Surviving their journey

A trauma-informed approach to migrant children’s experiences of violence on the Western Balkan route


  • Anita Burgund Isakov University of Belgrade
  • Nevenka Zegarac University of Belgrade
  • Violeta Markovic teaching assistant

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violence on children, trauma, migration, Balkan route


Year after year, millions of children cross international borders for many different reasons. In order to support the further strengthening of the system of protection in Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) in terms of responsiveness to new vulnerabilities arising from the context of migration, in-depth interviews were undertaken in 2021 with a sample of 48 youths (N=38 boys and N=10 girls), both unaccompanied and traveling with families, currently residing in camps in BiH, about their experience of violence and its impacts on their wellbeing using a trauma-informed and children’s-rights approach.

All children experienced a range of traumatic experiences on the journey, including severe violence. Even though the concept of emotional violence is unclear to them, most children plainly describe traumatic experiences, while their tendency to normalize violence is noticeable. Many of them showed symptoms of trauma responses or identified them in their siblings, younger children, and peers. Nevertheless, many children have developed various help-seeking, help-using, and self-help strategies, including joining other adults or peers, mutual help and support, the analysis of risk situations, elaboration of exit strategies, self-efficiency assessment, and a range of self-regulation and resilience-building techniques, in addition to avoidance, denial, and self-harm.

Research findings point to the diversity of children’s responses to violence and prolonged traumatic events. They also raise a lot of questions regarding the impact on children’s current and future development and well-being and the availability of trauma-informed responses and care. The results contribute to the scarce resources concerning the scientific understanding of children’s experiences of violence and the understanding of traumatic experiences among migrant and refugee children.

Author Biographies

Anita Burgund Isakov, University of Belgrade

Professor Anita Burgund Isakov, PhD, works at Belgrade University, Faculty of Political Sciences, Department of Social Policy and Social Work. Anita is a member of the Regional Centre for the Protection of Children (RRC) Southeast Europe, as part of a multidisciplinary team and platform for child protection.  She has participated in the creation of an Evaluation of the Efforts to Strengthen the Social Welfare System to Advance Child Protection with a Focus on Child Care Reform in Serbia (2013-2017) as a national consultant. She has been a part of the research team on gender studies for a decade and contributed to creating the protocol for protecting students against sexual harassment. Anita is committed to trauma work as well, through a systemic approach as a family systemic and TRE practitioner. As a researcher,  she is the head of the Center for Social Policy and Social Work Research at the Faculty of Political Sciences, Belgrade University. Anita has published more than 50 scientific papers in the fields of social work, child care, child protection, resilience trauma and gender studies.

Nevenka Zegarac, University of Belgrade

Nevenka Zegarac Professor and Director of MA Social Work programme, University of Belgrade, teaches social work with children & young people & qualitative approaches to social work research. Her areas of interest include case management, child abuse & neglect, family support, child trafficking & professional development. She has more than 20 years experience of consultancy in the West Balkan region with a number of governments & international organisations & extensive research experience in European, national & regional research projects. 

Violeta Markovic, teaching assistant

Violeta Markovic is a Teaching Assistant at the University of Belgrade. From 2016 to 2019 she was project manager at the International Jesuit Refugee Service where she helped to establish a shelter for unaccompanied refugee/migrant children. As a researcher at the Centre for Research in Social Policy & Social Work at the university, she participated in research projects on Roma families & children from the refugee/migrant population.




How to Cite

Burgund Isakov, A., Zegarac, N. and Markovic, V. 2023. Surviving their journey: A trauma-informed approach to migrant children’s experiences of violence on the Western Balkan route. Intersections. East European Journal of Society and Politics. 9, 2 (Sep. 2023), 89–107. DOI:



New questions of children’s rights