By Chelsea Purvis
Chelsea Purvis is Policy & Advocacy Advisor, Mercy Corps
LONDON, Nov 23 2017 (IPS) – An estimated seven million refugees – about one-third of the global refugee population – are between 10 and 24 years old, yet this demographic is often overlooked in humanitarian and development responses. At a critical time in their lives, these young refugees experience the stress of displacement, which can impact their future development and success.
In 2016, the UN General Assembly adopted a set of commitments to enhance the protection of refugees and migrants, which became known as the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants. This declaration paved the way for the development of a Global Compact on Refugees by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
Expected in 2018, the Compact will seek to improve the international community’s response to large movements of refugees and to protracted refugee situations around the world. We believe this is a vital opportunity for the international community to safeguard young refugees and partner more effectively with them to improve their lives.
Since 2010, Mercy Corps has worked with more than 3.5 million young people in crisis across 33 countries. Drawing on our extensive experience, we have published a report outlining key recommendations to protect young refugees and help them prove their potential.
Firstly, we urge the Compact to call on states and their humanitarian and development partners to promote young refugees’ wellbeing. Young refugees face the challenges of displacement at a time of intense cognitive, physical and social development.
On top of these challenges, young refugees are often dealing with significant psychological stress. Research shows that prolonged stress can change adolescent brain chemistry, inhibiting adolescents’ ability to assess risk and severely curtailing young refugees’ prospects for future development. A staggering 41 percent of Syrian refugee youth in Lebanon, for example, report having suicidal urges.
Any comprehensive refugee response with young people should thus view wellbeing as foundational to its approach. The Compact should encourage refugee-hosting states and their partners to provide young refugees with access to safe spaces and with opportunities to establish peer and mentor relationships that help them make better choices and cope with profound stress.
Secondly, the Compact should call on host states and their partners to provide young refugees with flexible education opportunities. Half of all primary-school aged refugee children and 75 percent of secondary-school aged refugees are estimated to be out of school.
Only one in one hundred refugees enrols in university or other tertiary education. Disruption to education has long-lasting consequences for these young people, who lose their chance to learn, grow and lay the groundwork for a strong future.
Throughout a refugee response, host states, international organisations, and other partners should provide formal and non-formal education for young refugees. It is essential that education programming for young refugees be user-centered, meeting young people “where they are at” in terms of physical location, work schedules and educational attainment. Otherwise, many refugees will be unable to take advantage of educational opportunities.
As a third measure to protect and empower young refugees, the Compact should urge states to ensure that young refugees have employment opportunities. States should also take steps to protect young refugees from child labour, exploitative conditions, and work that may cause harm.
Employment, entrepreneurship and other income-generating opportunities provide more than economic benefits—they give young people a purpose and a sense of status and belonging. A comprehensive refugee response should create avenues for older adolescents to gain skills and transition safely to decent and equitable work opportunities.
Donors, regional governments and NGOs should conduct value-chain and market analyses to assess potential areas for business growth and develop matched workforce programmes. Young refugees should then be linked to these job opportunities.
Our fourth key recommendation is that the Compact should encourage states to help give young refugees a voice in their communities. Young refugees often lack opportunities to participate in the decision-making and governance processes that affect their lives. There is tremendous benefit and opportunity, however, when young refugees do engage within their own refugee communities and with host communities.
When young people are able to participate in decisions that affect their lives, they gain confidence and status, and they strengthen their relationships with peers and adults. Moreover, communities ultimately benefit from young people’s bold ideas and openness to change.
Mercy Corps’ key final recommendation, which underlines all the above points, is that young refugees should be engaged as partners in designing and implementing any response. Conversations with young people about their priorities, fears, daily commitments and safe and unsafe places in the community should shape the design of any service or activity.
Humanitarian and development actors should account for sex- and age-specific vulnerabilities, needs and capacities, co-designing programme activities with young refugees accordingly. Once these activities have been designed, young people should be provided with opportunities to actively lead and take ownership of programme activities, not just show up and participate in activities led by adults.
As the UNHCR prepares its draft of the Global Compact on Refugees and accompanying Programme of Action, we have the opportunity to not just strengthen our response for young refugees but to invest in their future and the future stability of crisis-affected countries.