We chat to Lena Opfermann, who recently completed her PhD research on the experiences and coping mechanisms of undocumented migrant youth in South Africa – using a theatre-based research method.
Q. Your research, Everyday experiences and ‘performative agency’ among undocumented migrant youth in South Africa, was recently published in a journal. What does the research look at?
A. My research explored the experiences of undocumented migrant youth in South Africa. In particular, I was interested in understanding how young people who live in South Africa without their parents and without a legal document experience their daily realities. To explore this question, a group of ten participants aged 13 to 21 attended a workshop series in which we used theatre-based activities like role play and mime as well as drawing, creative writing and group discussions to understand what mattered to them.
Q. What were the main findings of this research?
A. The findings were two-fold. Firstly, the research showed that participants’ lives are affected by emotional, legal and practical challenges such as loneliness, discrimination and fear. Secondly, the research showed how participants cope with and contest these challenges. In this regard, they used their theatrical performances in the project to denounce the discrimination and oppression they experience in their daily lives. In public interactions with others, however, participants emphasised their strengths (such as speaking local languages or knowing their way around). I called these strategies ‘performative agency’. Performative agency helps the young migrants to cope with their challenges and improves their integration in a hostile environment.
Lena Opfermann, who completed her PhD on migrant youth in South Africa.
What policy recommendations would emerge from the findings of your research?
This research improves our understanding of how undocumented migrants navigate and negotiate their daily lives. In order to offer appropriate responses to their challenges, policy makers and practitioners should recognise and draw on the young people’s capacities to cope, contest and integrate. Paying attention to their performative agency as explained above can be a useful starting point in this regard.
Where can we read your research?
I have published three articles from this research so far. Feel free to drop me an email and I am happy to share the articles. My contact is
Lena was part of the Scalabrini team from 2008-2011 – and was instrumental in establishing the Advocacy Programme. In 2017, she completed her PhD studies at the University of York. She is currently a Lecturer in Applied Social Studies at the University of Bedfordshire.