Asserting agency in the face of institutions: unaccompanied minor refugees in South Tyrol
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SubjectSocial work; Migration; Transition; Identity negotiation; Agency; Social networks; Unaccompanied refugee children; Education; Care; SPS/08
There are eighteen thousand unaccompanied minor refugees in Italy, many of whom lack access to health care, education and even shelter. Those who are inserted into an institutional care setting usually have their basic needs covered and can focus on constructing a future. Their young age implies a particular vulnerability that comes with a status of protection and limited accountability, while their biography is marked by remarkable agency and self-reliance. This research examines how unaccompanied minor refugees develop and assert agency, how institutional actors promote and hamper this process, and what implications a relational understanding of agency has for social work practice in an institutional context. These questions are inserted into the contradictory context provided by the minors’ self-determination and need for protection. A relational understanding of agency conceptualised by Raithelhuber provides the theoretical framework to analyse the qualitative data gathered through participant observations in a first reception centre for unaccompanied minor refugees in South Tyrol, Italy. The findings of the participant observation are read in their local juridical and political underpinning. The results show how both the social welfare institutions and the private social care providers conceptualise agency in a structure–agency-dichotomy that brings agentic processes to a halt when the structure limits the individual’s freedom of choice, or when the individual asserts agency beyond the realms of the structure. This conflict can manifest itself in crucial moments of transition, when the minor envisions a life trajectory that is irreconcilable with the life trajectory encouraged or enabled by the institutional actors. The application of a relational understanding of agency that broadens the network of agentic actors is proposed, in order to overcome the aforementioned dichotomy. The perception of agency as contextualised, relational and embedded in a network is shown to contribute to the minor’s assertion of agency, aiding them to reach specific life goals, substantial social participation, and sustainable integration.
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