. The implications for children’s development resulting from each of these forced parenting styles are profound.


Many refugee parents state that a key reason for embarking on the hazardous journey from their own country to a perceived place of safety was to give their children the chance of a better future.  However, the UNHCR (2016) estimates that only half of all refugee children of school age are in any form of education provision. Many have been out of education for months or years, while those able to attend school in the camps can only do so on a part-time basis, and such provision as there is is both under-resourced and narrow in terms of curriculum. The consequences for children’s longer term outcomes are therefore extremely concerning.

What can we do about it?

In light of global issues which affect so many children, it is easy to feel helpless. But if you want to help or get involved by volunteering or donating money, a number of parent-support organisations have already taken up these challenges, providing timely interventions to support refugee parents both within the UK and in camps abroad.

La Leche GB have developed projects to promote breastfeeding in camps in Greece.

Nurture Project International is providing reproductive healthcare solutions, and nutrition and infant feeding support to parents and children affected by the global refugee crisis.

The NCT has developed bespoke resources to support parent educators working with refugee parents. 

You can also donate to Medicin Sans Frontiers, the Red Cross, and Unicef.

:: The International Journal of Birth and Parent Education offers academic studies on the topics of birth, babies and children. You can subscribe online for £20 a year.