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Cultural and Social Anthropology

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How Age Makes a Difference: Practices of Classification, Belonging and Political Subjectivity Among Young Refugees in Germany



Funding: DFG - Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft

Duration: January 2019 - February 2024

Project lead: Prof. Dr. Katharina Schramm

Research associate: Sabine Netz, M.A.


What constitutes and characterizes minority or legal majority among refugees - and how does age make a difference in terms of rights (of residence), politics and affects? These are the two main questions we pursue in this project (funded by the German Research Foundation, DFG). Time and again there are intense public debates on the age of refugees and on forensic and pedagogic age assessment practices.

Indeed, unaccompanied minor refugees have different rights and opportunities than adult refugees: they have the right to a place in an apartment for young people, to a German language course and to schooling. At the same time, they need to adhere to the guidelines of pedagogic caretakers and legal guardians. Most of all, they have different opportunities than adult refugees when it comes to organizing their residence in Germany. For example, it is legally almost impossible to deport unaccompanied minors.

In our project, we focus on two research dimensions:

1) Classification practices, i.e. the enactment and manifestation of age as a category of difference in practices of age assessment;

2) The effects and consequences of these classifications, i.e. age-specific forms of belonging, rights, possibilities and restraints of young refugees with the status "unaccompanied minor".

In order to pursue our research questions, we plan a long-term ethnographic study. Here, we will conduct participatory observations at all important stations of the arrival process of young refugees and conduct interviews with the central actors of the different procedures. These include the reception and youth welfare services, pedagogic and forensic practices of age assessment as well as objection proceedings tied to them.

What is basic for the above described research dimensions is our understanding of the category of age as contingent, situated and dependent on specific enactment practices. In this way, we can analyze which elements become (ir)relevant and decisive in manifold medical, pedagogic and bureaucratic practices, when it comes to the question: is a refugee a minor? In order to study the effects of these classifications we work with the concept of political subjectivity which allows us to include rights and claim making as well as affective forms of belonging in our investigation.

By means of this first ethnographic analysis of the enactment and effectiveness of age in the context of migration this project also develops new approaches for a critical intervention in the dominant public discourse on the practice and meaning of age assessments in young refugees. Our project makes a theoretical and empirical contribution at the intersection of medical anthropology, science and technology studies (STS), studies on refugees and migration as well as research on childhood and youth.

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