With recent experiences of war, abuse and perilous journeys, and without the company of caregivers, unaccompanied asylum-seeking minors seek protection, safety and sustainable futures. There has been significant research attention on the mental health of minors in light of the extreme hardships they have often endured, and according to this research, their mental health problems seem to persist even several years after resettlement. This study contributes to the understanding of why, by investigating the young persons' efforts and challenges to re-create their lives and futures in exile, and how the professional care arrangements approach the young persons in this endeavour.
A cultural psychological perspective has been employed as the overarching theoretical framework. Cultural psychological theorists have theoretical and methodological ambitions to renew the psychological study of human beings in ways that are more sensitive to their social, cultural, historical and material contexts. Furthermore, they consider persons as actively engaged in making meaning of events in their lives. Everyday life is societally arranged, socially grounded and subjectively experienced, and as such, it represents an analytical site to study the environment and the person as a unity. Therefore, everyday life was chosen as the primary analytical site to investigate the young persons’ efforts to re-create their lives.
Rather than framing these young persons as either victims or heroes, the present research was designed to explore their lives by looking at this group of young persons as similar to other young persons, conducting their everyday lives and actively taking part in their own development, without leaving out their specific backgrounds and life situations. Detailed interviews about everyday life were conducted with 30 young unaccompanied minors from different countries of origin, aged between 10 and 16, as well as with their professional caregivers in Norway. The young persons and their caregivers were interviewed shortly after the young persons’ arrival in Norway and then after one year when the young persons had moved to new Norwegian municipalities, following the resettlement procedure. In sum, 101 interviews were conducted.
The first article, ‘Negotiating developmental projects: Unaccompanied Afghan refugee boys in Norway’, is based on an analysis of the developmental projects of a subgroup of the young participants, the Afghan boys. The content of their developmental projects was explored and how these projects were negotiated with the caregivers in Norway. We describe two main developmental projects: To create a liveable life in Norway and to help the family in their country of origin. The results shed light on the challenges when the caregiver and the young person are not engaged in the same project, and even pull in opposite directions, which was the case for the latter developmental project. As a consequence, the young persons were alone with their struggles. The analytical model elaborated in the article shows how crucial it can be to attend to what the young persons try to achieve in their everyday lives and their ideas of their future, as well as how their projects are negotiated with their significant others.
The second article, ‘Peer relationships at residential care institutions for unaccompanied refugee minors: an under-utilised resource?’, is based on an analysis of how the young persons created relational practices with each other that facilitated a sense of togetherness in their everyday lives during resettlement. Furthermore, we describe and discuss how such practices were grounded in everyday life at the residential care institutions. The results elucidate a variety of ways that peers at residential care institutions for unaccompanied minors can act as resources for each other. These practices were categorized as (1) collective meaning-making practices, (2) emotional care practices and (3) social inclusion. At the care centres, such practices were more frequent than at the group homes, where the young persons felt lonelier and struggled more on their own. The evolvement of the resourceful relational practices seemed to be nourished by routines of sharing events of everyday life, for example by moving through the day as a group, and by sharing symbolic resources, like native language, traditional social practices, and religious rituals. All this was facilitated at the care centres, whereas less so in the group homes. In order to strengthen the mental health and well-being of the young persons, we suggest that caregivers pay attention to facilitate collective conducts of everyday life and to compose the group of co-habitants in ways that allow them to draw upon shared symbolic resources.
The third article, ‘Discuss it with your legal guardian’: Challenges in practising care for young unaccompanied refugee minors’ concerns how the Norwegian state enacts its parental responsibility for unaccompanied asylum-seeking minors. Especially explored are the challenges of practising care in residential care institutions, focusing on how care is shared across institutional contexts. An overarching result was that care responsibility for ordinary life-course issues, for example, educational or social issues at school, was shared and co-ordinated between professionals, such as teachers and professionals at residential care institutions. This was, however, not the case when it came to refugee-related issues. These issues were typically parcelled out of the responsibility of the daily caregivers and allocated to the administration of other institutions. The allocation of refugee-related legal issues to the legal guardian, particularly those related to age assessment, family reunification and type of residence permit, made it difficult for caregivers at the care centres and group homes to keep the overview over vital issues in the young persons’ lives. These legal issues were not at all remote and abstract issues in the young persons’ lives. Instead, they constituted central questions related to their everyday lives and futures. We discuss how to perform coordinated care in a compartmentalised care system in order to minimise the disadvantages and potential harm for the young persons and supporting their wellbeing and development.
Based on the articles, three suggestions to facilitate the young persons’ tasks of re-creating their lives and futures are proposed: (1) to actively engage in young persons’ developmental projects; (2) to organise living arrangements in ways that secure and support the development of peer relationships; and (3) to organise daily care in ways that facilitate caregivers’ coordinative function and overview of overall care. These suggestions are not limited to unaccompanied refugee minors but may be transferred to other settings, for example, residential care for children in general.
The stories and details of the young persons’ struggles and coping, as described in this study, may deepen the understanding of what it means and takes for young unaccompanied refugee minors to re-create their lives and futures in Norway. Furthermore, the study demonstrates how the mental health problems of resettling unaccompanied minors’ can be understood as intimately linked to their efforts and struggles in creating livable everyday lives and sustainable futures.