CAMDEN — Over the last two decades, unprecedented numbers of refugee children have fled their countries, seeking asylum from poverty and conflict. Some find a better life. Others disappear.
A Rutgers–Camden professor has dedicated his research to chronicling the journey of these children and outlining a model of good practice in caring for them, which could be the difference between salvation and further hardship.
Charles Watters, a professor of childhood studies at Rutgers–Camden, says refugee children are a global issue.
“The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimated that around 36.5 million people are of concern to them and about half of them are kids,” Watters says. “We’re looking at millions of children around the world who are displaced.”
The Rutgers–Camden professor studies children who leave impoverished or war-torn countries in North Africa or sub-Saharan Africa, Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq to seek refuge in Western European countries. Their journeys are long and perilous.
Watters says the migrant children are often forced to leave their home countries by their parents, who try to give them a chance at a better life.
“They think the kindest thing they can do is send them away from countries such as Afghanistan or Iraq or Somalia,” he explains. “The parents think they are doing the best they can for these kids, giving them a future when they otherwise wouldn’t have one.”
Sometimes the children are accepted as refugees and are integrated into their new society by being given access to education, healthcare, and other support.
“The rest may be detained and deported or just disappear out of the gaze of the authorities or end up sleeping in the streets,” Watters says.
Watters says one of the most important factors in helping the refugee children is the presence of non-governmental organizations. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and other organizations play important roles in documenting the problems experienced by asylum seekers and refugees.
Direct help is offered by a wide range of organizations such as Doctors Without Borders and the Jesuit Refugee Service. Mentoring help is usually provided by a range of small localized organizations.
“They play an important role in befriending young people who are often very confused, disillusioned, and traumatized,” Watters says. “If the children have decent legal support, a new friend in their new society from an NGO, or people who help refugees and will see them through this process, that can be a really big turning point.”
In addition to his field work, Watters speaks to groups around the world urging the development of partnerships between government and nongovernmental organizations to help the migrant children.
“What I try to do is identify the gaps between policy and implementation,” Watters says. “There are a lot of great international conventions focused on children that are very important, but they only go so far if they’re not really implemented.”
Watters, whose international research in the field has taken him to countries including Australia, Spain, Italy, South Africa, Brazil, Canada, Turkey, Belgium, Sweden, Malta, and the United Kingdom, says he’s heard success stories and seen progress, but thinks “the phenomenon of kids on the move hasn’t subsided.”
Watters collaborates with scholars from a wide range of universities around the globe including Utrecht University in the Netherlands, McGill University in Canada, the University of Brasilia, the Nordic School of Public Health and Ghent University in Belgium. He is international advisor to the Nordic Research Group on Refugee Children and has acted as scientific advisor to a range of agencies including the European Commission. In the United States, he a member of a network known as Global Child, whose researchers study migration issues in the United States.
A Philadelphia resident, Watters is the author of Refugee Children: Towards the Next Horizon (Routledge, 2008) and is the founding editor of the International Journal of Migration, Health and Social Care.
Watters teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in childhood studies at Rutgers–Camden, which has the first Ph.D. program in childhood studies in the United States.
Media Contact: Ed Moorhouse