A Child’s Brain in Crisis

In the wake of the Syrian refugee crisis, millions of civilians have been forced to flee their homes and live in chaos. The United Nations Refugee Agency estimates that more than 4 million people have fled to neighboring countries, half are children, and approximately 7.6 million people are internally displaced. The journey to reach a safe destination is both dangerous and deadly. Refugees have been traveling by any means possible including routes by boat through the Mediterranean Sea and even an Arctic route through Russia. According to the International Organization for Migration, more than 430,000 migrants and asylum seekers have crossed the Mediterranean Sea to Europe so far in 2015; 2,748 of those individuals have died or are missing en route (Refugee Boat Sinking, 2015). Countless refugees are experiencing painful journeys to find a safe home. Many refugees are killed in the process of finding safety while others become victims of human drug trafficking, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, survivor’s guilt, and death among other circumstances.

According to the United Nations, more than half of all Syrian refugees are under the age of 18. Those individuals have been not been able to attend school for months. When human beings are exposed to an extended amount of conflict, their brain development may be altered, especially children. A refugee may look fine physically, but may be permanently damaged emotionally. The young minds of children are most affected by crisis situations. The development of a refugee child may become delayed along with their behavior, emotional attachments, and social skills due to severe and chronic stress. “Toxic Stress” occurs when the stress response system is activated over a prolonged period of time. Without the presence of protection and caring relationships, the stress levels of a refugee can become so strong as to elevate levels of the cortisol stress hormones in the brain. The brain’s hippocampus is impacted in this situation and leads to children having difficulties with short-term memory, long-term memory, and controlling emotions. Many of the Syrian children who are living in refugee camps often face boredom, social exclusion, and lack of play. The combination of these living circumstance, “toxic stress,” and lack of adequate social stimulation can also influence neurological shifts in the developing brain (Syria’s Children, 2015). Synaptic pruning occurs between early childhood and the onset of puberty. In the case of the Syrian refugee crisis, where more than half of the refugees are under the age of 18, one can only imagine the life-long effects of a humanitarian crisis. The under-stimulation of children affected by this conflict can lead to critical struggles in their cognitive, physical, and psychosocial development. These struggles can lead to behavioral disorders, anxiety, depression, and significant learning difficulties (Syria’s Children, 2015).

Discussing the statistics and future behavioral issues of child refugees can only make a small impact in our daily life. However, understanding how our minds work when watching others suffer is an important piece to becoming the solution. As stated by Dr. Darren Schreiber, senior lecturer of politics at the University of Exeter, humans have two different sets of tools for moral evaluations: is someone one of “us” or one of “them”? When we calculate the losses in our minds, we distance ourselves from the emotional connection and categorize those losses as “them” in our moral evaluation. However, Dr. Schreiber describes using the “us” part of our moral evaluation as encountering people in context, just how we do in our daily lives. When we feel a connection with a refugee child who is suffering in context we tend to categorize him as one of “us” (Dr. Schreiber, 2015).
The typical circumstances for child refugees affect their cognitive and neural development. These children face a life of behavioral issues, significant learning difficulties, and poor memory. In light of the refugee crisis, it is important to keep in mind a child’s natural development when discussing the world issue of immigration.