Unaccompanied minors arriving in Finland need a lot of support

Academy of Finland Research Fellow Anna-Kaisa Kuusisto-Arponen and postdoctoral researcher Kirsi Peltonen are the leaders of two Academy of Finland-funded key projects investigating the arrival of unaccompanied child refugees to Finland.

In 2015, over 3,000 refugee children arrived in Finland without their parents.


By the end of November 2016, a further 385 had arrived. Some of them were accompanied by relatives and siblings, but most arrived from the world’s trouble spots without any of their family members.

Most of the children are 14–17-year-olds, but some very young children also arrived. Since the beginning of the migrant crisis, not only the numbers of children but also their ages have changed. Previously, the children were mostly closer to sixteen or seventeen years of age, but now increasingly more are closer to fourteen.
These children and youths need a lot of social and psychosocial support in order to integrate into Finnish society.

“The usual integration measures are too restrictive and relate too much to the nation state as the primary source of belonging. Such measures do not work with these children. Unaccompanied asylum seeking minors are transcultural subjects. Their transcultural agency needs to be supported and their multiple capacity building facilitated,” says Anna-Kaisa Kuusisto-Arponen, Academy of Finland Research Fellow at the University of Tampere.

Kuusisto-Arponen and postdoctoral researcher Kirsi Peltonen are leaders of two Academy of Finland funded key projects that are investigating the support needed by unaccompanied minors who seek asylum in Finland. Kuusisto-Arponen’s team is investigating transcultural belonging and how it can be supported, while Peltonen’s group is developing a model for psychological support.

The research undertaken by Kuusisto-Arponen’s group covers four areas: schools, housing units, child and youth work, and administrative practices, such as the policies on family reunification.

“The minors’ agency must be supported in all of these spheres,” Kuusisto-Arponen says.

Among other places, the researchers in Kuusisto-Arponen’s team are conducting field work in schools and art workshops.

“We are especially interested in how the unaccompanied youths form social relationships. In the workshops, the minors – who are pupils in preparatory classes before they can go to regular school – undertake joint art projects with Finnish youths,” Kuusisto-Arponen says.

Data is also being gathered in Germany and Sweden, where various experiments on social support have already been carried out. The idea is to benchmark good practices and introduce them in Finland.

Kuusisto-Arponen works as an Academy of Finland Research Fellow investigating children’s and youths’ feelings of belonging more generally and in situations where they have had to escape war or conflict.
Peltonen’s current project concentrates on developing a model for psychological support that would enable both the prevention and treatment of serious mental disorders.

“Even though not all of the minors are doing so badly, some of them suffer from serious mental disorders; they have encountered really brutal traumatic events and many have had to endure such hardships multiple times. The Finnish psychiatric health system is currently struggling to meet the greater demand for services and the increased severity of the cases,” Peltonen says.

In her postdoctoral project, Peltonen was involved in research that imported the Narrative Exposure Therapy originally developed in Germany to Finland. This therapy is being developed to treat post traumatic disorders, and thus far there have been very few experiences of its use in the treatment of children.

“The aim of the ongoing Academy of Finland-funded key project is to develop a low threshold model for psychological support that could be used in housing units and group homes without stigmatising the child survivors,” Peltonen says.

In addition to general support, the aim is to find means to screen children and youths who have more serious mental disorders and who cannot be helped by low-threshold support alone.

Peltonen’s team is conducting empirical research to study the effectiveness of the model.
“Profound ethical questions are also involved, especially because we are dealing with very vulnerable individuals. However, an empirical setting is the best way to test how well our methods work.”
According to Peltonen, stabilising treatment and exposure treatment are hot topics in current research. Therefore, the study also aims to establish which of the treatments should be used in each case.

“In my opinion, we need both. That is why our model starts by first giving everyone stabilising treatment. Nobody is referred to exposure therapy until we can be sure that we can build on solid ground, so to speak,” Peltonen explains.

A pilot study is being conducted at two housing units in Tampere and two in Helsinki. The treatment model created after the pilot will be disseminated by the Finnish Immigration Service’s mental health taskforce to all housing units that provide services for minors.

“We must accomplish several things in the next two years; we will develop a model that we will then pilot, analyse and disseminate,” Peltonen says.

Both researchers have already worked with unaccompanied children in their previous research projects. They are repeatedly surprised by the fact that even though the children have suffered serious trauma and need significant support, they also seem astonishingly resilient.

“The children are alone and miss their families terribly. Unfortunately, the current strict preconditions for family reunification lead to a situation where most of them will never get the rest of their families to Finland. In spite of all this, the children seem as if they are illuminated from within. If you think of all the hardships they have had to endure, they have truly incredible coping mechanisms,” Kuusisto-Arponen says.

In 2015, unaccompanied minors filed twenty family reunification applications, but only five applications were approved. According to Kuusisto-Arponen, the figures reveal that a great majority of the unaccompanied minors nowadays never even seek to reunite with their families.

“Reunification is so difficult that most children are unable to file applications. They have neither the money nor valid identification documents and visas for their family members. Because of the current criteria, even those who manage to file applications are likely to receive negative decisions,” Kuusisto-Arponen explains.

Nevertheless, the children who arrive in Finland are very willing to learn to live here, study the language and make Finnish friends. That is why it is important not to make victims of these children; they should all receive support that meets their individual needs.

“We are talking about normal children and youths who should also be able to enjoy their lives. They are teenagers who should not have to suffer from anxiety or worry all the time. Their lives should not be spent dealing with trauma. It would be great if they could just have regular fun at least some of the time,” Kuusisto-Arponen says.

Unaccompanied minors in figures:


•    In 2015, as many as 95,000 underage refugees arrived in Europe without their parents.
•    Most of them are residing in Germany or Sweden. In 2015, about 34,000 children arrived in Sweden.
•    Prior to 2015, about 150–200 unaccompanied children arrived in Finland each year.
•    In 2015, 3,024 children arrived in Finland without their parents, and by the end of November 2016, 384 such children had arrived.
•    Most of the minors are boys.
•    Their country of origin is most likely to be Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq or Somalia.

Key project funding by the Academy of Finland

Key project funding is a new funding instrument that aims to strengthen the quality and impact of research and promote active collaboration with end-users and the beneficiaries of research results.

The call was open-themed and open to all scientific disciplines. In 2016, the total number of applications was 600 and 101 were granted funding. Researchers working at the University of Tampere received funding for four key projects.

The duration of the projects is two years.

Text: Hanna Hyvärinen
Photograph: Jonne Renvall