The project: Piloting Contextual Safeguarding with refugee girls* in Germany
Bio: Nathalie is a social pedagogue, researcher and academic who is particularly interested in youth and emerging/young adulthood, Transitional Safeguarding, young people in migration, social work and human rights and in cross-national perspectives. She currently works as a Research Fellow at the University of Sussex on the ESRC funded 'Innovate Project', researching innovation in social care systems and practices to improve service experiences and outcomes for young people facing situations of extra-familial risks and harm.
Contextual Safeguarding Across Borders (CSAB) was a two-year (2021 to 2023) research project funded by Porticus Foundation aimed at exploring the feasibility and applicability of Contextual Safeguarding in protecting adolescents from extra-familial harm in contexts beyond the UK. The project Principal Investigator was Professor Carlene Firmin, and the research was led by Dr Lauren Wroe (Co-PI). As part of this research, we partnered on a pilot project with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Germany and their girls empowerment programme, to explore how Contextual Safeguarding principles, approaches and methods could contribute to enhancing IRC’s existing work to enhance the wellbeing and support the safety of refugee girls* living in a refugee accommodation centre in a major German city.
The findings of the project were presented to our European Stakeholder Group earlier this year and the resources are available on the project page here. In this blog post, I reflect on the experience of researching and piloting Contextual Safeguarding in a cross-national context, and on the learning from this.
The project started with a scoping review (available as a resource on the project page) undertaken by Delphine Peace and Dr Lauren Wroe, to consider the policy and practice contexts for responding to extra-familial risks and harms affecting asylum-seeking and refugee young people in Europe, as well as with the convening of a European Stakeholder Group. Following from this, we established links with our partner organisation, IRC who were interested in piloting Contextual Safeguarding as part of their girls* empowerment programme. At this point, I became involved in the project as German-English bilingual researcher, conducting interviews with key professionals and observing practice meetings in German as well as facilitating an engagement and focus group activity with a group of refugee girls*, together with staff from IRC. The whole project team, together with IRC staff members, held regular meetings to discuss the research approach and emergent findings.
Cross-national piloting and research: key learning points
Contextual Safeguarding is an approach and concept which has been developed in the UK in response to extra-familial risks and harms, focusing particularly on developments in local authority areas in England and Wales, as well as on forms of harm associated with peer relationships, exploitation or criminality (Firmin et al, 2022). By considering the feasibility and applicability of this approach (1) in another country, (2) in an NGO setting, and (3) with a focus on the experiences of refugee young people, CSAB has provided opportunities for exploring several unique perspectives, providing key learning points at both conceptual and practical levels.
Spoiler alert: Context is everything!
This may not be a surprising point to highlight as part of a Contextual Safeguarding pilot, but above all, CSAB has highlighted the importance of taking into account contexts of policy, practice and research at local, regional, national and cross-national levels. For example, some of the professional practice traditions and settings of social work in Germany differ from those in the UK. Its federal system and the further differentiation of administration at local levels provide a more decentralised system compared to England in particular. Germany also has a long-standing tradition of integrating social work, youth work and social pedagogy, which has centred preventative, ecological, community-oriented and socio-spatial approaches (Spatscheck and Karin Wolf-Ostermann, 2009). Further, the German welfare system is built on principles of social subsidiarity, involving an interplay of collective and individual responsibility as well as an emphasis on state organisations supporting the conditions (e.g. through funding and social planning) for services to be provided, often with considerable autonomy, by civil society and non-governmental organisations (Schmid, 2020). In this context, the work of our partner organisation, an international NGO, in a fairly small-scale programme with refugee girls*, offered us new and unique perspectives compared to the majority of settings in which Contextual Safeguarding had been piloted and researched hitherto in England.
The pilot and research has also allowed us to explore the societal and everyday life contexts experienced by refugee young people, a cohort who thus far has not been at the centre of Contextual Safeguarding. Again, these contexts and experiences are influenced by the specific conditions of the German asylum support system, such as the practice of housing adult refugees and their children in accommodation centres which may entail degrees of isolation and external control, but also may mean that refugee young people can be particularly vulnerable to racist attacks and violence (Deutsches Komitee für UNICEF e. V. & Deutsches Institut für Menschenrechte, 2023). Similarly, there are concerns about harm through experiences of racism in everyday life situations (such as when using public transport) and structurally in education systems or through actions of the police (Alabali-Radovan, 2023; Graevskaia, 2022). These emerged as key issues undermining the safety of refugee young people who participated in the pilot and our study, prompting us to reflect on the extent to which such forms of harm currently are, or should be, considered as targets of Contextual Safeguarding interventions (Wroe et al, 2023)
Exploring these contexts as part of an international pilot highlights both issues that are specific or perhaps even unique and provides opportunities for us to reflect on any similarities and learning points that are significant for Contextual Safeguarding work with NGOs and/or with refugee youth in the UK. Overall, it is clear that far from simply ‘exporting’ an approach like Contextual Safeguarding from one country, organisational setting or cohort group to another, it is paramount for practitioners, policy-makers and researchers to carefully analyse and assess how interventions sit with, work with, or indeed target existing conditions and contexts.
Practical issues to consider in cross-national piloting and research
Our learning from this pilot has also surfaced a number of practical issues that are relevant to cross-national research and practice – both more generally and more specifically in relation to Contextual Safeguarding. The following is a (non-exhaustive) list of things to consider in similar endeavours:
Cross-national piloting and research needs time - usually more than anticipated - and centres around relationships. Geographical and language boundaries mean that extra care is required when setting up and maintaining the underpinnings of a project. Even minimal time zone differences can on occasion wreak havoc on diaries and schedules for meetings. Working together from a distance requires us to be creative and flexible about how we establish and maintain relationships, including at the formal levels of contractual arrangements or work processes and procedures. Having regular check-ins to discuss aims, objectives and needs among partners is essential. For our research, which fell into the pandemic period, an example was adjusting to and preparing for different rules and arrangements relating to Covid-19 when conducting field work in person.
Concepts and ideas may not always travel as well as we’d like to imagine. This relates, in part, to translation and interpretation: even for bilingual researchers or practitioners, it’s important to bear in mind that speaking a language fluently and switching from one language context to another aren’t the same thing. Sometimes there won’t be an equivalent translation to a term. Further, the meaning of concepts and terms may be deeply embedded in the local, national or regional historical contexts in which they have developed and our own understanding of them links to our lived experiences. [A simple experiment to test this is to ask a diverse group of people from different countries to draw an everyday process - such as ‘making breakfast’ (not to assume that everyone eats toast) and then compare sketches]. In the context of our project, we learnt, for example, not to make assumptions that for the girls* participating in our fieldwork workshop the idea of ‘feeling safe’ would translate well across languages.
‘Safeguarding’ isn’t necessarily an international concept and term. While in the UK, professionals from social care and related fields may have particular ideas and association about what safeguarding children and young people involves and how this may be distinct from other words such as ‘support’ or ‘care’, it is important to remind ourselves that this perspective has been shaped by the specific policy and practice contexts in the UK (which themselves vary between England and Scotland, for example). Terms in other languages may refer to ‘protection’ - but this may or may not involve prevention or focus on acute measures, involve families and communities or be directed at individual interventions. It is therefore important not to make assumptions about the involvement of certain professional groups or organisations in activities to prevent or address harm outside family contexts, nor about the perceptions of these potential actors by young people, families and communities. This is particularly significant when marginalised or minoritized groups are involved in piloting and research, such as refugee young people in our project.
Concluding thoughts: boundary-crossing at various levels
Contextual Safeguarding is, in its own right, a boundary-crossing concept which widens existing definitions of safeguarding – previously more narrowly defined in the UK as being concerned with risks and harms within families – and which seeks to bridge divides between sectors such as social care, youth justice, youth work, education and public health. When considering how this approach might have relevance in other systems and countries it is important that we remind ourselves that the systems, processes and ideas we so often take for granted are by no means the only possible or logical way to address risks and harms during adolescence. This includes challenging ourselves to question whether there may be alternatives to our own approach to defining ‘problems to be solved’. Thus, rather than seeing cross-national piloting as a way of ‘exporting’ our knowledge and practices (which, especially given the dominance of Anglophone research and publications, we must always resist to reify as somehow superior); or even thinking of such endeavours solely in terms of what we might learn about different contexts; it is important that we recognise that by setting out to learn with young people, communities, practitioners and organisations in different (country) contexts, a lot – or most - of our learning may in fact be about gaining a deeper understanding of – and be prompted to question - our own ideas, approaches and contexts (see Baistow, 2000).
*The programme uses a trans-inclusive critical queer-feminist understanding of gender and sexuality, marked by the asterisked spelling of 'girls*’
The exercise ‘draw toast’, by Tom Wujec, is available here.
Details about The Innovate Project are here. Nathalie's staff profile is here.
Alabali-Radovan, R. (2023). Rassismus in Deutschland. Available at: Rassismus in Deutschland (integrationsbeauftragte.de) [Report by the German Federal Commissary on Integration on Racism in Germany].
Baistow, K. (2000). Cross-national research: What can we learn from Inter-country Comparisons? Social Work in Europe 7(3):8-12.
Deutsches Komitee für UNICEF e. V. and Deutsches Institut für Menschenrechte (2023) „Das ist nicht das Leben“ Perspektiven von Kindern und Jugendlichen in Unterkünften für geflüchtete Menschen. https://www.institut-fuer-menschenrechte.de/fileadmin/Redaktion/Publikationen/Analyse_Studie/Studie_Gefluechtete_Kinder_und_Jugendliche_in_Unterkuenften.pdf [Report by the German Committee for UNICEF and the German Institute for Human Rights: ‘That isn’t life’: Perspectives of children and young people in accommodation for refugees]
Graevskaia, A. (2022). Institutioneller Rassismus in der Polizei. Available at: Institutioneller Rassismus in der Polizei. Rassistisches Wissen und seine Nutzung (rassismusmonitor.de). [Report by the Racism Monitor on Institutional Racism within the Police, Racist Knowledge and its Use].
Spatscheck, C. and Wolf-Ostermann, K. (2009): The Socio-Spatial Paradigm in Social Work – Social Space Analyses as Method for Practitioners and Researchers. Sozialraum.de (1), 2/2009,https://www.sozialraum.de/the-socio-spatial-paradigm-in-social-work.php
Schmid, J. (2020) Freie Wohlfahrtspflege. https://www.socialnet.de/lexikon/Freie-Wohlfahrtspflege [Socialnet Encyclopedia: Non-statutory welfare].
Wroe, L., Lloyd, J. and Manister, M. (2023) From peers and parks to patriarchy and poverty: inequalities in young people’s experiences of extra-familial harm and the child protection system. In: Firmin, C. and Lloyd, J. (eds) Contextual Safeguarding; The Next Chapter. Bristol: Policy Press.