Wellbeing from a Refugee Children’s Perspective

Diskurs Kindheits- und Jugendforschung / Discourse. Journal of Childhood and Adolescence Research 2-2020: Refugee Children’s Wellbeing in Greece: Methodological and Ethical Challenges

Refugee Children’s Wellbeing in Greece: Methodological and Ethical Challenges

Antoanneta Potsi, Zoi Nikiforidou, Lydia Ntokou

Diskurs Kindheits- und Jugendforschung / Discourse. Journal of Childhood and Adolescence Research, Heft 2-2020, S. 160-173



This paper brings to the fore the methodological and ethical issues we faced in the process of collecting qualitative data from refugee children in Greece in the context of the Children’s Understandings of Well-Being study. The aim of this contribution is to expose the methodological and ethical challenges we encountered before and during the data collection. Through the case study of 4 children we critically reflect on the methodological tools used as a means of exploring refugee children’s sense of wellbeing. These were individual interviews initially and more participatory methods. Contextual factors are discussed and our dilemmas as researchers are unpicked for further analysis.

Keywords: participatory research, refugee children, well-being


Das Well-Being von Flüchtlingskindern in Griechenland: methodische und ethische Herausforderungen


Dieser Artikel stellt die methodischen Herausforderungen und Probleme in den Mittelpunkt, mit denen wir bei der Erhebung qualitativer Daten von Flüchtlingskindern in Griechenland im Rahmen der Children’s Understandings of Well-Being-Studie konfrontiert waren. Ziel dieses Beitrags ist es, die methodischen und ethischen Probleme aufzudecken, denen wir vor und während der Datenerhebung begegnet sind. In der Fallstudie von vier Kindern reflektieren wir kritisch die methodischen Instrumente, die zur Erforschung des Wohlbefindens von Flüchtlingskindern eingesetzt werden. Es handelte sich um Einzelinterviews und partizipativere Methoden. Kontextfaktoren werden diskutiert und unsere Dilemmata als Forscherinnen sind ausgewählt.

Schlagwörter: Partizipationsforschung, Flüchtlingskinder, children’s well-being


1 Introduction and research aims

In the context of the Children’s Understandings of Well-Being study we explored refugee children’s personal views on their wellbeing through qualitative data. The aim of this paper is to address the methodological and ethical challenges we confronted as researchers before and during the data collection. We examine the theories and methodological tools we used to investigate refugee children’s subjective well-being. Thus, the actual findings and children’s actual responses on what matters in their lives are not part of the scope of this paper.

Our data collection took place during August 2018 and June 2019 in the mainland of Greece. Our sample consists of four refugee children aged 4, 6, 7 and 8 years who live in the meinland of Greece and engage with community activities. Refugee families in Greece are located in temporary camps, but families who have been assessed as most vulnerable by social workers and psychologists live in apartment buildings in urban contexts. Access to and knowledge of how these children live becomes much more difficult compared to children who live in camps where organizations coexist in space.

The children who participated in the study were initially interviewed with the aid of an interpreter. However, this method seemed not to be very efficient and at a second stage, the mosaic approach (Clark/Moss, 2011) was considered. In this second stage children were given a variety of ways to share their lived experiences and showed higher levels of active engagement by contributing with their thoughts and views.

The paper starts with an overview of the theoretical underpinnings of the study and continues with a critical analysis of methodological and ethical aspects that emerged from the research. This paper aims to highlight the methodological and ethical challenges we faced as researchers when exploring refugee children’s views on the quality of their lives. Using individual interviews (stage 1) and participatory methods (stage 2) are critically discussed.

2 Literature review: Child well-being in theory

Childhood is characterized by a wide diversity across cultural frames, space and time (Facer/Holmes/Lee 2012, p. 172); nevertheless, its importance, as a decisive life stage with a value in itself, is unquestionable. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) has advanced the debate on childhood and altered the view on children from being merely recipients of freedom and services or beneficiaries of protective measures, to being subjects with rights and participants in the actions impacting on them. The fundamental difference between present discussions about children’s rights and those of previous years lies partly in a different picture of the child as deserving personal rights rather than simply protectionist rights (Sünker/Swiderek 2007). As such, over the last decade children are viewed as agents who have views and opinions on what matters to them and what sets a good, healthy and happy life.

Early childhood forms a critical life period which may have long-term effects on later life. The impact of adversity or positive experiences on children’s life quality can be approached through two ways: their entitlements to a good life in the here and now, as young children, and the impact these may have on the societal development and the potential for children’s forthcoming adulthood. As such, the understanding and research of childhood wellbeing is approached through a developmental perspective and/or a children’s rights perspective (Pollard/Lee 2003; Statham/Chase 2010). A developmentalist outlook is more likely to adopt measures associated with deficits, such as poverty, ignorance, and physical illness whereas a rights-based approach emphasises indicators and measures that provide opportunities and help children reach aspirations in the now rather than just in the future (Morrow/Mayall 2009).

Refugee children spend a part or often their entire childhood – facing severe restrictions of basic rights and needs, guaranteed to them by international humanitarian law and in particular by the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1979). In consequence, they experience childhoods that deviate a lot from the Western framework of an idealized “normal” childhood and, therefore, childhood as a secure stage of development is put into question. Qvortrup (1994) stressed the tendency to regard children as “human becomings” rather than “human beings” where the ultimate goal and end-point of individual development is adulthood. Our research focuses on refugee children as active social actors and as agentsindividuals with capabilities [that] have a crucial role in society (Comim et al. 2011).

Danby and Baker (1998) have shown that children are competent social agents and have an active social world that is located beyond the audible and visual scrutiny. Yet, children are not seen naively as actors without any limits to their agency. Children are seen as actors with limited and unequal access to action (Bühler-Niederberger/König 2011). Children are citizens of contemporary societies and they are also key for the future of society from a dual perspective: as citizens who are relevant for the future of democracies and as constituents of the labour force of tomorrow’s economy. The success of an economy and of a society cannot be separated from the lives that members of the society are able to lead (Sen 1999). Sen argues (1999, p. 5) that the capabilities that adults enjoy are deeply conditional on their experiences as children. Biggeri, Ballet and Comim (2004) argue that children are subjects of capabilities and that the capability approach can be very useful as a framework of thought and as a normative tool in analysing children’s well-being, poverty and deprivation. According to them, deficiencies in important capabilities during childhood reduce the well-being of those suffering from the deficiencies and may well have larger societal implications (Klasen 2001; Biggeri 2007). Sen (1987) argues that it is plausible to identify someone as having a low standard of living on the grounds that he or she is deprived of decent housing, or adequate food, or basic medical care. However, the stock of commodity possession is not the only indicator of a good life. Sen stresses that the standard of living must be directly a matter of the life one leads rather than of the resources and means one has in order to lead her/his life. So, the focus has to be on what life children lead and what they can or cannot do, can or cannot be. Nussbaum’s list of basic central capabilities for human flourishing provides a minimum account of social justice (2006, 2011).

Comim et al. (2011) refer to the impact of poverty on children’s development by stressing children’s disproportional representation among the poor, their suffering from irreversible forms of capability failure in terms of mental, physical, emotional and spiritual development, their vulnerability within the cycle of inter-generational transfer of poverty and the influence of their current well-being for their future. However, the discourse and conception that poor children are passive victims and face higher risks in many areas of their development is debatable. For example, Cheang and Goh (2018) found in their qualitative study in Singapore that children from low socio-economic backgrounds were resilient and agentic in school achievement and being aware of their family circumstances motivated them to work hard and enabled them to devise creative ways to manage their limited financial resources. Consequently, wellbeing is not only about the limitations, deficits and negative indicators but also about the possibilities and opportunities that given a situation might shape a person’s life in a positive way.

Biggeri, Ballet and Comim (2011) highlighted the theoretical and practical issues regarding the use of the capability approach in socio-cultural research focusing on children. From a methodological point of view they distinguish between participatory and non- participatory methods on the application of the capability approach to children. Furthermore, Statham and Chase (2010) underline the multidimensional and complex notion of child wellbeing. They state that there is need for both objective and subjective measures, addressing a wide variety of wellbeing domains, focusing on difficulties and deficiencies as well as attributes and strengths, incorporating children’s perspectives and feelings about their lives.

Refugee children in Greece1 face tremendous challenges and deprivations that impact their well-being in objective terms, that are becoming widely known through media coverage and reports. But well-being can be analyzed systematically only in the interplay of subjective and objective conditions (Hunner-Kreisel/März 2018, p. 426). Thus, this study aims to shed light to facets of refugee children’s subjective understanding of their wellbeing. For the purpose of the current study we explored refugee children’s views on what makes them happy and whether different methodological tools enable and facilitate this co-construction of understanding.

1 Greece for many years, mainly after World War II, was a country of export of economic immigrants, but the situation changed in the 1980s and became a country of host immigration. In recent years, Greece has experienced unprecedented arrivals of refugees and immigrants off its coast. According to UNICEF, Greece was hosting in 2017 more than 90.800 refugee and migrant children. UNICEF provides information on the demography on those arriving, including accompanied, unaccompanied and separated children (January-December 2018). Trapped in a political and bureaucratic limbo, these children are left most of the times in refugee camps with very limited resources for an indefinite period of time. Although news and information on the refugee issue are declining in the foreign media, the influx has never stopped.

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Diskurs Kindheits- und Jugendforschung / Discourse. Journal of Childhood and Adolescence Research 2-2020: Shifts in Child Well-Being ResearchSie möchten gerne weiterlesen? Dieser Beitrag ist in dem Heft 2-2020 der Zeitschrift Diskurs Kindheits- und Jugendforschung / Discourse. Journal of Childhood and Adolescence Research erschienen.

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