Promoting identity formation and a sense of belonging among young refugees

Boris Thaser,, CC BY 2.0
Boris Thaser,, CC BY 2.0

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there are 65 million refugees worldwide, more than half of them under the age of 18. With the refugee crisis and higher rates of migration, individuals are suffering from more fragile identities and increasingly searching for continuity and belonging. The worldwide politicization of national, ethnic, and religious identities has made understanding the construction of social identities a major concern.

From a scientific perspective, identity can be linked to a variety of concepts and meanings, even within a discipline. Prominent developmental psychologists such as Erik H. Erikson, James E. Marcia, Jean S. Phinney, and Martyn Barrett have made a significant contribution to our understanding of the concept and formation of identities.

Barrett and colleagues have proposed a comprehensive model that takes into account external and internal dynamics that can affect how children develop knowledge, beliefs, and feelings about countries. External dynamics that influence a child’s identity formation may include such factors as mass media or schools (e.g. textbooks), as well as social factors like parents and peer groups.

In addition to these external dynamics, cognitive and motivational factors shape the development of identity. The processing of information, for example, depends on a child’s attention or memory. These cognitive processes can, in turn, be significantly influenced by the affective value of the information available to the child and the child’s motivational state.

I am conducting three projects designed to foster identity construction. The first investigates factors that affect an immigrant child’s sense of belonging to the host country and to the country of origin. This involves a meta-analysis that summarizes the quantitative results of earlier research. My expectation is that displaced children would gradually develop a strong sense of belonging to the host country (e.g., Germany) and would be less likely to identify with their country of origin (e.g., Syria). Seeking safety and a new identity, they would feel strongly connected with the receiving country.

“The findings may suggest possible measures for promoting integration in receiving countries, thereby leading to greater social cohesion.”

My second project looks at how individuals develop a sense of belonging to a country or group. It focuses on migrants and natives in Germany, which is one of the countries with the highest percentage of refugees. This addresses two research gaps: a lack of longitudinal surveys and a look at how identity is developed from adolescence to adulthood.

The third project takes a broader view, systematically summarizing existing international research on a young refugee’s focus on educational, sociocultural and emotional integration – all of which are essential for a stable identity. This review is intended to inform the interdisciplinary research community as well as policymakers.

All three projects examine how displaced individuals construct a sense of belonging. Their findings may suggest possible measures for promoting integration in receiving countries, thereby leading to greater social cohesion.

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