Worldwide, about 30 million children are currently forcibly displaced, of which a considerable group is separated from their parent(s) or caregiver(s), “unaccompanied refugee minors” (URM). Forced migration is known to considerably impact URMs’ psychological wellbeing, leading to elevated levels of emotional problems. Both difficult experiences in URMs’ countries of origin and post-migration stressors, such as daily material (limited housing facilities) and social stressors (e.g., limited social network, racism), and inadequate professional support impact their wellbeing. Yet, little is known about the longitudinal psychological impact of URMs’ transit experiences, during the flight.

The research pursues the following objectives:

  • Increase knowledge about the impact of experiences occurring during the flight on the psychological wellbeing of URMs, in relation to the impact of past traumatic experiences in the home country and to daily material and social stressors in the host country.
  • Provide unique insights in the diversity of and evolutions in their experiences while fleeing from home, and the evolutions in their wellbeing.
  • Identify the risk factors impacting URMs’ mental health longitudinally, hereby questioning the classical differentiation between ‘daily stressors’ and ‘trauma’, possibly evolving towards an elaborated theoretical and empirically validated concept of ‘cumulative trauma’.
  • Create ground-breaking avenues to study a group that is difficult to reach and follow, owing to the methodological approach.

This project uses a highly innovative methodology, through combining different approaches in a mixed-methods and multi-sited, cross-country and longitudinal design. It is made up of three interlinked studies starting from four different countries: Libya, Greece, and Italy as key transit countries and main countries of entry in the European Union, and Belgium as an example of a settlement country for URMs. In each of the countries, different settings were selected to carry out the research.

Our study started in four different countries: three important, but highly diverse, transit countries for URMs (Libya, Greece and Italy), and one country which is both a settlement and a transit country for URMs (Belgium). In each of these countries, several research sites have been identified. In the course of the longitudinal follow-up of the young people transiting through and settling in several European countries, also several other European countries were included as research settings in this project.


STUDY 1: An in-depth, mixed-methods study in each study country 

(1) Participant observations will form the framework to contextualize the data collected with the other research methods. 

(2) A visual ethnography of building/reception facilities ‘composition and the analysis of written ‘graffiti’ inscriptions that refugees have made on walls, tables, and doors will be photographed, translated, and thematically analyzed. It is assumed that the messages left by refugees reveal extremely valuable information about their experiences and feelings, without any restriction of expression. 

(3) Interviews with URMs: Interviews and self-reported questionnaires will be completed by almost 300 URMs over 14 years of age in each of the four countries, purposively sampled (age, nationality, and gender) (total n=294). Participating URMs will be either directly selected by the researchers or in close collaboration with social workers from the involved facilities. In both cases, each participant will receive extensive information about the research and informed consent with the necessary information, including the researcher’s contact details and information about a local referral network, if needed. All ethical guidelines will be followed strictly. Confidentiality and anonymity of all children’s personal data will be ensured. In-depth interviews will be carried out with the participating URMs, in the presence of an interpreter, if needed, complemented with visualizing methods (i.e., lifelines) and self-report thematic questionnaires on wellbeing and mental health, experienced stressors, coping strategies and social support. In Greece, Italy, and Belgium, the interviewed URMs will be asked to take part in study 2, the longitudinal follow-up, and contact details will be exchanged.

STUDY 2: A longitudinal, cross-country follow-up study of URMs

The groups selected in Greece, Italy, and Belgium will be followed-up, even when traveling to other countries, for a period of 18 to 24 months. At six-months intervals (3 measurement moments per participant), the participant will be interviewed again, including the completion of the self-report questionnaires (cf. study 1), in the presence of an interpreter, if necessary. Distance follow-up with adjusted communication tools (via email, Facebook, and phone cards are given to the participants) will be conducted in between meetings in order to keep attrition as low as possible. Ethical guidelines will be followed scrutinously during this follow-up study.


STUDY 3: Integration and theoretical advancement 

 (1) Compilation of the data collected in this study with other earlier related studies: integration and analysis of all the data gathered in the different studies and countries through focusing on particular themes (e.g., trafficking, racism, social support, coping strategies, impact of care structures in transit and settlement countries) and aggregation of these data with other earlier studies focusing on the same themes. 

 (2) Discussion of the results from the first phases with the advisory board of academics, with European policymakers, practitioners, and stakeholders, and with the local advisory boards of practitioners, policymakers, and other stakeholders built up in each selected country to discuss the study findings and its implications and recommendations. 


  • Development of relevant research tools to address the psychosocial needs of a group that is difficult to reach and follow, owing to the methodological approach. 
  • Document the diversity of and evolutions in migratory experiences of unaccompanied minors while fleeing from home, and the potential risk factors encountered during their journeys. 
  • Identification of the risk factors impacting URMs’ mental health longitudinally and following the evolutions in their wellbeing. 
  • Document the way in which care and reception structures for unaccompanied minors in both transit and settlement countries can contribute to reducing the mental health impact of the flight experiences.
  • Establishment of a referral network of practitioners in European countries crossed by minors during their migratory journeys.
  • Formulation of insights for policymakers and practitioners in clinical, educational, and social work settings and for interventions for victims of multiple trauma.

Implementation of two workshops by Ilse Derluyn, the Scientific Coordinator, also expert in policy-implementation with policymakers and practitioners to discuss the implications of the studies for policy and practice. Key actors from diverse countries, institutions, and organizations will be invited.


Our researcher, Marina Rota is responsible for the Greek part of the study which focuses on the unaccompanied refugee minors that are arriving in Greece, transiting through, and in some cases, settling there.


Our researcher, Malte Behrendt is responsible for the Belgian part of the study which focuses on the unaccompanied refugee minors arriving, sometimes transiting through, and often settling in Belgium as their destination.


Our researchers, Sarah & Océane, are responsible for the Italian part of the study. Sarah focuses on Nigerian females who were trafficked for sexual exploitation while Océane focuses on unaccompanied minors in transit and after arrival.

Ilse, Ine & Giacomo

Ilse is the project PI and also the supervisor of the PhDs. Alongside her, Ine co-supervises the various PhD studies in the ChildMove Project. Giacomo joined the team as a post-doctoral researcher assisting in the project coordination and project support.