Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


School of Education


Resettlement of refugees has long been considered as a durable solution by the international community and the United Nations. Australia’s resettlement programme has had a history of officially accepting refugees from some of the poorest and most war torn parts of the world. There is, however surprisingly little research that narrates how refugees themselves are experiencing resettlement and even less for refugee youth (Gifford 2007; Chatty, 2007; Cassity & Gow, 2005). This is particularly significant as 59% of new entrants arriving in the five years between July 2005 and June 2010 aged under 25 years on arrival, and 31% aged between 12 and 25 (Refugee Council of Australia, 2011). It is important to Australian society to begin to understand these young peoples’ journey and examine the ways in which they negotiate the multifaceted path to form a new identity in Australia. This study addresses this gap by investigating how young former refugees make social and cultural connections in the process of their resettlement in Australia.

The study draws upon the individual narratives collected in focus groups and individual interviews of twelve young former refugees from Karenni and Chin State Burma, Burma, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sierra Leon, South Sudan, Togo, Benin and Burundi. They are aged between 16 and 20 years of age.

The central concern of this study is to examine the ways the young people negotiate their cultural identity, creating and recreating new and evolving narratives that incorporate their past, present and future. I approach this by asking two questions: How do former refugee youths living in Australia negotiate their cultural identity? What pathways do young former refugees take to construct a new sense of identity? In investigating the answers I am primarily guided by the work of Stuart Hall. On one level his conceptualisation of how identities are conceived through discourse highlights the multiple ways in which the discursive labelling of ‘the refugee’ impacts upon the young people in their childhood and as they resettle into a Western democratic country. On another level Hall provides insight into how identities and in particular, cultural identities can be reconstructed within the diaspora. The study also turns to a number of poststructural theories including postcolonial theory, feminist theory and theories that guide inclusive education from a sociological perspective. These assist in describing the ways in which the fluidity and multiplicity of identity construction and reconstruction can be viewed. They also contribute to understanding the positioning of ‘the refugee’ in various social contexts.

The findings are written in journal article format. Each of the four articles take up a particular theme garnered from the data. The first is entitled ‘Finding Education’ (Chapter Four) examining the ways the young people told of how they negotiated attending school. It points out that the current discourses do not include the intricate complexities of the refugee experience and therefore leaves out the extraordinary narratives the young refugee’s persistence in finding an education for themselves. The second entitled ‘A Black Dot on White Paper’, (Chapter Five) examines the experiences of entering Australian high schools. Schools are often the first points of contact for former refugee young people and play a significant role in establishing meaningful connections to Australian society. It argues that it is how the school positions the refugee students within mainstream school culture that opens up or restricts opportunities for inclusion.

Chapter Six, entitled ‘Doing it Alone’, looks at the participants from African countries and examines their experiences of change within the family in resettlement. Their narratives address the stresses and excitements of embracing their new home and how resettlement impacts upon the power relationships within the family structure. Chapter Seven is called ‘Belonging to a Memory’ and takes a deeper look at how the ethnic Burmese participants’ negotiate belonging to the diaspora. I suggest that the stories of a peaceful homeland told by parents and elders create for the young people a strong cultural identity and argue that in the safety of Australia these young people have found ways to modernise their identity to assist in advocating for freedom for Burma.

The discussion in Chapter Eight attempts to bring together and synthesise the findings from the four previous chapters. It identifies some of the themes that have surfaced through the identity negotiations of the young people. I then highlight the ways the young people have been positioned in society due to their refugee identity and make connections to how this positioning affects access to a better life. Finally, I then foreground three arguments; ‘The refugee and the former refugee is understood as a homogenized identity’; ‘A misunderstanding of young former refugees tends to serve to limit the possibilities of schooling’; and ‘The negative homogenizing of ‘the refugee’ ignores the hope and excitement for life that the young refugees bring to their new experiences in Australia’.