“Because I can’t just ‘go back to Africa…"
: How place, race and political grace affect the mental health and identity of African adolescent refugees growing up in London

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


Despite the vast majority of refugee-producing countries being located in Africa, and the continent’s powerful historic and ongoing colonial ties to Britain, little is known about the lived experience of African refugees living in the UK. In particular, adolescent refugees must overcome a unique set of challenges as they experience childhood and youth post-displacement. A review of literature focused on refugee mental health and identity highlighted theories prioritising psychosocial adaptation and social ecological factors to be most influential during refugees’ adolescence. To date, research among young refugees has focused predominantly on the relationship between adverse experiences and aetiologies of psychiatric disorder, thus reaffirming the difficulties young refugees experience as a maladaptive response to pre- and peri-migratory trauma. Hence, three research questions were generated with the aim of exploring the impact of psychosocial and political factors on adolescent refugee mental health utilising a qualitative, non-medical approach.

To address this aim, the current study adopted an interdisciplinary, predominantly psychoanthropological perspective. This research drew on relativist ontology which adopted two key interpretivist epistemological strands: phenomenology and refugee critical race theory. African adolescents with refugee status (n=5) living in a London borough (herein referred to as Locality X) took part in one-to-one, semi-structured interviews which were complemented by a twelve-month period of bi-weekly, community-based observation and engagement with the researcher. A narrative analysis informed by a phenomenological epistemology was developed to comprehensively investigate the adolescents’ ‘meaning-making’ of their experiences of phenomena subjectively represented in storied form.

Findings were supplemented by a thematic analysis of retrospective insights on the politicisation and psychosocial impact of their adolescent experiences gleaned from one-to-one, semi-structured interviews with African emerging adult refugees’ (n=3). Additional thematic analyses of semi-structured interviews with locality X key informants working in adolescent refugee-targeted provision from across the voluntary, community, faith and social enterprise (n=6) and local government (n=4) sectors also supported the development of key themes.

These analyses revealed the wider influence of intersectional complexity on the African adolescent refugees’ experiences. Phenomenological concepts of resourcefulness, becoming and belonging permeated adolescent narratives, through which perceptions of the interaction between pivotal people, places and times were powerfully employed to story their life events. Themes from emerging adult and key informant data also indicated a lack of positive change in the psychosocial experiences of African adolescent refugees in London over time, underpinned by the pervasive hostility across social and political landscapes. Implications of identified wider determinants of mental health such as cultural differences, social exclusion and psychosocial strain, with the related recommendations of how to address these, are discussed to inform future UK voluntary and statutory refugee provision. Summary of findings highlighted the significance of empowering adolescent refugee narrative and the unique role of collaborative action at local and national levels to positively shape the mental health and identity of individuals from refugee backgrounds.
Date of AwardJun 2024
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Brighton
SupervisorLaetitia Zeeman (Supervisor), Nichola Khan (Supervisor) & James Ravenhill (Supervisor)

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