Everyday Life and Critical Diversities

The politics of deservingness and belonging in youth research on ‘integration.’

By Thea Shahrokh, Majella Kilkey, Hannah Lewis and Ryan Powell

Over the last year the context in which young people with migration experiences are building their lives has become increasingly insecure in the UK. Young people are navigating a continued hostile immigration environment, which works powerfully to create uncertainty and undermine futures. Most recently, young asylum seekers faced attack within Priti Patel’s outlining of the New Plan for Immigration. Not only were narratives of suspicion and criminalisation reinforced, but proposed structural changes, strongly criticised by civil society and academics, would drive a permanent state of temporariness for people claiming asylum to create a two-tier system which aims to distinguish deservingness for refugee protection on an assessment of entry routes as either ‘legal’ or ‘illegal’.

The multifaceted identities of young people with migration experiences intersect with the realities of diverse young people within the UK. Young people are embedded in landscapes of racialised and class-based COVID-inequalities, which exist in relation to longstanding inequalities of outcome in education and employment affecting minority ethnic youth. The context for young people is being further fractured by policies shaping ideas of belonging, such as the criminalisation of trespass, which disproportionately affects Gypsy-Traveller communities. These restrictions on freedom come with an increase in the power devolved to the police over protest; a stark reality for young people, whose activism and agency have been manifest recently in the Black Lives Matter and climate justice movements.

Black Lives Matter protest by PDBVerlag, via Pixabay.

These changes, exacerbated by a decade of austerity, are set against a backdrop within which the vital services that support young people’s increasingly complex ‘transitions’ and aspirations have faced devastating cuts. The pandemic has amplified this, and the significant support committed in the Youth Investment Fund has not been realised. The impact at the local level, where services are resourced and enacted by local authorities, third-sector and community organisations is being deeply felt, and the erosion of youth services will undoubtedly have a lasting impact on social inequalities.

As we work to build the UK component of the EU-wide research project MIMY, we are committed to a meaningfully contextualised approach that critically engages with issues of empowerment and integration for migrant youth in vulnerable conditions. This means engaging with and responding to these social inequalities and the ways that hierarchies of worth can be constructed at both the national and local levels, including in Sheffield and Barnsley where our research is taking place. We are conscious of this not only in terms of societal and institutional constructions, but the role that research plays in disrupting, and/or reproducing boundaries and binaries in young people’s lives.

Within MIMY we are navigating these boundaries in relation to the (contested) concepts of ‘integration’, ‘vulnerability’, ‘empowerment’ and the framing of ‘migrant youth’. Importantly we will be critically examining these ideas with and for young people through a process of youth participation, co-inquiry, listening relationships with young people as research participants, and through arts-based action research.

In a commitment to reflexive engagement and accountability within this process, this blog shares some of the critical questions we are asking as our project develops in the UK. In the first instance, we want to make visible that the politics of deservingness and belonging are deeply interwoven in the concept of integration. Integration of who into what? And on whose terms? By framing the project around the experience of young people with migration experiences from outside of the EU we aim not to reproduce binaries or hierarchies between these young people, EU migrants, and longer standing communities. Rather, our aim is to understand how diverse lives touch and interweave within both policy, practice and everyday life, and unfold across time and space.

In MIMY we are asking who is responsible and accountable for processes of empowerment and integration? And, whose interests are being served? Our reading of UK integration debates and policies to date shows a positioning of young migrants within a web of identities often associated with threat and risk. As a result they face narratives of responsibilisation and securitisation, and there are risks of a renewed assimilationism within policy and practice. Moving forward, we are exploring what conceptualisations of integration are held and enacted at the local level and whether these constrain or facilitate the aspirations young people hold for building their lives. 

Photo by Tim Gillin, (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr

At the same time, in discussing the question of empowerment, we are critical of the paternalism and neo-colonialism embedded in the idea. Again, this comes back to who is defining the terms of empowerment. Is it simply embedded within the status quo, upholding it? Or is it engaging with transformation of structural inequalities? In taking a participatory approach within MIMY’s work, this is not only an empirical question, but also a methodological and ethical one.

Within our initial research into the support infrastructures available to young people with migration experiences, we are building situated insight into constructions of vulnerability, and how this is shaping access to services. This includes factors such as legal status, gender, age and disability, and the relationship between vulnerability and deservingness; reinforced in Patel’s criminalisation of young asylum-seeking men, for example, within her statement outlining the new immigration plan. By intentionally exploring ‘vulnerable conditions’ within MIMY we aim not to reproduce essentialism within the idea of vulnerability (as attached to certain groups or individuals and translated into ‘risks’), but rather to address how processes of vulnerability are structurally produced and reproduced. This is in recognition that where vulnerability is a lived experience for young people it needs to be addressed.

In writing this piece we are highlighting a set of tensions within social science research around the categories that we use. Within MIMY we take responsibility for our role in the research relationship to critically engage with the politics of deservingness and belonging within notions of integration, empowerment and vulnerability. Our aim is to also unpack these politics with young people with diverse positionalities in relation to migration,, as well as with the different actors involved in the support structures around their lives. By engaging in these critical conversations and dialogues together we hope to build collaborative relationships that ask critical questions, and attempt to redress power inequalities within and outside of the research.

For more information about MIMY or to explore opportunities for collaboration, please contact Thea Shahrokh on t.shahrokh@sheffield.ac.uk.

MIMY has received Funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under Grant Agreement No. 870700.

Featured Image Credit: = // = by Anthony Theobald. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) via Flickr.

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