Researching childhood statelessness
Statelessness research is a difficult endeavour regardless of whether your research participants are adults or children. However, there are specific and particular issues associated with researching children’s experiences of statelessness. In this essay, I aim to bring this type of research to life by sharing some reflections on the study that I have conducted, as a PhD candidate, among ethnic Vietnamese children living in Cambodia with ‘undetermined nationality’.
The majority of children I carried out research with belong to families with a long history living in Cambodia, but do not appear to have been able to secure access to Cambodian nationality (hence the label adopted in my research of ‘undetermined nationality’). Most had been born in Cambodia to parents who had also been born in Cambodia, and had departed the country for a brief period from 1975 to 1979, during Khmer Rouge rule. Some children’s grandparents were also born in Cambodia. Despite this, only a few had birth certificates and most live with undetermined nationality. Without citizenship and other documentation for themselves, it is extremely difficult for ethnic Vietnamese parents to secure Cambodian nationality for their children based on Nationality Law (1996). For instance, despite introducing a jus soli provision, ethnic Vietnamese children born in Cambodia can acquire nationality only insofar as their parents can prove that they were either born or have lived legally in the country. However, most Vietnamese who returned to Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge period lost their papers and cannot prove their residence before the adoption of the 1994 Immigration Law; therefore, their children are not considered Cambodian citizens.
The objectives of my research were to understand the everyday reality and experiences of Vietnamese children living in Cambodia with undetermined nationality. What came into focus during the research was how identity and a sense of belonging are being formulated by young people and the role that religion plays in this process. This essay will discuss how I approached the research as well as the ethical and methodological considerations.
2. Researching ‘with’ rather than ‘on’ children
It is important to stress one significant change that has taken place within anthropology that has informed the approach I have taken during my fieldwork. Traditionally, when anthropologists carried out their ethnographies, children were either studied as ‘adults in waiting’, or the focus was research on children rather than with children. Research on children would have focused largely on how childhood is constructed across cultures and on the rituals and cultural practices that ushered in adulthood. What was lacking in anthropological studies concerning childhood were the voices of children themselves. Children’s voices were not completely missing from ethnographic texts but they were few and far between.
Today the anthropology of childhood has taken significant steps to carry out research with children. Taking children’s agency seriously and believing that a child is the best person to explain their world, meaning that research on childhood statelessness, for instance, can best be understood by asking children themselves, and that they, therefore, must be involved where possible, in research design and practice.
3. Ethical considerations
Doing academic research with children is fraught with important ethical considerations, which feels like working in a minefield at times. Anyone considering embarking on such research should talk to academics with experience working with children. (Those without experience will say unhelpful things like “you’re working with children; the ethics process is going to be a nightmare!”) A common ethical mistake is confusing what ought to be a robust process of protecting children from harm, with ignorance about researching with children and their ability to talk about their experiences and traumatic instances with profound resolve. For instance, I spent much time preparing to be reflexive throughout the research process and not to unhelpfully raise issues that could cause a participant to become upset. However, in hindsight I actually needed to prepare myself mentally for listening to children’s intimate accounts of their lives, often from out of the blue and without having built any prior rapport. For instance, whilst completing an exercise exploring concepts of time and history, participants drew a timeline of their lives from being born to the present day. Afterwards I proceeded to ask a participant what they wrote as their earliest memory on their timeline:
INTERVIEWER: You’ve started the timeline when you were 7, what happened when you were 7?
PARTICIPANT: When I was 7 years old my younger sister fell into the water and died.
INTERVIEWER: Oh I am sorry to hear that. How old was she?
PARTICIPANT: 3 years old.
INTERVIEWER: Was she on her own when she fell or was someone else there?
PARTICIPANT: That time I stay at home to do to the house work. I brought for her the life jacket but she took it off.
INTERVIEWER: Is this your first memory?
INTERVIEWER: What happened in your life from 0-7?
PARTICIPANT: Nothing happened in my life until I am 7 years old. Then my sister died.
This shocking story was one of many I heard about the vulnerability of living on the river. Many children with undetermined nationality live on the water because their family cannot buy land or cannot afford land taxes which most Vietnamese have to pay. Living in the community and continuing with the research after learning of this unfortunate death, I did not feel the full impact of this story on my own mental wellbeing until I had space to reflect. Having people to talk to and process emotional encounters whether they are supervisors or trusted friends, is essential.
4. ‘Child-friendly’ methodologies
In the social sciences there has been a long debate on issues to do with ‘child friendly’ research and what methodology will best capture children’s experiences as they happen. At the fore of this discussion is the question of whether children should be treated differently to adults when it comes to interviews and interaction. Interviews that consist of straight talking about topics for an hour - with the potential to unearth sensitive data - have been considered potentially arduous for children.
My research design had two important cornerstones: firstly, children are agents in their own right. They ought to be listened to and taken seriously. As people who experience their world directly they are the best people to explain that experience – not adults. Secondly, the research agenda ought to be formulated with participants and not be undertaken without their consent and vital input into the research questions. In my situation, I pitched the research idea to around 70 children, explained my interests, and asked them whether they thought my project was worthwhile, getting feedback on what they considered the important issues present in their lives. Giving over the research agenda is a nerve-wracking moment. If research is going to be participatory - and participant’s voices really do matter – I had to prepare myself for the possibility that participants might not think the project was worthwhile and therefore would not want to participate. Thankfully the response was positive and the research was seen as a way for children to speak to the world; as one participant replied, “we can share our lives with people who have the same problems.”
Preliminary focus groups explored what participants thought should be included in the research, what questions they wanted to be asked and not asked, and what they wanted the world to know about their lives. Once the research questions had been decided I also discussed with participants what kind of methods they would like to use, sharing ideas based on other research that had been carried out with children across the world.1 During these discussions it was agreed that arts-based methods were preferred and drawings could be used to enhance conversations during interviews. Therefore participants would first spend time carrying out a creative exercise before an interview and I would seek to understand what they found easy or difficult about each task before interviewing to understand the effectiveness of each tool.
Excerpt of interview with stateless child (translated from the original Vietnamese)
Since I was small, I have lived in Cambodia. My family is Vietnamese, and not having papers hurts my life. I am scorned/despised by some Cambodian people and I cannot study. My parents try to find every penny in order to get by day by day, but our homeland is not my country and I don’t know if I will ever return.
When we are not able to study, our futures are bleak; Cambodian people hate me and force me back to my homeland.
When I travel back to my homeland, and the people in Vietnam do not accept me, my life will be difficult.
Using arts-based methods empowered participants as it was their creative outputs which would lead discussions. My role was to follow their lead and listen with attentiveness, directing the conversation when necessary. Shyness was a factor I encountered among a few participants and creative methods helped with this too as there was something to talk about from the outset. Some participants were not confident drawers and would prefer to write, whilst younger participants in the 6-10 age brackets interviewed better in groups. Consent was an ongoing practice. I would ask each participant if they would like to continue with the research after each interview. This proved important as two participants did withdraw.
I WANT: The children here do not have papers, which means that they cannot study and are shouted at by many people, just when walking to a neighbour’s house. They are insulted and do not dare reply, but can you imagine how it feels? I only know that I am a child who really wants papers so I can go to different places, and work for the Lord. I also want to study, and be able to travel and not be afraid of anyone, and have the freedom to do many things and then my dream will become reality.
PRAYER: O LORD, do you hear my prayer? I ask you for papers, for the many children here. Dear LORD, my wish is to follow your word more. O Lord, I know you are merciful, I know you are always with me, thank you LORD.
5. The ‘least teacher’ role
To an even greater degree than with adults, when researching with children one has to consider relational proximity. I used UK guidelines for working with children and obtained a Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) check, following ethical guidelines from the Association of Social Anthropologists.2 Considerations which were particular to working with children consisted of how to define a child for consent purposes, in what spaces to conduct interviews and how to carry out participant observation among young participants.
There are, for instance, limitations in participant observation among children, as adults or culture can hinder this. I conducted my research in a school that provided much needed education for marginalised children, and had to negotiate my role as a researcher who also did voluntary teaching. The Vietnamese pronoun with which children addressed me was ‘cô’, meaning ‘miss’, as in teacher, or a respected elder in the social hierarchy. Teaching English to students at the school meant I was considered a member of staff, so culturally it was appropriate for me to address participants as ‘con’, meaning child. This meant I could not use more informal, less hierarchical pronouns when having day-to-day conversations outside the classroom, despite trying to shake off the linguistically constructed relationship.
A way to break down this formalised relationship was to share my own personal life experiences during conversations and interviews which somewhat undermined the dynamic of teacher and student. Furthermore, I did not wear the official uniform for teachers, and did not always challenge what might be ‘inappropriate’ behaviour in the classroom, taking the opportunity instead to explore young people’s experiences. For instance, in one class a student teased another by accusing her of being on drugs, due to her lethargic behaviour. This kind of joke would have been seen as disruptive and potentially immoral and therefore lead to a reprimand from other teachers. Instead, I probed with some non-judgmental questions and was able to learn about the prevalence of drugs within that community, the young people’s opinions on drug taking and their level of experimentation.
Despite my attempts of taking on what might be considered a ‘least teacher’ role, I still had to discipline students. On these occasions I worried that it might affect my relationships with the children. This highlights another reality of conducting research among young people – they may not actually like you. Just like a playground situation where children can form cliques and alliances, often I was aware that my behaviour, especially when disciplining, could have produced exclusion. On one occasion a participant did stop speaking to me for two days, only to return to the project. Thankfully, I was able to explain my rationale for discipline that most students did accept. Ensuring there were no ‘hard’ feelings was a crucial element, which I learned to negotiate.
This essay has explored how to approach research focused on childhood statelessness. With regard to the debate whether separate ethical or methodological considerations should be employed for research with children, I support a ‘child–friendly’ methodology and have mentioned some of the distinctive ethical nuances related to researching with children. Taking children’s voices seriously is a vital part of research. As active agents, who experience the lived reality of undetermined nationality (as in this case), children guided me through their world with outstanding resilience to circumstances beyond their control. I am truly grateful for every participant who shared with me the deep sorrow of living in limbo, as well as the joys they encounter in their everyday lives. I owe a deep gratitude to the school for hosting me and introducing me to the communities I have been able to build relationships with.
1 M Moskal, ‘Visual Methods in Researching Migrant Children’s Experiences of Belonging’ (2010) 7 Migration Letters 17, available at https://www.researchgate.net/publication/46542387_Visual_methods_in_researching_migrant_children's_experiences_of_belonging ; O’Kane, ‘The Development of Participatory Techniques Facilitating Children’s Views about Decisions Which Affect Them’ in Christensen and James (eds), Research with Children: Perspectives and Practices (Routledge, 2008); R Waterson & DK Behera, ‘Introduction: Extending Ethnographic Research with Children in the Asia-Pacific Region’ (2011) 12 The Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology 411, available at http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/14442213.2011.611163; P Sapkota & J Sharma, ‘Participatory Interactions with Street Children in Nepal’ (1996) 25 PLA Notes, Special Issue on Children’s Participation.
2 The Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) helps employers make safer recruitment decisions and prevent unsuitable people from working with vulnerable groups, including children. For more information see https://www.gov.uk/disclosure-barring-service-check/overview