Adolescents’ independent migration in Senegal (english)

Collaborative fieldwork – Mélanie Jacquemin & Dorte Thorsen

11 – 25 October 2017

This study explores the contours and specificities of the dynamics of migratory processes involving adolescents migrating without their birth parents. In the anthropological and sociological literature, the term “independent child migration” has become increasingly common, while the term “unaccompanied child migrants” has spread from literature addressing forced migration into the terminology used by international organisations and policy makers. Both terms are used to describe young people on the move when they are below 18 years of age and move without their birth parents, whether they move voluntarily and without anybody threatening or deceiving them to do so or because they are forced to do so. The use is not indiscriminate but linked to how adolescents’ agency in decisions about their life paths is conceptualized. This, ultimately, is linked to how childhood and transitions to youth and adulthood are theorized.

The principal purpose of the study is two-fold. At the conceptual level, we explore the appropriateness of the two terms used to categorise adolescent migrants. In policy discourses and programming the notions of “independent” and “unaccompanied” in connection with “child” usually results in a negative framing of adolescents’ mobility, suggesting that they are passive victims whose rights are being breeched. The academic literature, on the other hand, seeks to unpick adolescents’ agency and the structural constraints impinging on this agency. Our study is situated within this academic body of inquiry. It examines gender differences in adolescent migrants’ pathways, their experiences of migration and perceptions of what a good future would look like to shed light on the social affiliations and hierarchies in contemporary migration.

Based on fieldwork carried out in Ziguinchor, Lower Casamance, our aim is to produce a deeply qualitative material that can help illuminate transformations and continuities in the social organisation of translocal communities and the ways in which adolescent boys and girls shape, and are shaped by, the social fabric of their communities. In turn, a better understanding of the gradual changes and their impact on gender and generational dynamics can help refine policy and programming in the fields of child protection, youth employment and migration by nuancing what it means to an adolescent boys or girls to be an “independent” or “unaccompanied” migrant.

At the methodological level, our study explores the suitability of a small number of participatory and visual qualitative methods in research with adolescents. They include mapping, role play and photovoice, used in combination with focus group discussions and individual in-depth interviews. The first phase of collaborative fieldwork undertaken in Ziguinchor during 14 days in October 2017 focused on the refinement of these methods while also producing valuable material with adolescent migrants and getting deeper insights into the setting. As we are planning to continue the fieldwork, this field report focuses on the methodological aspects of the collaborative fieldwork October 2017.

Research questions

We hope to construct typologies of decision-making processes and linking them to the grounded practices of adolescent migrants through addressing the following questions:

  • How do boys and girls migrate in a context where social norms are highly gendered and tend to shape the experience and temporality of youth, especially for girls?
  • How does the decision to leave and the experience as a migrant intersect with young people’s trajectories of education and work?
  • In which activities do boys and girls engage, what strategic reasons do they have for doing so, and which constraints do they experience?
  • In which ways is the migration of children independent when it is also embedded in family relations?
  • How do the public and political structures perceive of young people’s mobility?
  • What can adolescent migrants’ stories tell us about social change and continuity in the social organisation of their communities?
  • How does translocality impact on kinship and other social relations?

Methodology and methods

While it is relatively easy to generate grounded information about adolescent migrants’ work, education and their overall sense of well-being, it is difficult to capture the many nuances of their experiences from the very point of leaving home to the time when we met them. In a fieldwork of short duration, it is challenging both to establish a relationship of trust with the adolescents and the people around them and to have repeated interactions with the research participants to elaborate the finer details of their stories to go beyond snapshot representations. In this collaborative fieldwork we chose to use participatory methods to overcome some of these constraints.

We used a methods toolbox developed by Dorte for a piece of commissioned research with adolescent migrants in Rwanda and Vietnam, in which she trained local research consultants to do the field research. We also drew on methods we had both used in another piece of commissioned research, which was so time-constrained that it was impossible to do justice to the methods and capture the nuances added by using participatory methods. Hence, we wanted to explore the usefulness of these methods in a study where we were fully involved in the production of data and in charge of the sampling and scheduling of research activities.

The research was not without time constraints however. Spending only 14 days in the field has the obvious drawback of having to enter the field running and of not always being able to reschedule activities to the extent necessary. We drew on Mélanie’s knowledge of Ziguinchor and the many institutional and personal contacts she had established on earlier visits, thus preserving valuable time for the research itself.  Through these contacts, we were able to access a number of adolescent migrants and, not least, spaces in which we could conduct focus group discussions and interviews. Through our affiliation with the Sociology Department at UASZ we recruited two student research assistants, who were invaluable in recruiting research participants, translating and transcribing research activities.

Doing research with adolescents who are working posed another constraint, which we were well aware of from previous work. The research had to be done at times when they had a break and their employers allowed them to participate. Thus, we planned our activities to last for a maximum of two hours at break time or after work. Additionally, obtaining the employers’ permission for the adolescents to participate in the research required some time, as several employers referred us to relatives who acted as guardians of the child or approached these relatives before giving permission.

During the 14 days in October 2017, we recruited 17 adolescent boys and 6 adolescent girls aged 12 to 20 years (median age 17 years) in market places, transport hubs, workshops, an NGO and low-income neighbourhoods. Discussions and interviews were conducted in French, Wolof, Mandinka, Fula and Jola, transcribed verbatim and translated into French.

Table 1 Research components and number of participants involved by the end of October 2017

Method   In education/training Out-of-school
Focus group with mapping (2) Female 2
Male 2 1
Focus group with roleplay (2) Female
Male 6 3
Photovoice (8) Female 2 2
Male 2 2
Individual interview (1) Female
Male 1
Total Female 13 2 10 4
Male 11 6
Employers interviews (2) Female 1  
Male 1  

Focus group discussions mapping migratory practices

The purpose of the mapping exercise was to get an impression of the migration patterns and networks in the adolescents’ home communities and to identify gender differences in these patterns and in adolescents’ knowledge about different migratory forms. Using different colours to differentiate between popular and less popular routes, we visualized differences between the communities to examine:

  • the range of possibilities that adolescents might consider in relation to migration practices in their communities of origin
  • their representations of migration at the time of their departure, and how their perceptions of migration opportunities may evolve over time
  • how adolescents can be actors in the configuration of kinship

We engaged in two of these focus group discussions with out-of-school adolescents – one with boys and one with girls – discovering that even participants who had been enrolled in school for some years felt intimidated in front of us and the other participants. Participation was optimal when discussing the map and we were in charge of drawing lines. Another important learning across all group activities was the challenge of language: We were doing the activities with translation from French into several languages, impeding the animation of spontaneous discussion. Finally, it also became clear that some of the participants had limited knowledge about long distance migration paths, even though they knew of members of their communities in North Africa and Europe. One boy for example was convinced that migrants went to the Gambia to embark on a boat journey to Libya. Others might not have felt comfortable with us or the group to share their knowledge.

For providing meaningful data, especially on gender differences, we need to address the challenges and to engage in more mapping exercises.

Focus group discussions prompted by role play and/or drawing

The aim of these focus group discussions was to get insights into adolescents’ perspectives on risk and vulnerability, how their well-being can be assured and who is usually involved in that, and how they negotiate with authorities, relatives, practitioners and others who influence their lives. Most participants were 16-18 years old and either worked for a meagre income, were itinerant traders or were doing apprenticeships. We deemed them too old to be interested in drawing exercises and therefore focused our methodological explorations on role play followed by discussion.

We organised two of these focus group discussions with adolescent boys during first phase of the fieldwork. One of the discussions, in which we worked with two sub-groups of three persons made clear the challenge of establishing trust. One of the groups participating preferring to talk about their experiences rather than acting them out, while the other group of adolescent boys of a similar age performed and sparked a more animated discussion. It is thus important to include short ice-breaking activities to facilitate the sharing of experiences. Mélanie has since conducted another focus group discussion with girls who found the role play animating and helpful to illuminate painful migratory experiences.

As above, we need to engage in more of these group exercises to examine potential age and gender differences and to assess their usefulness in the production of data.

Photovoice followed by in-depth interviews

The purpose of using photovoice was to explore adolescents’ representations of desired and undesired outcomes of migration and the areas of adolescents’ lives that we usually don’t see. The method involved lending cameras to adolescent migrants to take photographs of their everyday lives every couple of hours during a day and of things or people representing what they saw as a successful outcome of migration and what they tried to avoid. After two days we followed up by in-depth interviews using the photos as prompts.

During the fieldwork in October 2017 eight adolescents worked with photovoice. A real strength of this method was its ability to the reveal of the extent of adolescents’ social networks and the relationships they cherish, which we would not necessarily have thought to ask about. Another strength was the rapport the lending of a camera triggered. Several adolescents articulated their appreciation of the trust we had shown by lending them a digital camera, and they were generally enthusiastic about sharing their photographs with us. A few were not allowed to take photographs because we had not been able to approach their guardians for lack of time. Mélanie has since continued using photovoice in follow up work.

Among the participatory methods used, photovoice was the most successful one because most of the adolescents enjoyed visualising parts of their lives and it prompted insights into their dreams for the future and about their diverse livelihood portfolios, which in many cases involved employment and education/training at different times of the day. Such information would have been difficult to access without more time for participant observation.

Future work – fieldwork and analysis

In July-August 2018, we will be working with the preliminary analysis to identify gaps in our knowledge in order to plan the second phase of collaborative fieldwork in September 2018. The material produced in the first phase and during Mélanie’s fieldwork provides some very interesting insight into how family circumstances shape adolescents’ early experience of migration with significant repercussions for their expectations for the future. It is essential to elaborate the empirical material to consolidate the emerging findings and construct robust arguments.

Citer ce billet
La rédaction (2018, 21 août). Adolescents’ independent migration in Senegal (english). MOVIDA. Consulté le 27 mai 2024, à l’adresse

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