Refugees are presenting a humanitarian crisis across the world. Armed and violent conflicts occurring today are generating refugees at unprecedented proportions. Countries like Canada are popular destinations for refugees because of their refugee-friendly policies and welcoming society. Gurski (2019) reported in his article published online in the New Canada Media that although Canada welcomed refugees, some concerns about the threat to public safety and national security have emerged recently. These concerns were fuelled by the suspicion that terrorist groups could use immigration and refugee status to infiltrate western societies, such as Canada. However, despite these concerns, Canada remains one of the most preferred refugee destinations globally, having resettled the most refugees in 2018 than any other country, according to reports by the United Nations (The Canadian Press, 2019). Most of these refugees originate from diverse cultures, many of which are characteristically different from the Canadian culture. This presents a social problem associated with integration, feelings of displacement and loneliness, and other mental health challenges.
Refugees present a serious social problem because they elicit resistance from destination country citizens that are not so welcoming. According to the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees, through the 1967 Protocol, a refugee is:
“someone, owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it” (McBrien, 2017, p. 4).
Refugees have been accused of consuming and enjoying hard-earned national wealth by the citizens of the destination countries (McBrien, 2017). Consequently, refugees are susceptible to discrimination, marginalization, stigmatization, and oppression, challenging their integration in the new countries (Juang et al., 2018). Specifically, they suffer from mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder, which overburden the healthcare systems of their destination countries (Eruyar, Maltby & Vostanis, 2018). The mental health challenges emerge from living in culturally-different societies, thus experiencing loneliness. Besides, most refugees today originate from war-torn countries like Syria, where they have experienced untold trauma from the loss of family members, forceful displacement, economic disempowerment, physical injuries, and psychological torture. In addition, the refugees comprise significantly of children, adolescents, and young adults who are susceptible to mental health disorders because of their inability to cope with their debilitating circumstances. This may lead to an upsurge in antisocial behaviours such as alcoholism, substance abuse, crime, and prostitution, aggravating the social challenges in the host countries (Im & George, 2021). Unfortunately, the global refugee crisis is escalating with the latest invasion of Ukraine by the Russian Federation, presenting the worst humanitarian crisis since the Second World War. Consequently, refugees will continue presenting social challenges to the host countries where they live.
The two social psychology theories explaining the social problem presented by refugees are the attachment theory and the social identity theory. The attachment theory can explain how refugees deal with their status in the host countries and the psychological challenges they experience, which can cause social problems. The attachment theory, developed by John Bowlby, posits that separation anxiety and distress in children occurs when the long-lasting psychological connectedness between and their primary caregivers is disrupted (Cherry, 2019). Attachment is an emotional bond that a person forms, which can last a lifetime. Young refugees experience separation anxiety and distress when they become separated from their primary caregivers, such as their parents and families. Children and adolescents are most vulnerable to separation anxiety and stress because they are still in the developmental stage of developing skills to cope with the traumatic experiences presented by such separation (Juang, et al., 2018). According to the theory, infants and children establish attachment systems and internal working models for regulating their emotions and coping with stressful situations. These attachment systems and internal working models can be internal resources or sources of vulnerability. In turn, children and adolescents react differently to different stress-inducing situations based on their attachment systems and internal working models, influencing their psychological health and wellbeing. Migration and the refugee status activate these resources, and the stressors, forceful separation, and traumatic loss, presented by their refugee situation induce psychological problems (Juang, et al., 2018). For children and adolescents with poor coping skills, the inability to cope with their refugee experiences can lead to mental and behavioural challenges.
Similarly, the social identity theory is another social psychology theory, which can explain the psychological challenges experienced by refugees due to the perceptions of their contemporaries in the host country. Refugee children often become absorbed in the school systems and communities of the host nation. Unfortunately, they often experience discrimination, prejudices, and hostilities from the members of society in the host countries. This ostracization can lead to psychological challenges among refugee children and challenges, thus presenting a social problem in the host country. The social identity theory was advanced in the 1960s by Henri Tajfel and posits that people want to change their social behaviour when they are in a group, which may be different from their individual behaviour. This theory can be used to explain and predict the situations where people perceive themselves as individuals or as group members. In this regard, the theory can explain why refugees are perceived positively and negatively by the individuals and communities in the host countries. More importantly, it can be used to explain why refugees are marginalised, discriminated against, oppressed, vilified, stereotyped negatively, and viewed suspiciously by some citizens in the host nations. While these negative perceptions do not manifest themselves openly among adults, they can be pronounced amongst children and adolescents. Gönültaş and Mulvey (2019) argued that the social integration challenges experienced by refugees were raising social concerns considering the migration rates were rising exponentially, increasing the risk of marginalisation, discrimination, prejudice and hostilities from the host communities. They revealed that prejudice against peaked in early childhood, although it reduced slightly between late childhood and early adolescence. Consequently, they explained that the beliefs, attitudes, and behaviours of children were influenced significantly by their social identity. In turn, social class, nationality, ethnicity, and gender, motivated children to pursue social contacts with members within groups shunning those in out-groups (Gönültaş & Mulvey, 2019). The complex social reasoning displayed by children and adolescents towards refugees, who are considered out-group members, is influenced by the moral, socio-conventional and personal domains, which conflate to make children act differently towards refugees in groups compared to as individuals (Gönültaş & Mulvey, 2019). In the end, some of the immigrant children are unable to integrate into the school and neighbourhood communities because they are viewed negatively by the children from the host communities who have a negative attitude towards their refugee status.
One solution to the refugee crisis presented by the displaced children and adolescents is to deploy an educational approach. Multicultural awareness programs in elementary and high schools in Canada would promote the integration of refugee children and adolescents into the Canadian society and reduce their stereotyping, marginalisation, discrimination, and prejudice (Koehler & Schneider, 2019). This intervention would be two-pronged because it would target the refugee and Canadian students. Refugee children and adolescents would be taught English and the Canadian culture. Similarly, the Canadian students would be taught cultural tolerance to change their attitudes towards the refugees. Altogether, the refugee children would become better integrated into society in adulthood, while the Canadian students would become more tolerant to refugees from diverse cultural backgrounds (Koehler & Schneider, 2019). However, this intervention would be challenged by the unwillingness of school administrations to implement special classes for refugee students or augment the curriculum to include cultural awareness. The perceptions and attitudes of the refugee and Canadian students may be deeply-ingrained, making it difficult to change without expending excessive resources or taking much time.
In conclusion, although the refugee crisis may be a persistent and increasing social challenge, it can be resolved by employing an educational intervention. Culturally-sensitive education would change the attitudes of the students in the host country and build the resilience of refugee students to cope with their trauma from forced displacement, detachment from their caregivers, and emersion into an unfamiliar culture.
Cherry, K. (2019). What is attachment theory: The importance of early emotional bonds. Retrieved from https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-attachment-theory-2795337.
Eruyar, S., Maltby, J., & Vostanis, P. (2018). Mental health problems of Syrian refugee children: The role of parental factors. European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 27(4), 401-409. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00787-017-1101-0
Gönültaş, S., & Mulvey, K. L. (2019). Social-developmental perspective on intergroup attitudes towards immigrants and refugees in childhood and adolescence: A roadmap from theory to practice for an inclusive society. Human Development, 63(2), 90-111. https://doi.org/10.1159/000503173
Gurki, P. (2019). Canada must keep its doors open to refugees. New Canada Media. Retrieved from https://newcanadianmedia.ca/canada-must-keep-doors-open-to-refugees/
Im, H., & George, N. (2021). “It hurts so much to live for nothing”: Lived experiences of substance use among refugee youth in displacement. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 1-16. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11469-020-00472-0
Juang, L. P., Simpson, J. A., Lee, R. M., Rothman, A. J., Titzmann, P. F., Schachner, M. K., … & Betsch, C. (2018). Using attachment and relational perspectives to understand adaptation and resilience among immigrant and refugee youth. American Psychologist, 73(6), 797-811. https://doi.org/10.1037/amp0000286
Koehler, C., & Schneider, J. (2019). Young refugees in education: The particular challenges of school systems in Europe. Comparative Migration Studies, 7(1), 1-20. https://doi.org/10.1186/s40878-019-0129-3
McBrien, J. L. (2017). Refugees, asylum seekers, and other immigrants: Help for teachers with problematic definitions. Social Studies Research and Practice, 12(2), 1-14. https://doi.org/10.1108/ssrp-03-2017-0001