The Psychology of a Refugee Crisis

What psychological dangers do refugees face throughout their journey and during their time searching for safety and a new home?

A) Myths Surrounding the Refugee Crisis in Europe Humanize Refugees for your Peers
B) Potential for Psychological Trauma Research the Psychology of a Refugee
C) A Nation’s Dangerous Response Create an Campaign of Awareness
Develop a Guidebook for Refugees New to Your Community

This lesson was contributed to by Ms. Rita Ulrich.

A) Myths Surrounding the Refugee Crisis in Europe

  1. Form groups in your class and make a list of at the top facts you know about the refugee crisis. You should have at least five items on your list. Once everyone is done, share your lists.  Put them in a place where students can see them easily.
  2. Think about the quote in the image earlier. What does it mean to you? What is safe and what is dangerous to a refugee? Why have they switched from what you and I might consider safe and dangerous?
  3. Social identity is defined as the “we” aspect our self-concept; the part of our answer to “Who am I” that comes from our group memberships. What is your social identity? What do you think most refugee’s social identities are? Can a social identity change?
  4. A schema is a concept or framework that organizes information. It is the image that pops into our head when we hear or read a word. What schema does the term “crisis” evoke for you? How does this match with what you have read and seen with the refugee crisis in Europe? Is crisis the best word, or is there a better word?
  5. How is the term “refugee” different from “asylum seeker” and “migrant”? Compare and contrast these terms What schemas are brought to mind with these terms? Have a class discussion on how these terms when used selectively can alter or shift public view and opinion based on social understanding of the terms.
  6. View the video I AM A REFUGEE: Global Refugees Bust Myths.  Go back to the facts compiled at the start of class. How does the above video break some of the myths you thought you knew? Which ideas that were written down were stereotypes (a generalized belief about a group)? Why did you make those stereotypes?

Read through the following titles: More than a million of Europe’s asylum seekers left in limbo, The World Faces A Growing Refugee Crisis. Here’s What Some Companies Are Doing About It., Myanmar’s Rohingya Are in Crisis—What You Need to Know, The U.S. and the Refugee Crisis, How Europe’s ‘Headless Hearts’ Made Refugee Crisis Worse, IOM: Refugees dying at quicker rate in Mediterranean. All of these news stories were printed within the last five years, and relate to issues in three major continents around the world.

image003With Syria suffering from a civil war currently, many of the refugees are turning to either other nations in the Middle East or Europe for safety from the war. It is on Europe and Bulgaria specifically, that we will focus much of our attention. It is critical that a foundation of understanding is established first though. Before continuing, watch the following video and examine the key vocabulary terms below.

Pay attention to the facts shared in the video. Think about how many match what you thought you knew about the refugee crisis? Consider the fact that people are willing to risk their lives to find safety in a country they have never visited or lived in.

  • Refugee: “A refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Most likely, they cannot return home or are afraid to do so. War and ethnic, tribal and religious violence are leading causes of refugees fleeing their countries.” (US for UNHCR definition)
    • There were 21.3 million refugees worldwide at the end of 2015.
  • Refugee Crisis: this refers to movements of large groups of people forced from their home or country; they may be an internally displaced person (someone forced to leave their home but who stays within their home country), a refugee or other migrant.image005
  • Asylum Seeker: “When people flee their own country and seek sanctuary in another country, they apply for asylum – the right to be recognized as a refugee and receive legal protection and material assistance. An asylum seeker must demonstrate that his or her fear of persecution in his or her home country is well-founded.” (US for UNHCR definition)
  • Migrant: “choose to move not because of a direct threat of persecution or death, but mainly to improve their lives by finding work, or in some cases for education, family reunion, or other reasons. Unlike refugees who cannot safely return home, migrants face no such impediment to return. If they choose to return home, they will continue to receive the protection of their government.” (US for UNHCR definition)


B) Potential for Psychological Trauma

  1. What can happen to a person’s brain when they suffer from extreme poverty? How does this affect their behavior and overall general health?
  2. Examine Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Which level of needs do most refugees struggle with while traveling or living in a refugee center? After they are resettled, how do their needs change? What factors can interfere with reaching the highest level of self-actualization?
  3. What are the three phases to the General Adaptation Syndrome? What are possible examples that a refugee might go through on their journey for each stage.
  4. Attitudes are defined as feelings that are often influenced by our beliefs that predispose our reactions to people or events. What attitudes does Mustafa face as a Syrian living in Germany? How does he attempt to address those attitudes towards him in a positive and product way? Conformity is adjusting our behavior or thin king toward a group standard. In what way is Mustafa trying to conform to his new home?
  5. Read this article and think about the General Adaptation Syndrome. Analyze the ideas presented and categorize them into the three phases of G.A.S.

“Across the globe, nearly 50 million children have been uprooted, with 28 million fleeing brutal conflict and millions more escaping extreme poverty. This figure includes millions of children caught in wars in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and the South Sudan — in more than a dozen countries.” (UNICEF) The routes between these nations and the rest of Europe have many dangers along the way. There are many difficulties people fleeing their home country might come across, including risk of health from poor quality living conditions, diseases in refugee camps, robbery and theft of goods and money, or worst of all, loss of one’s life or loved ones lives.


One of the great risks refugees face is extreme poverty. This is defined by severe deficiency of basic human needs. These include food, safe drinking water, access to clean restroom facilities, health access, shelter, etc. “Researchers placed subjects in a magnetic resonance imaging machine to scan and measure gray matter volume in the temporal lobes, frontal lobes and hippocampus—brain areas that are critical to cognitive processes required for academic success and vulnerable to a person’s early environment.” The research reveals that children living in poverty had 8 to 10% less gray matter compared to other children. This means that, according to Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, not all children’s most basic levels of physiological needs are being met.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

“More than half of the displaced individuals in the world currently are refugees, even though children make up less than 32% of the world’s population Nearly 75,000 of those children applied for asylum as unaccompanied minors who were traveling alone.” (NPR) The constant stress and threat of the unknown can cause unrelenting stress on both children and adults.

The general adaptation syndrome (GAS) is a three phase process that best explains this. In the first phase, you go through an alarm reaction. Your sympathetic nervous system is in full response with your heart racing, eyes dilated, and blood being rushed to your skeletal system, a person going through this stage is in the early stages of shock. The second stage is resistance, with your blood pressure, temperature, and respiration running on high; all of your energies are being used to meet the challenges being faced. The final stage occurs if a person is unable to find relief from the constant stress (as is the case with most refugees). This phase is exemplified by exhaustion, with the individual going through either recovering or becoming prone to illness, or in extreme cases, collapse and death. Prolonged stress, as seen in the general adaptation syndrome, can be dangerous for a person’s life as well as brain growth, development, and even their DNA.


Not all children face such difficulties and dangers though. Some are able to achieve stability and live in a safe home after being given refugee status protection in another country. While it may take anywhere from 6 months or longer, many families are able to leave the temporary refugee camp they life in after being granted protection status and live a more stable life in a new country. Take a look at the video below about one child from Syria’s story, now living in Germany.

In some cases, refugees who struggle through the hardships that they face may develop a psychological disorder. Having a psychological disorder is more common than most people think, with most individuals at some point suffering from one. The World Health Organization reports that approximately 450 million people from some form of mental or behavioral disorder. For refugees,  the most common appears to be PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and depression with the numbers varying. “Different studies have shown rates of PTSD and major depression in settled refugees to range from 10-40% and 5-15%, respectively. Children and adolescents often have higher levels with various investigations revealing rates of PTSD from 50-90% and major depression from 6-40%.” (Refugee Health)

Reasons for the psychological disorders vary though. Not all refugees witness violence, crimes, death, or torture, each group of refugees in history have experienced and struggled with a different set of dangers and struggles. Often disorders may be due to other circumstances as well, such as experienced learned helplessness when they are placed for months to years at a time in refugee centers with no knowledge when things will improve. Other times, struggling with a broken family or separation from loved ones can be causes for a disorder to develop as well. The reasons are wide-ranging and far-reaching.

C) A Nation’s Dangerous Response

  1. Examine the first graph provided. How many refugees have entered Bulgaria compared to their population? How can that cause a rise in fear for people?
  2. Think about the concepts of ingroups and outgroups.
    1. What other areas of the world have negatively had a problem with this ideas in their own nation? How have those situations compared to what is happening in Europe and Bulgaria?
    2. Read this article and identify the concepts that have been taught. What are the real world examples given in the article for each one? 
  3. What are the dangers of just world phenomenon and scapegoat theory? How do these concepts make it easy to blame the refugees for nation’s problems or the problems that refugees themselves are facing?
  4. Analyze the map of Europe across the decades. What nations have become more nationalized and which have become less nationalized? What does this tell you?
  5. Read this article. What are some of the struggles that the Syrian refugees in the article face living in Bulgaria? What are some of the reasons that the article lists are reasons that Bulgarians are scared? Do you think that the refugees are as much of a threat as the extremist groups argue they are? Why does Mr. Siderov argue that Bulgaria is shooting itself in the foot? 

One idea that many people use to understand the world is that good things happen to good people, and bad things happen to bad people. In psychology, this belief is called the just-world phenomenon. For citizens in a nation, like Bulgaria, a country that sits as one of the first European countries in addition to Greece and Italy that refugees travel through, where the population has been declining rapidly for the past several years and any outside group appears as a threat, this concept can come into play and cause hostility between Bulgarians and refugees. Despite the fact that the actual number of refugees arriving in Bulgaria is relatively small compared to other nations, in comparison to their population, it is quite large.image015

Fear of an outsider is a very real and clear threat that many people feel at one point or another. The danger is when an entire nation feels this fear and is unable to balance it with truth. One of those dangers is called the ingroup and outgroup. An ingroup is the people with whom we share a common identity, and as it often happens, are the individuals who we draw a circle with to define as part of “us”. Often this is seen in protests when individuals say that another group is not the same as them. An outgroup are the “them” that people fear, people who are seen as different or apart from the ingroup.

image017This fears often lead to a rise in ingroup bias, which is the tendency to favor your own group. While supporting your own group in and of itself is not dangerous, doing so exclusively can be. In Europe as well as in Bulgaria, this ingroup bias against the outgroup has led to a rise in nationalist parties. These groups focus on targeting refugees and placing heavy blames for internal national problems on those who are entering the nation. Blaming problems or issues on a group of people due to prejudice and as a way to release anger is known as the scapegoat theory. Sadly, as said earlier, these groups have been growing and becoming increasingly popular across the continent.

In the video below, you will see examples of the “us” versus “them” phenomenon that often goes with ingroups and outgroups, as well as how some politicians and people to fallen victim to stereotypes and scapegoat theory, among many other concepts.

As Time reports, “Despite all their bluster, the migration crisis is a godsend for Europe’s far right: it gives both new and older parties an opening to capitalize on the rising fear of voters that might never otherwise consider supporting them. As ultra-nationalists who want to protect the strong welfare systems their citizens currently enjoy, they frequently couch their criticism of migrants in terms of economic pragmatism, explaining there is simply not enough money and jobs to go around. Though these parties often have extensive histories of racist comments and policy proposals, their economic message now resonates across a continent exhausted by multiple crises in recent years.”




  1. Watch this video.  How are the people in the video the same as you or I? In what ways are they different? Do the people in the video fit into your schema and stereotype of what a refugee is? Why or why not? Create a poster that highlights the similarities and differences between what the world sees as the refugee, and the human who bears that title. 
  2. Think about some of the psychological disorders that refugees struggle with. Research ways that psychologists and experts are trying to help refugees cope with their disorders. Choose one that you think has the greatest promise, and create a presentation on it to your school.
  3. How can you help your school and community better understand what refugees are going through? What are some ways you can educate them about the true difficulties that refugees face? Design an education campaign to educate people about the dangers of just-world phenomenon and scape-goat theory. It can be a video uploaded to YouTube, posters/flyers posted around your school or neighborhood, or special community session that you hold to teach those around you.
  4. Work with your other class members for the following project. Create a guide, or how-to book that a refugee adult or child (you choose) could use to adjust to a new life in your own. Provide tips, directions, and guidelines for understand life in your new town. What are things they might struggle with that they could need help on? Remember, everything that comes naturally to you will be new for them.


Ms. Rita Ulrich is an contributor, with lessons focused on the 2010s refugee crisis in Bulgaria, as well as many other topics.  She graduated with a bachelors of science from Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida, majoring in both social science education as well as psychology. Afterwards, she pursued a masters in international education from the University of Sydney, Australia. Ms. Ulrich began as a teacher rather unusually, by deciding to start her career overseas in Seoul, South Korea. After falling in love with the culture, she decided to stay for a total of four years, spending most of her time teaching both middle school and high school students. Then, Ms. Ulrich moved to Qinhuangdao, China, teaching at Northeastern University at Qinhuangdao working with freshmen and junior students. She returned to the United States in 2015 in order to continue teaching at an American school, becoming a recipient of the Fulbright-Hays award to Bulgaria and Greece in 2017. She currently teaches social studies and A.P. psychology at a college preparatory high school in North Carolina.