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Migrant youth and the challenge of schooling and identity

Young people have been the focal point in recent debates about immigration, multiculturalism, cultural diversity, and the notion of living with difference. We have seen recently (March 2013) the release of the Federal government inquiry into ‘Multiculturalism in Australia’ with a sharper emphasis on social cohesion and successful integration for migrant youth. But within the broader multicltural debate, cultural identity and articulations of belonging and attachment remain central issues for migrant youth, regardless of how much time has elapsed since leaving their country of origin. Cultural identity is particularly salient for migrant youth who negotiate identity space comfortably alongside, in opposition to, or more commonly, somewhere in between their immigrant parents’ conceptions and understanding of culture and the receiving culture within which they live. Unlike their native peers, migrant youth are exposed to intra-ethnic and interethnic dynamics in their journey towards cultural identity formation. These experiences can be fluid, complex, and diverse and are navigated within multilayered ethnic, racial, familial, gendered, socioeconomic, and educational contexts. Within this complex environment, education plays a crucial role in the settlement experiences of migrants irrespective of the period of settlement. This essay argues that the two critical dimensions of identity and education interact and combine to impact on the settlement and cultural adjustment experiences of migrant youth irrespective of their formal status in the countries of residence.






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Much of the literature on first and second-generation migrants posits culture within a center–periphery relationship with competing paradigms of majority culture versus minority culture(s) and the related processes of sociocultural inclusion or exclusion . But the problem with this conceptual framework is that it easily ascribes ethnic labels to cultures without identifying what such labels mean in practical terms. Ethno-cultural labels assume a high level of cultural homogeneity within a given ethnic group without accounting for internal heterogeneity and areas of cultural overlap within migrant communities themselves. They also often fail to consider variations in socioeconomic status, religion, gender, race, or proficiency in the host country’s official language.


These variations often determine the capacity of migrant youth to access institutional resources that can empower and make visible certain cultural norms at the expense of others less proactive. What needs to be stressed here is that cultures amongst migrant youth are not monolithic or historically continuous, as the heritage values a migrant community claims to share might be a contested issue within that community, especially from the point of view of second-generation youth.

While migrant communities can influence their youth in central or peripheral cultural ways, it is counterproductive to assume an overarching homogeneous and “common culture.” A good illustrative example here can be seen with regard to certain cultural practices such as marrying close relatives, or the more controversial issue of female circumcision among certain African migrant communities. In such cases, migrant youth often contest, reject, and rebel against such collective claims even when made under the collective “cultural heritage” argument. These examples also show that the issues of cultural identity can and often do influence overall social experiences including those pertaining to education achievements.


Yet what remains  undoutedbly true, is that there is an increasing awareness of the role of education in achieving better social integration and settlement outcomes for migrant youth. Research has shown that poor education outcomes can lead to poor developmental outcomes and an overall poor sense of social integration. The importance of education in this area is highlighted by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child which emphasizes every child’s right to education, cultural identity, and a safe environment. These rights are especially relevant for migrant children, irrespective of their migratory experience, as these are even more vulnerable to social exclusion, marginalization, and, in some cases, abuses.

 This is an abbreviated/edited version of a recent paper published in the Encyclopaedia of Global Human Migration (Wiley Publishers, 2013).



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