Impacts of forced migration on identity and a sense of home

Identity disrupted: The impact of forced migration on youth

Jessica Ball, professor and researcher with UVic’s School of Child and Youth Care, is currently completing the second phase of a multi-disciplinary, three-phased research study, which began in 2016 with funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. This national agency recently awarded Ball and her team $25,000 for the third phase of their study, which offers a rare, intimate assessment of the impact on youth facing forced migration and subsequent trauma.

This research project poses the questions: How do young people identify themselves when stripped of all that they have known in their early life? How does a radical, violent move change how they see themselves and where they belong? How do they envision their lives and their futures?

Ball’s team is comprised of graduate students with first-hand experience in migrating to Canada from Thailand, Myanmar and Australia. Together, they focus their study on 90 adolescent migrants displaced from their homes in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, and now living in transit in Malaysia and Thailand.

“We are truly surprised by what we have learned about how these young people are coping with deeply harrowing situations,” says Ball. The study participants share common circumstances being homeless, often stateless, undocumented and, often, unwanted civilians in countries that refuse to acknowledge their rights to the basic necessities of life.

Today, more people than ever are being forced to migrate largely due to armed conflict or persecution. Typically, children and youth caught up in forced migration are invisible to authorities, identified solely by their parents’ names and not as individuals. As a result, young migrants are often more challenged than adults, especially those who are unaccompanied because their parents have died, been detained, or have gone elsewhere to find work.

Forced migrant children live as ‘illegal aliens’ in risky environments, often exposed to more trauma. They wait for notice of yet another move, hoping it will be to a safer place where they can be reunited with family or be placed with people they can trust.

“While these youth do face staggering conditions, they also persevere and dream of overcoming their circumstances with resilience and a desire to succeed.”

  • Professor Jessica Ball, principal investigator, UVic’s School of Child and Youth Care.


Sharing stories and findings: Professor Jessica Ball, centre, looks on as Manee Khunphakdee, an exchange student from Tammasat University in Bangkok, Thailand, shares details of how one research participant explained her storyboard illustrating her migration experience. From l to r: Riya Detkhat, also with Tammasat University, Rashin Lamouchi, a Child and Youth Care MA student, and Chris Tse, a Social Work MSW student.

Each youngster is shown how to use a storyboard and given an art kit and poster board to illustrate their story. This approach overcomes language barriers and youth enjoy the chance for creative expression of who they are and what the hope for in the future. Over a period of four weeks, these young participants can edit and add to their storyboard as their migrant peers and research team members ask them questions, and as their self-understanding and willingness to disclose their experiences change over time.  

Ball explains that change is a constant for study participants. “They are continually redefining their sense of who they are,” she says, “where they belong, what is home and how they hope to shape their future,”  

“By presenting their storyboard narratives to other participants,” says team member Rashin Lamouchi, “they learn about each other and become deeply bonded in sharing their great challenges and also what they have overcome.”

“The general public needs to reconsider the general image of youth in transit only as tragic victims,” says Ball. “Scholars need to examine how youth who lack so many of the conditions thought to be essential for child development are able to survive and, in some ways, thrive, against the odds.” Ball also noted that Canada often features in these young migrants’ storyboards as a place where they hope to resettle.

“The storyboard has become an essential communications tool,” says Ball. “This is one of the few studies of its kind to use an unstructured, arts-based approach to hear each young migrant’s experience and to give priority to the questions their peers ask about their story.” The research team explores and interprets how each story describes a personal journey of someone young, longing for home, living in a state of hope yet perched on the margins of society, not knowing what each day – or their future – might hold.


Free speaking engagement: Mar. 6, 2020, from 2 to 3:30 pm, UVic Ideafest 2020, Cornett Building - Room B112. This interactive workshop describes the global situation of forced migration on children and youth with insights from researchers involved with UVic’s Youth Migration Project. Gain insights on how 40 young migrant participants respond to exile and life in transit, which calls upon a depth of strength and willingness to adapt and change. Participants can explore research perspectives through Q & As and through learning more about their storyboarding method. No RSVPs; seating is first come, first seated.

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