According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR, 2014), the human cost of war displaces an average of 32,200 people per day. While research in the past has primarily focused on identifying and treating that post-war mental health implications of individuals, it has largely neglected the needs of families (Shick, Morina, Klaghoer, Schnyder, & Műller, 2013; Weine, 2011; Nickerson, Bryant, Brooks, Silove, & Chen, 2011).The immediate implications of exposure to war-related trauma manifests in PTSD symptoms such as intrusive and involuntary thoughts, avoidance of feelings or event-related reminders, negative alterations in cognition and mood, and alterations in arousal and reactivity (APA, 2013). The long-term implications, on the other hand, manifest in an inability to maintain steady employment, pursue an education, engage in health interpersonal relationships, and dependence on substances (Min, Farkas, Minnes, & Singer, 2007; Lo & Cheng, 2007). The loss and grief associated with war extends beyond the individual and influences the entire family (Nickerson, et al., 2011). While direct exposure to war has a harmful cumulative effect on the mental health of children (Catani, Jacob, Schauer, Kohila, & Neuner, 2008), parental response to war also contributes to the development of PTSD and anxiety in children (Thabet, Tawahina, El Sarraj, & Vostanis, 2008).
The recent crisis of children on the United States-Mexico border, for example, illustrates the deep-rooted consequences associated with a lack of universal definitions. The act of labeling these children as refugee or immigrant has individual, familial, national, and international repercussions.
According to the Refugee Convention (United Nations, 1951) a refugee is anyone “owning to a 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 to, or owning to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”
If these children were classified as refugees, they would be endowed with rights and privileges associated with seeking protection from harm. The United Nations (2002) definition of immigrant, on the other hand, is a “non-resident who enters a country with a view of establishing residence.” It is radically different and seemingly allows nations to independently define immigrant. If these children were classified as immigrants, they would not be endowed with the same rights and privileges granted to refugees.
The familial consequences have further repercussions that are associated with international policies. The definition of refugee falls within international humanitarian law, also known as the law of war, which is responsible for the protection of civilians exposed to conflict. If the children at the United States-Mexico border were classified as refugees, for example, they would be entitled to rights outlined by international humanitarian law. These liberties include an inherent right to life and identity, which includes family relations, without unlawful interference (UNHCR, 1990). The United Nations’ Department of Economic and Social Affairs (2013) defines family as a household consisting of either a married couple without children, a married couple with one or more unmarried children, a father with one or more unmarried children, or a mother with one or more unmarried children. While this definition seems comprehensive, it is not universal. In the social sciences, family is often synonymous with the parent-child relationship. The most comprehensive definition of the parent-child relationship, according to Anderson, Riesch, Pridham, Lutz, and Becker (2010), is the connection between parent and child that develops as a result of behaviors and emotions.
If the children are classified as immigrants, on the other hand, their liberties would fall under international human rights law. The most direct manner of implementing and enforcing human rights law is through national and local legislation (Weissbrodt, Ni Aolảin, Fitzpatrick, & Newman, 2009). In the United States, Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) would be responsible for enforcement of human rights law.