Navigating Precarious Terrains: Reconceptualizing Refugee-Youth Settlement.

Author:Nunn, Caitlin


Settlement is widely understood as the final stage of the refugee journey: a durable solution to forced displacement and a stable environment in which former refugees can rebuild their lives. However, settlement is shaped by rapidly changing socio-political forces producing contingent, unpredictable, and even hostile environments. This article draws upon Vigh's concept of social navigation to reconceptualize settlement as a continuation of a fraught journey in which refugee settlers must continually seek new strategies to pursue viable futures. We illustrate with an in-depth case study of the settlement journey of one refugee-background young man over his first eight years in Melbourne, Australia.


Letablissement est presque toujours comprise comme letape finale du voyage d'un refugie, soit une solution perenne a un deplacement force et un environnement stable dans lequel des ex-refugies peuvent reconstruire leur vie. Elle est cependant determinee par des forces sociopolitiques rapidement evolutives pouvant generer des environnements contingents, imprevisibles, voire hostiles. Cet article s'inspire du concept de navigation sociale de Vigh pour reconceptualiser letablissement comme la continuation d'un voyage seme d'embuches, au cours duquel le refugie colon doit continuellement etre a la recherche de nouvelles strategies pour etablir un avenir perenne. Nous illustrons cette perspective par l'etude approfondie des efforts d'etablissement d'un homme jeune originairement refugie, au cours deses huit premieres annees a Melbourne, Australie.

Introduction (1)

When we first met Abraham he was seventeen years old. He had recently been resettled in Melbourne, Australia via the Humanitarian Program, having fled Ethiopia as a refugee. As part of his involvement in Good Starts, a longitudinal study of the settlement of refugee-background young people, (2) we asked Abraham to draw his self-portrait. He depicted himself as a young man with a huge head and a big smile, standing shirtless and alone on a small boat, adrift on open water. Two thought bubbles read, "One day I will be a man. That day is far for me!!!!" and "I am very happy! But I have a lot to cope with!!!" There is a paddle in the boat, but it is lying unused at the bow (see figure 1).

Eight years later, Abraham still has his drawing. When we visit him for an interview he brings it out, and while discussing the challenges he faced in his first years of settlement, he explains, "So that was my stress drawing, that big-head man picture, because I'm happy--see the smiley face--and also there is a lot of shit--that's why my head is so big. And I'm on the water. Am I sinking or am I survive? Because I don't know shit about Australia."

Abraham's drawing powerfully evokes the experiences of many young people with refugee backgrounds as they embark on the settlement journey in Australia. (3) Having arrived in Australia on permanent humanitarian visas, many find their horizons have opened up. With access to citizenship, education, health care, financial support, and much else, there is the possibility of pursuing a wide range of opportunities and aspirations. Yet in pursuing these possibilities they are faced with navigating multiple challenges posed by an unfamiliar, dynamic settlement terrain.

Abraham's drawing is also an apt illustration of the concept of social navigation, on which this article draws in order to reconceptualize settlement and how it is experienced among refugee-background youth in Australia. The concept of social navigation, as developed by Henrik Vigh, (4) emerges out of his ethnographic study of youth and soldiering in Guinea-Bissau, in which he explores the praxis of urban young men as they pursue social possibilities in a dynamic environment of conflict and poverty. Vigh advances the concept to capture "how people move and manage within situations of social flux and change." (5) In drawing on the metaphor of navigation as a process by which individuals move in and are moved by an ever-changing and often unpredictable environment, social navigation is highly relevant for considering refugee settlement; a context that is fluid and shaped by dynamic socio-political forces that in turn affect settlers' possibilities. Applying a social navigation lens to refugee youth settlement enables us to consider how these young people "simultaneously negotiate the immediate and the imagined," (6) addressing short-term needs and desires while also seeking to position themselves favourably in the pursuit of longer-term aspirations. In these ways, the concept of social navigation offers an alternative way to frame settlement: not as the endpoint of the refugee journey, but as ongoing negotiation of unstable, multiscalar socio-political terrains in the pursuit of viable futures.

We begin this article with a critical discussion of conventional understandings of refugee settlement. We then consider the ways in which Vigh's concept of social navigation offers a powerful approach for reconceptualizing refugee settlement, and more specifically, refugee-youth settlement. In the second section of this article we illustrate our argument through an in-depth case study of one refugee-background young man, Matet, (7) over the first eight years of his settlement experience in Melbourne, Australia. Matet is a participant in the Good Starts Study for Refugee Youth: a longitudinal study of 120 refugee-background young people over their first eight to nine years of settlement. (8) An in-depth account of Matet s settlement journey provides a rich context for considering the power of applying a social navigation lens to contemporary refugee settlement. Through this case study, we demonstrate the interplay of diverse structural and agentive factors, and short- and long-term objectives and aspirations, in mediating the social possibilities of refugee-background youth in settlement contexts. We conclude by arguing for a more critically engaged approach to refugee youth settlement: one that explicitly takes into account the precarity of this "durable" solution to forced displacement--a solution that is rapidly becoming less durable within the context of mass forced displacement and closing national borders, and where the conventional refugee regime is increasingly under attack. (9)

Refugee Settlement

Settlement is conventionally understood as the final stage of the refugee journey: a process through which people with refugee backgrounds are integrated into, and gain the skills and knowledge to participate in, the country in which they are resettled. (10) In Australia, the humanitarian settlement program is oriented to both short- and long-term objectives, addressing immediate needs while building humanitarian entrants' capacity for independence in the future. (11) The parameters of settlement--both duration and objectives--are defined through government policy and associated service provision, with a focus on support over the first five years of settlement and on measurable outcomes, including learning English, participating in education, obtaining employment, and acquiring citizenship. (12) Youth-focused settlement organizations highlight the distinct needs and experiences of this group during their teen and early adult years, including in education and employment, identity and belonging, and family relationships and intergenerational conflict. (13)

As Gifford and Kenny note, however, "What settlement is, how it is measured, experienced and achieved remains contentious," (14) and it is often differently conceptualized by governments and settlers. (15) Conventional approaches that focus on measurable outcomes that can be addressed through specific interventions risk overlooking many important aspects of settlement. These include features that extend beyond short-term objectives--such as people's aspirations; factors that transcend the national sphere--such as transnational engagements; and issues that exist beyond direct service provision and policy--such as social connections, discrimination, and exclusion. (16) Further, such outcome-focused definitions often fail to acknowledge the diversity among settlers, that "migrants' integration efforts, including their interaction with measures set out by integration policies, do not necessarily have a normative dimension." (17)

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)--using the terminology of integration (18)--views refugee settlement as "a dynamic two-way process that places demands on both the refugee and the receiving community." (19) Valtonen suggests, however, that "refugee individuals and communities, as settlement actors, are the ones who are primarily enjoined to work toward bringing about specific conditions to facilitate their own integration." (20) This reflects a tendency to envisage settlement as a unidirectional journey through static terrain, failing to acknowledge the changing social and political conditions into which refugees settle and the frequent non-linearity of their journeys. This limited conceptualization of settlement is given further credence by the dominance of cross-sectional "snapshot" studies that, in focusing on a moment in time, veil the dynamism of settlement processes and contexts. (21) It is also reinforced by the tendency for policy to shape research agendas, encouraging attention to structural aspects of settlement and inhibiting critical engagement with government settlement policy, (22) and by the overwhelming focus on people with refugee backgrounds as research subjects and settlement actors, with scant attention to other actors such as service providers, host societies, and diasporic communities. (23) Indeed, in the Australian context, Neumann et al. argue that settlement research has increasingly narrowed in focus such that the field has not progressed significantly "towards a more informed and conceptually more sophisticated understanding of the...

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