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.