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

“How are you, my brother?”

During the spring 2017, I had the pleasure of conducting nine weeks of ethnographic fieldwork as a TRUST-researcher in a family group home for unaccompanied refugee minors in Bremen, Germany. I visited this housing unit for nine boys, aged between 17 and 19, two to four times a week, and wrote a research diary about my experiences with them. In this blog, I discuss the different roles I had to adapt during the fieldwork, as well as the flexibility required to conduct research with respect and care for the youth taking part in it. My roles ranged from an unknown visitor to a researcher and a volunteer, and as we spent time together, a friend, and sometimes even a “brother” or an adult figure to talk to. My relationship with the youth changed with each type of encounter and where it took place.

Before entering the field, one of my main worries was whether the teenagers would accept and welcome me into their home. Would they see me as trustworthy enough to invite me into their private space, accepting me as an adult friend, or would they see me just as another adult quickly passing through their lives? Refugee youth are balancing between their past and present, between different identifications and transcultural belonging. Unaccompanied refugee minors are displaced persons; therefore, for them, the meaning of a home as one’s own safe place bears a specific and crucial meaning. This has to be carefully considered in research design, too, because the family group home is, after all, a place where they should be able to sustain this feeling of “home”.

In that sense, I felt it was important to tell them about where I come from, but also to be honest and clear about the temporary presence I would have in their life. At the first meeting, I gave a short presentation on Finland and showed some images of my hometown. I wanted to show them that Germany was not my home country either, and that I was not fluent in expressing myself in German. After the presentation, I asked the youth if they would allow me to spend time with them in their home. Luckily, one Afghan teenager declared out loud: “No problem! You are a nice man!” This statement meant a great deal to me; the boys themselves welcomed me in their home. For the upcoming weeks, I helped them with their homework, we played table football and football, went swimming several times, cooked together, and so on. Spending time together had an important meaning for these young people, who often expressed loneliness and lack of adult presence in their daily lives. As Mervi Kaukko noted in her blog, refugee children, like any other children, will not speak about important things if there is no genuine presence of adults in their lives. They might invite us into their world if we show them we are interested and available.

Spending time with these young people activated a diversity of roles for me that proved challenging sometimes when I struggled with the switch from one role to another. For the youth, my being a researcher seemed something abstract, formal and rather hard to understand. Therefore, the different interactive roles were necessary, and also supported the research. After a while, I became more like a volunteer worker and an adult friend for them, while still conducting the fieldwork for the research. However, this new role as a trusted adult created some challenging situations, with the youth sometimes testing me to find out if I were trustworthy. They started to share their personal experiences and confided their frustrations, disappointments and other issues of everyday life to me. I frequently heard comments like: “Don’t tell this to my supervisor”; or “I don´t care if you tell this to someone…”. In such situations, I was trying to balance between the different roles of researcher, friend or volunteer worker. After a while, some of the young started calling me “akhi” (my brother in Arabic) or “Bruder” (brother in German). These names meant that I was somebody they considered equal to them and part of the group.

Often practitioners, supervisors and other adults who work with youth are those who define the relationship with the youth. I believe that the fact that the boys called me “akhi” meant that they were actively challenging the power relation by defining their relationship with me by themselves. As such, navigating between the different roles of researcher, friend, volunteer worker and “brother” was challenging not only for me and for them, but also for the structures within which we acted. It is a hard task for any researcher, whose interest it is to understand the personal world and the daily lives of unaccompanied refugee minors, to stay only in the researcher’s role. Therefore, I argue that multiple roles are not only a part of the process, but a requirement for the understanding of the everyday life of refugee youth.

Photo: Jaakko Tuominen
Photo: Jaakko Tuominen