picture of Elisabeth Punzi and Mostafa Hosseini
Foto: Petra Boström

CGM Chats: Understanding integration from the perspective of unaccompanied minors


Elisabeth Punzi and Mostafa Hosseini discuss their work interviewing Afghan unaccompanied minors to understand how they themselves understand integration.

This is part of a new series, CGM Chats, where we sit down with researchers to learn more about their projects. Today, we speak with Elisabeth Punzi and Mostafa Hosseini from the Department of Social Work


Can you name some of the key findings that you found most interesting in those two papers?

Well, where should we start? The idea behind it is that integration can be defined in different ways and in Sweden we have political, social and general pressure to be integrated so the idea was just to ask people: What is integration for you?

One thing that came up is not that you start and then you finish at some point—it is an ongoing process. The thing that they spoke a lot about was what integration is. I mean it is important with job, education, language, housing and stuff like that but it also depends a lot on interactions—a kind of relational frame. So in the sense how people act towards you. A sense of inclusion which is maybe a stage before integration.

Yeah exactly, it was very important for them to have support for housing and everything. But that was more of a technical aspect and it was the more relational aspect that they underlined. One young man said: “I know a lot of people who don’t speak Swedish very well, but they are integrated and have a great life.” We shouldn’t be preoccupied with specific questions like language. It is about the bigger picture.

Another thing what surprised us a bit is also that especially the boys mentioned that they want to contribute. And some of them explicitly said: “I know that I am integrated when I really contribute.” And that was really interesting. So it is not a one-way process or this idea of people just coming here and wanting things. Of course you can’t say this story that we are talking about is for every unaccompanied minor but for those boys and girls it was very important for them to contribute to the society.

Was it the plan from the beginning to separate the two articles into one with boys and one with girls?

We had some idea that maybe if we separate them it might give us two different descriptions. But we also really wanted to understand the experiences that the girls had because the girls are often forgotten. They are a bit neglected, including in research. Also, if you look at the country of origin and the migration to Sweden: girls are more exposed to gender-based violence which maybe also has an impact on the integration process. So that was also a theory we had.

Was there a particular motivation behind focusing specifically on unaccompanied minors?

Part of it was that before I got my PhD position I worked a lot with unaccompanied minors and we didn’t find so much research on them. So that was the thought of the project to try to do something about that and we got funding from Stiftelsen Allmänna Barnhuset. We were really interested in how the unaccompanied minors experienced this themselves, especially since this debate is often so polarized. We both are psychologists, so we are much more interested in the individuals rather than the politics of integration.

Did people in the interviews speak about the politics of integration or describe that as something that impacted how they integrated or their fears for the future?

Yeah, some of them did of course. It was a lot connected to the sense of recognition. So discrimination and racism is of course something that has huge impact on integration. Some of them talked a little bit about it, especially the boys I think. Maybe because the boys are more exposed to discrimination from the Swedish society since they are sometimes seen as threats, more than the girls are seen as threats. And it was very, very important for them to say that I am against everything that has to with drugs, with criminality. So they really wanted to position themselves, distancing themselves from these activities.

Something that came out of the article was that if one wants to invest in integration issues like poetry and arts and also having young people spend time with the elderly seems important. Was that something that you were expecting?

No, we didn’t really expect it. I mean knowing that this is a very individualistic culture and other cultures are more collectivistic, more directed towards the common good, it made sense. When they said it, we immediately realized that this is important. And that is also one thing that we as a society can learn. That they say some parts of my heritage I want to keep, for example these parts of being generous, supporting each other, taking care of the elderly. So integration in the case is you look at Swedish culture and you like take and make some mix of your own.

They also spoke about to be a part of some creative environment. This had different functions. In the beginning it was a way about dealing with the replacement, trauma, the feeling of loneliness and longing for the family. Some of them for example wrote poetry. But they also spoke about the poetry was also connected to a sense of recognition. To be recognized for what you have been through.

Are there any particular lessons from these studies that might be relevant for how we think about integration?

Big question! I mean you already said it before that we wrote in the article about the importance of relationships. I mean this goes of course against the idea of ‘we are just creating a law saying something’. You cannot force people to have relationships because there is a law to have it. But it needs to be acknowledged and we need to understand how we can support people and create environments where relationships can develop and grow.

One thing that the girls said: you really need to inform, both girls and boys, about gender equality and how things work in Sweden. Even though you know that there is gender equality in Sweden, you cannot grasp it. And this is not only providing a brochure, it is an ongoing process to have someone explaining to you when the questions arise. It is a totally new society.

Another thing, and this is not clear advice, but maybe to the general public. Integration is about everyone. Integration is happening every day so everyone has to contribute to it.

We were also amazed by the enormous strength that these young people have and how they use their difficult experiences to motivate themselves. It is amazing what people are able to go through and cope with. One of the guys talked about that every human has an inner potential and bringing it out it not something that you do by yourself. It also depends on the environment. 

Interview conducted by Joseph Anderson and Rebecca Mohr