Bitter legacy of separation

By Georgina Kenyon

17 May 2002 / BBC News

Health experts are calling on the government to examine the impact of 'separation anxiety' in refugee children.

The condition was first identified in World War II 'child migrants' from the UK, and is now being displayed by child refugees arriving in Britain from war-torn countries such as Kosovo.

Medical and charity workers say the government must study this little understood health condition now as those child migrants who were sent to countries like Australia in the 1940s will be in their 60s and 70s.

Many, who were taken as children from institutions without their families' knowledge, are thought to be suffering from depression and separation anxiety.

Their symptoms have been likened to the 'stolen generation' of Aboriginal children in Australia who were taken from their families and adopted by white parents.

Claire Rayner, president of the Patient's Association, said: "There is a desperate need for research into separation anxiety in this group of people, before it is too late and these people pass away.

"These people who are now in their 60s and 70s were taken away from their families as children.

"It is our country's responsibility to look after them. There is a critical lack of research on this condition and its effects on these people."


Thousands of British children between 1945 and 1967 were taken from orphanages and institutions, often without their family's knowledge and sent to Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Zimbabwe.

Many of these children were subsequently mentally or physically abused by their new supervisors, teachers and priests on farms and in church institutions.

Five years ago a House of Commons committee hearing into the scheme announced some practical support for former migrants to trace their families in the UK.

Last week, the Australian government announced a similar scheme and apologised to children who had been maltreated when they arrived in the country.

Nevertheless, there has been little research into the psychological effects and needs of these people has been conducted.

In recent interviews, adults who were child migrants to Australia spoke of universal feelings of rejection by Britain, homesickness, anxiety and bewilderment.

It is thought that most of these children have been suffering from separation anxiety and a form of depression all their lives as few were given any form of treatment.

Fear of separation

Separation anxiety is a recognised psychological condition common among children under the age of two when separated from their parents.

Symptoms include excessive anxiety when separated from parents, and fear of the anticipation of separation from parents or carers.

Doctors believe this form of anxiety should abate when children pass the age of two but can be re-emerge in situations of extreme stress or when a child feels threatened or isolated.

The World Health Organisation has carried out studies examining the effects of separation anxiety on refugees in recent conflicts such as Kosovo.

Its research shows many children suffered a high level of psychosocial dysfunction, such as severe stress.

It also revealed that the nature and timespan of their distress was usually dependent on the length of the conflict as well as "the rapidity of mental health support available".

Child protection agencies in the UK are currently concerned about the psychological impact of current government policy on new refugee children to this country who often suffer high anxiety after fleeing from their homelands.

A spokesperson from the Children's Society in London said: "We are very concerned about the government's dispersal system at the moment of child refugees to Britain.

"Most do not have doctors and there is no requirement for local schools to educate these orphans from countries such as Kosovo and West Africa, adding to their poor mental health, confusion and anxiety about leaving their families behind."


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