Policy relevance of experiential knowledge

In the TRUST project, we have conducted field work in Finland, Sweden, Germany, and Australia during 2016 and 2017. Learning about unaccompanied minors’ lived experiences is a crucial part of the project. Unfortunately, such experiences are still quite rarely recognised in research, let alone acknowledged in policies and integration schemes. Based on insights from our field work, I argue that Europe has to openly discuss the challenges of the human existence these children and young people face in their new home countries. This means that we need to search answers to the following questions from an experiential viewpoint: How and through which practices does the life of unaccompanied minors become overregulated? How do several protective measures and care practices confine them into a national trap that does not recognise transcultural belonging? How does this feel and affect young people’s daily life?

In the spring 2017, TRUST published a policy brief on the housing of unaccompanied minors in Finland. This document was based on the field work with unaccompanied minors and the people who work with them. The field work has been going on since 2014. This long-term involvement with several young people provided a solid ground for our policy brief to describe how minors experience the current care practices. In addition, in the process of making the policy brief, we analysed the care staff’s reactions collected through interviews and a collaborative workshop. This experiential knowledge was then transferred to policy claims on how the needs of unaccompanied minors must be recognised and the care system changed in order to support the agency of these minors.

Translating lived experiences of housing to policy recommendations requires good knowledge of the migration governance, and an understanding of how the care structure is historically organised and what the transcultural needs and ties of unaccompanied minors are. Moreover, the policy brief has to be communicated in a manner that makes sense both to policy-makers and people in the field. This is crucial in order to influence the contemporary practices. Our policy brief was also targeted at the ministries responsible for the matters of unaccompanied refugee minors within a wide spectrum, not only in regard to housing. The TRUST team made this important decision to overcome as many of the administrative boundaries as possible, which are one of the key barriers in developing the current care practices.

Our policy brief was a collaborative effort of a multidisciplinary team of researchers both in writing the actual piece and commenting on the earlier drafts. The recommendations were all based on the experiences gathered in the field work. The policy brief’s launch was targeted at a particular policy process, namely the public comment round of the Act on the Promotion of Immigration Integration (Laki kotoutumisen edistämisestä). The policy brief was sent out to several institutional actors, ministries, politicians, ELY centres, municipalities, and NGOs in the field. It was spread through social media, tweeted and sent to e-mail lists of care practitioners, such as migration officials and social workers.

Making policy-relevant research is demanded and valued by the funders of research nowadays. Obviously, many research projects can also fulfil this requirement, at least in principle. However, to communicate the findings in a manner that will reach the policy-makers at the right time and in the right format requires extra efforts and detailed planning. On the other hand, policy-makers quite often neglect the experiential knowledge produced by research. In TRUST, we argue that the experience of being part of the practice is the most crucial knowledge for developing practices. If we want to understand how the housing of refugee minors affects the integration and future of these young people, there is no other way to do this than to ask for their opinions, respect their answers and analytically contextualise them within the wider migration governance, along with the demand to change the practices that are unworkable. This is the way to make policy-relevant research – this is how the world changes!


Photo: Anna-Kaisa Kuusisto-Arponen
Photo: Anna-Kaisa Kuusisto-Arponen

Understanding pain and loneliness through politics of compassion

Doing research with unaccompanied refugee minors includes many moral and ethical aspects. Among these research constrains are the ethical board’s statement, research permits and the participants’ informed consent. Above all these official formulations of research ethics and good research conduct, the most important factor is the lived ethics of the research relationship. This means a particular ability and willingness to be exposed to other person’s presence, which provides an opportunity to build a research relationship.

Thus, the research relationship with unaccompanied minors is not just a case of starting and carrying the research process but attaining and respecting the experiential knowledge of the worlds that these children and young people carry in them. Consequently, the researcher’s non-judgemental and permissive openness to all kinds of narratives and experiences is in the core of knowledge production. While coping with the infinite loneliness that is connected to the existence of the unaccompanied minors, the researcher has to respond emphatically, and yet professionally, to the young people’s need to challenge the adult listener with painful and sometimes pretty brutal narratives of violence or other kind of abuse, for example. However, a very common mistake in research, as well as elsewhere in life, is to view these minors only as victims of their past experiences and ignore the wider capacities and skills that they have. Mervi Kaukko in the previous TRUST blog aptly states that, for example, the education system of these children and youths often fail to recognise their competencies. Moreover, as Kaukko argues ”success is built on safety and belonging, and maintained by good educational practices, genuinely interested teachers and caring friends”. This means that the role of caring and compassionate social relations between minors and trusted adults should also be actively created and embraced. How can this be achieved in research?

Unaccompanied minors are very sensitive to the genuineness of the adult’s presence, and quite often, particularly in the first stages of the research relationship, put the adult and the trust to test. For the researcher this means a continuously evolving emotive-cognitive process in which trust is being negotiated with regard to the diverse daily encounters within the political, cultural and social contexts the young person finds important.

How can the researcher then response to and operate in these emotionally challenging and thick moments of field work? I have argued that one of the key ways is to utilise the power of compassion as social emotion. Human compassion emerges for instance when witnessing another person’s physical or mental pain. The person who experiences compassion does not experience the same feelings as he or she observes or expects the person suffering the pain to feel, but relates to the other’s experience.

Compassion as a methodology directs the researcher to pay attention to emotionally thick everyday situations. Besides verbal expression, it expands the research to observe the body and the senses. In the field work that the TRUST project has conducted, these emotionally thick sites have included young people’s experiences of mental and geographical placelessness and outsideness. In addition, loneliness, the adversities of daily life and the worry about their family were visible in the young people’s being, manner and speaking. One can respond to a young person’s loneliness by being genuinely present; yet, at the same time, it is necessary to reflect more deeply on how the understanding gained through exposure changes the research relationship and the researcher him/herself.

Moreover, it has to be remembered that although it is the young themselves who pass on their experiences and decide what to tell the researcher, the understanding gained can still hurt them by bringing up painful past experiences and uncertainty. This pain can also be mirrored back to the researcher, albeit in a different way, as a helplessness to expose injustices and inability to change for example the dominant social structures the young person’s experiences have revealed. Despite these risks, I believe that conducting research can genuinely and openly be based on a politics of compassion.



Kuusisto-Arponen, Anna-Kaisa (2016). Myötätunnon politiikka ja tutkimusetiikka Suomeen yksin tulleiden maahanmuuttajanuorten arjen tutkimisessa. Sosiologia, 53: 4, 396-415.

Photo: Kristiina Korjonen-Kuusipuro

Transcultural belonging as a right!

Every year tens of thousands of unaccompanied asylum-seeking minors enter the territory of the European Union. These children and young people have left their war-torn home countries in Asia, Middle East or Africa. Europe is the unaccompanied minors’ ultimate hope for a better future, but their lived realities turn out to be something quite different. Most of them end up in state care institutions for several years. Also, because of the strict immigration laws and regulations in several EU countries, many unaccompanied minors will never be reunited with their families. This means that they stay alone in their new reception countries for the rest of their lives. Thus, their position as transcultural subjects trapped by ”nation-state” needs to be carefully studied. The Academy of Finland key project, Transcultural roadmap for supporting belonging among unaccompanied children and young people (TRUST), is responding to this challenge.

In order to gain in-depth understanding of the lives of unaccompanied minors, improve their situation and support their multiple agencies, research and care practices have to actively resign from the prevailing paradigm of victimisation. Instead of emphasising the risks of the migratory movement of children and young people, the TRUST project develops understanding of how the unaccompanied minors can be supported and protected in an embracing manner in their new host societies.

TRUST argues that the current increase in the numbers of unaccompanied minors arriving in Europe, the lack of supranational governance, and the sudden appearance of ad-hoc restrictions in national immigration and family reunification legislations in EU countries have led to institutional ambiguity. This means that no one takes the overall responsibility for the situation and lives of unaccompanied minors. Moreover, several national policies have for many years tried to address the systemic-level integration of unaccompanied minors in Finnish, Nordic and European societies, but as the TRUST team has recognised, nationally standardised solutions of institutional care, schooling and social services provided for unaccompanied minors are seriously limited. Several social integration measures and schemes take too simplistic, territorially restrictive and objectifying a stance on children’s daily realities.

TRUST will therefore study the possibilities of promoting and governing sustainable solutions from the minors’ experiential viewpoint. The project develops novel ways to recognise and support the transcultural agencies of unaccompanied minors in order to co-construct sustainable daily worlds. Moreover, social integration requires compassionate understanding of the migratory movement and the experiences of the unaccompanied minors in wider society, in other words in daily encounters with Finnish adults and peer groups.

Belonging to several cultural communities, longing for the familial ties, and experiencing chronic loneliness create a transcultural existence for these young that is not effectively recognised in protection and integration measures. This neglect has led to increasing challenges in wellbeing among these minors and decreased the effectiveness of integration policies in respective national contexts.

Transcultural belonging is an existential condition for these minors and thus should be seen as a right, as a basic need in these children and young people’s lives. TRUST argues that there are four key features to be recognised in order to understand what the transcultural belonging means in practice. First, the existential loneliness experienced by unaccompanied minors has long-term effects on their wellbeing, agency and selfhood. New psychosocial interventions are currently developed to help children with trauma memories. However, along with this psychological support, new ways to deal with the loss and alteration of important social and spatial relations are needed. Second, unaccompanied minors are active agents with multiple capabilities and resources. Taking this agency seriously and supporting it requires new modes of interaction between the minors and their carers that do not treat these minors as victims or passive beneficiaries. Third, many contemporary institutional agents providing care and protection still emphasise belonging as something territorially bound and thus operate with such nationalistic imageries as integration primarily through language, and partly separated education and work training schemes. These really need to be challenged. Fourth, unaccompanied minors hope to gain new social life and friends among their peers in their new host societies, but find this hard to accomplish. These peer relations have to be actively supported in schools and multicultural child and youth work.

With a focus on developing measures in these four fields of life, we are able to support transcultural and translocal belonging of unaccompanied minors and create more embracing care practices in Finland and in Europe.