Young refugees clash with structures

Young refugees clash with structures

VUB research exposes difficulties for young newcomers in Belgium

June 20 is World Refugee Day

For his doctoral research, Minne Huysman, of the VUB's adult educational sciences department, followed 122 young newcomers who sought protection in Belgium in the summer of 2015. The research focused on how young people build and rebuild a new life and how they create a support network around them. The results of the research also appeared in book form (English and Dutch).

Huysmans: "Many young newcomers are separated from the world around them due to their status as refugee or asylum seeker. In Belgium, a lot of separate structures have been created, which unintentionally increase this gap, such as reception centres, separate schools, leisure activities for refugees, several relocations, youth work, welfare work, refugee organisations. Better bridges between all these organisations and a focus on not only vulnerability, but also on resilience, would enable these young people to become part of society much more quickly."

Migration and forced migration have always been part of our history, but in recent decades, this process has accelerated significantly. In 1975, according to the United Nations, 2.4 million people were forced to flee, while today that figure has increased to more than 70 million people. Half of these are children and young people. Although the vast majority of these people (86%) finds a new home in their own country or a directly neighbouring country, Europe has also become an important destination. In the crisis year of 2015, applications for international protection from 35,476 people were received by the Immigration Department in Belgium. Among these were applications from 3,919 young people without parents or legal guardians. (There are no figures for the total number of minors in that year.) In 2017, the number of applications was 19,688, of which 7,594 were from minors and 733 of these minors arrived without their parents or legal guardians. 16,910 persons submitted an application in 2020.

The summer of 2015

Minne Huysmans talked with 122 young newcomers aged between 13 and 18 years, who applied for asylum in Belgium in the summer of 2015. These are young people who arrived here alone or with their parents and come from conflict areas such as Afghanistan, Syria, Eritrea, Palestine, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Pakistan, Cameroon, DRC Congo, Nigeria and Somalia.

The researcher spoke with 63 young people shortly after their arrival and with 59 young people after they had been living in Belgium for three years. Huysmans and his colleagues visited these young people in the cities where they are rebuilding their lives. 93 boys and 29 girls were interviewed in Brussels, Antwerp, Aalst, Bruges, Ostend and Dendermonde. To facilitate this, the researchers worked together with a variety of organisations focusing on youth work, initial education and sheltering newcomers. Through qualitative in-depth interviews and drawings, they gained insight into how these young people start anew, who supports them in this and with whom they build lasting relationships.

The results show that the way this evolves is far from self-evident. In the construction of social networks, the researchers also see major differences between young people who live here on their own (unaccompanied foreign minors) and young people who live here with their parent(s) (accompanied foreign minors). These differences are noticeable upon arrival and continue to play a role in the years to follow.

Accompanies minors – a slow build-up to lasting relationships

For young people living here with their parents, it is they that form an important source of support. But this focus on the support from the parents, means that it becomes rather difficult for their children to build their own social relationships. Their small social network develops following the arrival in the neighbourhood where they live and in the initial schools where they learn one of the national languages.

Huysmans: "These networks are created mainly with other newcomers and teachers, but over the years they evolve into sustainable relationships that they build up in the neighbourhood where they live. Here, especially the relationship with teachers in initial education and later in regular education proves to be an important source of support for many accompanied foreign minors."

Unaccompanied minors – larger, but vulnerable networks

Unaccompanied foreign minors have larger social networks which they build up mainly in the reception centres where they are staying. These include relationships with other newcomers, guardians, solicitors, social workers, teachers and sometimes Belgian families who engage in the lives of these young people as support figures. These young people have little contact with the wider environment where they live. An additional challenge to building lasting relationships are the various relocations that are inherent to the asylum procedure in Belgium, from larger centres to small-scale customised shelters.

Huysmans: "Moving from one city to another, from one centre to another and from one social worker to another continues to complicate the vulnerable networks of these young people years after their arrival. Yet many unaccompanied foreign minors manage to stay in touch with the people who are important to them in Belgium and across national borders; friends, some social workers and family."

Building bridges and focusing more on resilience

For unaccompanied foreign minors, friends are by far the most important people in their social network. For accompanied foreign minors, it is their parents. Both relationships are very rich in support. However, in both cases these relationships have only limited links to the wider Belgian society. Unaccompanied foreign minors in particular lack a solid family basis and stable living conditions.

Huysmans: "The biggest challenge is that, in principle, all initiatives focus on sustainable support, but at the same time they build too few bridges with society. Young people thus miss contact with Belgian youths."

The central message of the researchers is therefore to better integrate support and social networks, to strive for a more balanced division between a welfare and a youth approach, and to focus on balancing vulnerability and resilience.

Huysmans: Unintentionally, the reception and welfare system creates a gap between newcomers and the wider society by focusing on the vulnerable position of these young people. This is certainly justified, but in doing so it loses sight of another important perspective, that of young newcomers as young people. After all, the word ‘newcomers’ is an adjective with a shelf life. Because when do you stop being new?"


TERPOCEEN. Auteur(s): Minne Huysmans, Dominique Verté, Jan Vanhee, Aspeditions, ISBN: 9789057187896, Taal : Nederlands


Researchgate publication: Minne Huysmans: Young newcomers at the crossroads of new beginnings: A contextual framework on experiences in urban Belgium


Minne Huysmans

0479 52 2991

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