Among the distressed peoples of the world, few groups are more vulnerable than refugees.  And among refugees, few are more vulnerable than children, especially children on their own, without families.

Since 2011, the United States has experienced a surge in the number of unaccompanied children coming from Central America’s Northern Triangle – El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras – and Mexico. In fiscal 2013, there were more than 40,000. More than 21,000 came from the three Central American countries, compared to 4,000 in 2011.

With the cooperation of the United States, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees set out to learn why. The result was a report, released this month, “Children on the Run: Unaccompanied Children Leaving Central America and Mexico and the Need for International Protection.”

For help with that analysis, the U.N. agency consulted with Dr. Maura Busch Nsonwu of North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, an assistant professor of social work and interim director of the social work bachelor’s degree program in the Department of Sociology and Social Work.

“This is a highly sensitive issue: children who crossed the border from four countries,” Dr. Nsonwu said. “You can see all of the politics involved and the sensitivities.”

Dr. Nsonwu has worked with the U.N.’s refugee agency on a number of projects over the past three years.  Her research focuses on refugees and human trafficking.  She had conducted qualitative studies, so she had the necessary expertise. But this study had two dimensions unlike anything she had encountered.

The project was a daunting one. The U.N. researchers had interviewed 404 children. In a typical academic study, researchers from different institutions can share data openly among their team members. But they typically don’t have to consider the sensibilities of the U.S. government and four Latin American governments on an especially sensitive aspect of a major political issue.

According to the report, while recognizing differences between the situation in Mexico and in Central America, the common denominator was that all four countries are producing high numbers of unaccompanied and separated children seeking protection at the southern border of the United States.

Dr. Nsonwu’s analysis along with the entire research project was to determine the connection between the children’s stated reasons, the findings of recent studies on the increasing violence and insecurity in the region, and international protection needs.

“This was absolutely huge. It challenged me as a researcher, but this project was a wonderful opportunity to be involved in ground breaking work with an agency that is so highly respected,” she said.

The UNHCR has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize twice. “The agency’s report will influence policy and practice decisions nationally and internationally.”

A process was worked out: Initially, the dialogue between Dr. Nsonwu and the UNHCR team focused on general questions of how to approach a project this large and multifaceted.  As the project developed, the UNHCR team would call with very specific questions or requests. Dr. Nsonwu and her team would conduct literature reviews and consult with colleagues, locally and around the country, and report the findings back to UNHCR.

Among those colleagues was Dr. Noël Busch-Armendariz of the University of Texas at Austin, Dr. Nsonwu’s sister and, like Dr. Nsonwu, a teacher and researcher in social work. They had collaborated on another UNHCR project, a study of Congolese refugee women, which had been led by Dr. Busch-Armendariz. For this project, she also provided Dr. Nsonwu with a student research fellow.

While the survey questionnaire and findings were not shared with Dr. Nsonwu and her team, “UNHCR did send us one research question and the findings, so we could get an idea of the scope of the study,” she said.

So, Dr. Nsonwu wasn’t working in the dark, exactly – “it was working in very dim light,” she said – but it was hard to tell how it was going.

“I didn’t know how it was going to turn out,” she says. “I couldn’t tell whether I was helping them or not.”

That question was answered last week when the UNHCR released its report, which included a grateful acknowledgement:

For their work on the qualitative analysis conducted and assistance with specific country condition research, UNHCR thanked Nsonwu and her student Devon Malik, as well as, Busch-Armendariz and Laurie Cook Heffron from the Center for Social Work Research Institute on Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault, University of Texas at Austin.