Academic journal article Refuge

Navigating Precarious Terrains: Reconceptualizing Refugee-Youth Settlement

Academic journal article Refuge

Navigating Precarious Terrains: Reconceptualizing Refugee-Youth Settlement

Article excerpt


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. …

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