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(2017-8) Anthropological perspectives on refugee children

When considering the circumstances people face as a result of displacement, it often seems the case that adults and children are grouped homogeneously together into a single category of suffering, with little attention paid to how their experiences may differ. However, according to the Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit (GMIAU), children’s cases are generally of greater complexity due to their vulnerability and dependence on others for security. When compared with adult cases of immigration, it becomes clear that during the relocation process, children’s agency is severely limited, with their individual cultural backgrounds being overlooked. When consulting the GMIAU 2017 Report, we were struck by how young some of the children in need of legal immigration advice are, the youngest being six years old. This strongly highlights the need for a ‘sensitive and experienced’ (GMIAU Report 2017:4) approach to child immigration, with a focus on the cultural needs and experiences of individuals to ensure that they face as little disruption as possible.

An anthropological analysis of childhood needs to understand children as autonomous, opinionated beings, whose thought processes are key to understanding human development. Drawing on Van Gennep’s (2011) concept of rites of passage, in which frameworks for understanding human movement through certain life stages are identified, Victor Turner (1969) furthered the concept of a liminal/transitional phase in life. We can understand refugee children’s experience through the notion of liminality. This period in one’s life is marked by an overarching sense of instability, a state of being which is ‘neither here nor there; they are betwixt and between the positions assigned and arranged by law, custom [and] convention’ (Turner 1969: 94). Despite the damaging effects of living in a perpetual state of liminality on refugee children, there is only limited literature on the subject. Moreover, much of the studies that exist tend to be overly psychological/psychiatric in nature and disempower and stigmatise those caught in the uncertainty of life as a refugee (Chatty & Crivello & Lewando-Hundt, 2005: 396). Perspectives of this kind pay little attention to the intricacies of the wider refugee community. Take for example Gillian Mann’s work in Tanzania, which highlights the techniques used by Congolese child refugees to battle the daily social exclusion, discrimination and harassment that their statelessness brings (Mann, 2010: 262). This involved creating a ‘projet’, a map of their aspirations and potential future successes (Mann, 2010: 265) which enabled them to feel human and avoid ‘feelings of hopelessness and despondency’ (Mann, 2010: 265) and ultimately overcome the overwhelming uncertainty of the present. For many of the children ‘it was the very idea of a future… that motivated them to make it through the day ahead’ (Mann, 2010: 266). Anthropological insight of this sort exhibits the neglected contributions made by children to the cultural worlds around them.

Before analysing the lived experience of child refugees, we believe it is important to outline cultural variations of childhood. Anthropologists have understood that there are cultural variations of what constitutes childhood. In the British context, people under the age of eighteen are regarded as children and therefore given a high level of support and a lower degree of agency. Afghani refugee children, contrastingly, may be used to having high levels of responsibility placed on them, especially adolescent males with deceased fathers as they may be expected to succeed their fathers as head of the family (UNHCR, 2010, p.15). As part of a study by The National Children’s Bureau in 2007, interviews with refugee children settled in Wales aged 14-18 were conducted to explore their experiences of life in the UK, and the coping mechanisms they utilised to adapt to their new cultural environment.

“I take 50 per cent of my country…50 per cent of British culture and I’ve mixed it and I’m in the middle… If I take 20 per cent more… I will be having difficulty to stay here, to live a good life.”  (Maegusuku-Hewett, 2007, pp. 318)

This quote highlights how children overcome their sense of liminality by strategically assimilating themselves into parts of British culture whilst maintaining aspects of their own culture. Strategic assimilation is just one of many coping mechanisms that the study found children used to deal with feelings of liminality. The diverse range of experiences exemplified by this study demonstrates the importance of looking at the individual circumstances, experiences and issues directly affecting refugee children in the UK today.

Based on this analysis, we suggest that Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit’s work can benefit from being informed by anthropological perspectives of child refugees and lead them to deliver the most efficient and appropriate help to these individuals. In light of the ethnographic research we have read, it is clear refugee children must be consulted more in administrative processes to be able to shape their own future, gain back a level of control in their lives and overcome the uncertainty of liminal existences. We would like to ask the charity how their experiences with young people align with or contradict the ideas we have presented. How does GMIAU consider the agency of child refugees and asylum seekers? Is their work informed by the children’s own testimonies of what aid they require? With the vast number of children that need support, is it even possible to assess the needs of young people on an individual basis?


UNHCR. 2010. UN Report on unaccompanied Afghan children.

Chatty, D., Crivello, G. and Hundt, G.L., 2005. Theoretical and methodological challenges of studying refugee children in the Middle East and North Africa: Young Palestinian, Afghan and Sahrawi refugees. Journal of Refugee Studies, 18(4), pp.387-409.

Maegusuku‐Hewett, T., Dunkerley, D., Scourfield, J. and Smalley, N., 2007. Refugee children in Wales: coping and adaptation in the face of adversity. Children & Society, 21(4), pp.309-321

Mann, G., 2010. ‘Finding a Life’Among Undocumented Congolese Refugee Children in Tanzania. Children & society, 24(4), pp.261-270.

Turner, V., 1969. Liminality and communitas. The ritual process: Structure and anti-structure, 94, p.130.

Van Gennep, A., 2011. The rites of passage. University of Chicago Press.