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Young refugees currently arriving in Australia are confronted by social and cultural conditions and systems which are radically different from their past experiences. The refugee experience can also render individuals vulnerable in a number of ways. Many have been subjected to violence or have witnessed extreme violence and undertaken migration precipitated by trauma. Most have spent long periods of time—frequently many years, and in the case of some young people, their entire lives—in refugee camps or countries of first asylum effectively in flight.

Social networks are almost inevitably disrupted. Many young refugees have lost family members including parents, while others have family members still living in dangerous situations or scattered to various parts of the globe. Some will be experiencing physical and mental health problems associated with trauma and deprivation or be living with and supporting others with such problems.

Despite these experiences, most refugee-background youth appear to arrive in Australia with an enormous sense of optimism and determination to succeed, yet must come to terms with significant barriers to achieving social inclusion associated with disrupted education; challenges of learning to speak English; few housing options; poor employment prospects and discrimination. In Australia, standard on-arrival programmes provide up to 12 months of English language tuition before placement in mainstream education.

Despite many young people and families with refugee backgrounds having high educational aspirations, difficulties may be encountered within mainstream education settings. These include a lack of awareness within institutions of the particular challenges faced by refugee-background students and a mismatch of age with educational level and experience. These situations leave individuals at high risk of disengagement from formal education, and subsequent welfare dependency leading to social exclusion with its attendant poor health outcomes Refugee Education Partnership Project ; Turner and Fozdar The study described here was conducted in collaboration with Foundation House Victorian Foundation for Survivors of Torture , which, in partnership with other service providers to young refugee populations, has developed an innovative intervention programme named Ucan2, aimed at supporting mental health and wellbeing and improving settlement outcomes for young people with refugee backgrounds.

The Ucan2 intervention addresses the multiple and interlinked causes of social exclusion and targets young people between the ages of 16 and The intervention is situated within the standard on-arrival English language programme, and comprises classroom and extra-curricular activities one day per week over six months. Programme activities offer psychosocial support, promote social networking beyond existing community boundaries and provide relevant experiences in terms of employment-focused language acquisition, skills and work experience.

Staff also actively link programme participants with local agencies such as those providing housing or other relevant support.

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Involvement of volunteers from the host community in weekly programme activities and the promotion of opportunities for participants to engage in part-time work in a retail environment are two strategies aimed at developing social connections between young refugees and other young people within the Australian community. An additional rationale for part-time work is that it may provide a means of financial support during the many years it will take for young refugees with disrupted schooling to achieve their educational goals.

The study discussed here involved an evaluation of the Ucan2 intervention with an exploratory component to gain improved insight into the settlement experiences of young people. The evaluation and exploratory components were integrated in the study design and involved ethnographic and longitudinal methods. Quantitative and qualitative data were collected through participation observation in classroom activities, social network mapping, wellbeing surveys, focus groups and individual in-depth interviews.

Data collection, involving students from 15 Ucan2 groups across eight different sites, covered the period to Focus group discussions were conducted with each of the 15 groups towards the end of the Ucan2 programme, and individual interviews were conducted with a subsample of participants once the programme was completed, to explore the ongoing impacts of the intervention on settlement experiences. It was clearly imperative that for the evaluation research project to adhere to core ethical principles of non-maleficence; beneficence; respect for autonomy and promotion of justice Beauchamp and Childress , we needed to use methods that allowed a flexible, reflexive and empathetic approach, sensitive to the circumstances of participants.

These concerns guided our research design and preparation of the ethics application for this project. It was determined that a researcher would spend time in the Ucan2 classroom to build rapport and trust with teachers and research participants. Research data were not formally collected during this period as appropriately informed consent would not yet have been possible ; however, the opportunity to gain clearer insight into programme contexts and to establish relationships with staff and participants, built a critical foundation for subsequent research activities.

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An additional anticipated benefit of embedding the research process in the classroom was that if research participation revealed unmet needs for personal or social support services then Ucan2 resources would be available for follow up. Initial programme cycles provided an opportunity to pilot data collection methods and consent processes and it became apparent that practical, methodological and associated ethical issues still needed further consideration.

The next section of this article explains how we adapted the research processes following the pilot phase to address these issues and enhance the relevance and potential benefits of the research to the young people. An important aim of the Ucan2 programme is to promote broader social connections. From the start we were concerned that participation in the research process ought to develop potential for autonomy and inclusion. However, the process needed to be adapted to enhance the benefits and minimize potential risks.

Disrupted and sparse social networks are a feature of this recently-arrived population, rendering this activity far from benign. A large proportion of the students have few connections within Australia and many also have close family members, including parents, who are overseas, missing or deceased See Figure 1 for a typical example of a social network map. Although the network mapping exercise had been piloted, once in the field, we were concerned that it had the potential to leave a considerable number of participants feeling confronted, inadequate or distressed.

Further, ethical protocols that had been developed to address this contingency, in which young people would be offered access to counselling as required, was clearly an insufficient response. These concerns were discussed at length with Ucan2 programme staff and the following modifications to the exercise were devised.

The first remedial step was to enlist the active assistance of programme staff and ensure that the social network activity was always conducted in the Ucan2 classroom during the period allocated to providing psychosocial support. We also realized that young people needed better understanding of the aims of the exercise. The researcher would then draw a hypothetical example of her own social network circle on the board leaving some gaps and including relatives overseas as would be the case for most of the participants.

Once students completed their maps, the Foundation House staff member who was working with the class each week, and whose role was to provide psychosocial support to the students, spent some time discussing with the group how they might feel after doing this activity. Staff acknowledged that many students had important people in their lives who were absent and that it could be distressing to think about family and friends not with them in Australia.

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The group would also discuss the ways that different people in the class dealt with these feelings and the methods they used to keep in touch with others overseas, including email, Facebook and telephone. The students would then complete the short demographic and wellbeing survey. This process provided a potentially empowering opportunity for participants to discuss the significance of relationships and the potential for social networks to be conceptualized as resources that can be strategically fostered in the future—to look forward, as well as looking backward at lost networks and relationships.

This study identified several obstacles to the researcher obtaining informed and meaningful consent from students. It became even more important that students involved in the Ucan2 programme grasped that electing to participate in the research was voluntary and there would be no negative consequences in declining to participate.

Linked to this, students needed clear understanding of when they were consenting to be involved in research-related activities. Along with limited understandings of research processes, the diversity of cultural and language backgrounds and generally low levels of English-language proficiency contributed to challenges in obtaining informed consent.

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Participants in the evaluation research spoke a total of 38 different first languages. Even if resources permitting it were feasible to translate information sheets into most of these languages, interrupted prior education meant that a substantial proportion of students were not literate in their first language and some students came from communities where languages exist primarily in oral forms. Another option was to use interpreters, although the logistics of conducting group conversations with multiple interpreters working simultaneously limited the potential for this being a practical alternative.

It has already been noted that culture-bound notions of autonomy and individual rights may have little meaning to participants from very different cultural backgrounds and whose life experiences have in many cases entailed abuses of these rights. Disparities in power between researcher and researched may even be further complicated by interpreters; particularly in the case of newly arrived communities where the small number of available interpreters are likely to occupy positions of higher status, class and therefore power than research participants.

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As the research was taking place within the English language programme it was agreed that using English to communicate with students was the most practical option, and also respectfully acknowledged their developing proficiency in English-language skills. When we first piloted the social network mapping exercise, we had asked students to sign a consent form prior to undertaking data collection tasks, but it was evident that participants found this consent procedure confusing.

Although most were willing to sign the consent form—perhaps indicating the success of the trust building phase of the research—it was apparent from the blank looks and confused questions that many students were struggling to comprehend the significance of this unfamiliar activity. Despite adhering to formally approved ethics procedures, we were uncomfortably aware that students were consenting to participate without fully understanding what that meant.

The social network data collection activity involved modifying a previously-used programme activity and it therefore had intrinsic value in relation to the Ucan2 programme. In consultation with programme staff, we therefore decided to reposition the formal component of the research consent process so that it occurred after the exercise was completed.

It should be noted here that the Ucan2 programme has its own process for progressive consent to participation in programme activities, whereby it is clear to students from the outset that they need not participate in any activities if they prefer not to, or if they find them uncomfortable. Indeed, a small number of students chose to exercise this option and did not participate in the network mapping exercise. Building on these programme processes, the revised procedure for gaining informed consent to participate in the research involved seeking permission to use the information contained in the maps and surveys for our evaluation after they had been completed by students.

We reviewed with the students the purpose of the evaluation: to find out more about what is important for young people settling in Australia; how Ucan2 helps or not ; and to help make Ucan2 better by telling us what is good about it and what else it could do. We would only then hand out the research information sheets and consent form.

After apologizing for the formidable amount of writing that students were presented with, and which despite our best efforts to simplify remained difficult for many to understand easily, the researcher provided students with verbal explanations of key issues in the documents. They were then asked to sign the consent form if they agreed that the information they provided in their maps and surveys could be used for the research and reassured that if they preferred not to sign the consent form, then their data would not be used. The researcher also offered to discuss any issues that individual students might have or give students additional time to read the documents.

These changes to the consent process increased the potential for the research to boost the autonomy and capacity of the participants, by empowering them to make decisions that were appropriately informed. Asking participants to sign a consent form before undertaking research activities proved a feasible and relatively simple way to satisfy formal ethics committee requirements.

It was subjectively experienced in this study, however—at least by the researcher—as a process which simultaneously reaffirmed the power imbalance between researcher and participants and failed to respect autonomy or enhance capacity to understand and take part in unfamiliar processes such as research in a way that was appropriately informed. When working in settings where there are language barriers and understandings of research are likely to be limited it is critical to allow sufficient time for the consent process.

A large majority of the students consented to us using the data they had generated for the research. In practice, the changes resulted in the kind of iterative consent process that is advocated by Mackenzie and colleagues , whereby students assented informally to undertaking the research-associated activity and then consented more formally to having the resultant data included in the research project and evaluation.

Subsequently, students were again given the opportunity to opt in or out of the research when invited to participate in focus groups or interviews. Again, initial focus groups were used as opportunities to pilot the processes for facilitating discussions involving participants from diverse language and cultural backgrounds. Participants were happy to take part in the discussion but open-ended questions tended to produce limited responses dominated by a few respondents. We were reluctant either to accept the limitations of the data collected in this way or to abandon the focus groups altogether, particularly as focus groups had been carefully chosen as an appropriate method in the first instance.

It was anticipated that group discussions would complement the group activities of the programme and provide students with a potentially useful forum for sharing common experiences of settlement and of the Ucan2 programme. In addition, focus groups are considered to be a valuable method for working with disadvantaged and vulnerable groups.

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They have the potential to be empowering, as their relatively loose structure may enable participants to have more control over the research process and to bring new and unanticipated issues into analytic frames Warr While focus groups were anticipated to be procedurally suitable for eliciting the views of vulnerable participants, in practice they failed to do this in a meaningful way.