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Migrant and refugee children are victims of more bullying than their peers

Waiting at church: Migrants staying at Sant'Antonio Parish in Ventimiglia, Italy. Luca Zennaro

As migrants and refugees begin to settle into new lives across Europe, they face many challenges – from securing residency papers, to learning a new language and finding work. For children, new schools can also be difficult places to grow up. In our recent research we found that migrant and refugee children in Italian schools were more likely to be bullied than their peers, many because their schoolmates already held prejudices against them.

Rates of bullying among children are high across the world, according to a recent report from the UN’s special representative on violence against children. There is a big social cost to being bullied and these children face a greater risk of poor health, internalised stress, and suicidal thoughts.

Negative outcomes of bullying are now not only being reported in high-income countries, where the majority of research is conducted. A new briefing published by UNICEF’s Office of Research has looked at bullying among adolescents in low- and middle-income countries and the effect this has on young adults. It showed how adolescents in Ethiopia, India, Peru and Vietnam who were bullied by peers at age 15 tended to experience negative effects at age 19. These included lower self-esteem, a lower perception of their own success (known as self-efficacy) and more strained relationships with their peers and with their parents.

In our research, we wanted to look at the factors that increase the risk of bullying among particularly vulnerable children. The recent European immigration crisis, and in particular the situation in Italy and Greece, called our attention to the problem of bullying among migrant and refugee children attending Italian schools.

In 2013 and 2014, 9% of the Italian school pupil population were migrant and refugee children, according to data from the Italian Minister of Education Bullying of migrant and refugee children because of their migrant status, similar to victimisation of children of a particular ethnic group, is known as bias-based bullying.

More likely targets

In 2013 we conducted a survey of 771 children attending Italian primary and secondary schools, 598 from an Italian background and 173 from a migrant or refugee background. To obtain an objective estimate of the rate at which children were bullied, we asked children for anonymous nomination of classmates who were victims, bullies, defenders of the victims, outsiders, assistants or reinforcers of the bully.

Classmates reported that 17.9% of migrant and refugee children had been victimised, compared to 11.4% of other children. We found that the risk increased if classmates of the bullied child assuaged their guilt by justifying bullying migrant or refugee classmates, for instance by thinking that migrant and refugee children deserved to be bullied. In classrooms where migrant and refugee children were bullied, support or reinforcement of bullying among classmates was associated with higher levels of these self-justification thoughts.

Existing prejudice

In a second study conducted at the beginning of 2016, 692 adolescents in Italian secondary schools – 550 from an Italian background and 142 migrants or refugees – filled in questionnaires on their bullying experiences and on prejudices. We also conducted interviews with 35 of the pupils, 19 of whom were from migrant or refugee backgrounds. We found that holding prejudicial beliefs against migrants and refugees increased the probability to bully migrant and refugee schoolmates.

Targeted. Gladskikh Tatiana/

These findings, and similar findings in countries such as Finland show that as well as finding ways to stop bullying within schools, there needs to be a wider effort in host societies to address negative perceptions and prejudice toward migrants and refugees.

We still do not know enough about the social and psychological drivers of bullying against migrants and refugees. And it’s not always the case that migrant and refugee children are more likely to be the victims of bullying, as found, for instance, in Norway. There are a number of factors that could influence whether a migrant or refugee child is more likely to be bullied, including the context within the host country, differences in the ethnicity and origin of migrants and refugees, or whether children are recent arrivals or were born in the host country.

The dramatic influx of migrant and refugee arrivals in Europe, with the related increase in social tension this has caused, suggests that we need to continue to monitor the phenomenon of bullying based on biases and prejudices involving these groups. The rise in global migration, likely a long-term phenomenon not limited to one region or corridor, could well drive an increase in bullying of children and adolescents around the world.

A version of this article was also published by UNICEF’s Office of Research

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