The presence of hundreds of thousands of displaced Syrians, including countless vulnerable youth, is one of the most familiar—and challenging—aspects of the current Syrian refugee crisis. Most of these displaced youth are living in cities and towns in often desperate conditions, where a very different humanitarian response is required than in traditional camp programming, where most of the long-term expertise in the humanitarian community lies. Like refugees anywhere, these youth and their families are seeking better shelter, more work opportunities and greater security than would be available in their original places of residence or in camp settings.
The Women's Refugee Commission has found that while urban settings offer increased economic opportunities for many displaced people, including youth, urban locations can also present numerous obstacles to success and safety that are difficult to overcome. In this respect, most refugees face all the challenges of the very poor, but must also deal with the added risks that come from being in a new and unfamiliar environment, where they are often not welcome and are competing for limited opportunities with the local community, which is frequently under stress. Challenges in many locations include prohibitions on the right to work legally, harassment and abuse from local authorities and employers, and xenophobia. As has been well documented, refugee women and girls are at heightened risk of sexual violence and exploitation.
The Women's Refugee Commission has drawn on its expertise and experience with these vulnerable populations with an analysis and action plan addressing the particular needs of refugee youth in cities, Economic Empowerment of Urban Refugee Youth: Guiding Principles.
The Women’s Refugee Commission found that many of the displaced youth it interviewed and studied—despite their age, vulnerability and inexperience—are often the family members ultimately responsible for ensuring that they and their families can survive financially. In this environment, only the luckiest youth manage to achieve some earning ability and continue with their education. For most, the need to work translates into no time or opportunity for any schooling, formal or informal. Moreover, the work youth can find is often unsafe and often quite dangerous: A particularly troubling example noted in the Women's Refugee Commission report are the so-called “invisible” girls engaged in domestic work where they are typically abusive and exploitative. Equally disturbing are the numbers of young men and women who feel they have no viable options but to resort to gang activity, prostitution or other harmful practices to earn money.
Experts often write in general terms about the likelihood that at-risk youth, if not provided special assistance, will threaten the stability and security of their communities. But as the Women’s Refugee Commission found, despite these widely acknowledged concerns, there are few programs that specifically target the needs of displaced young people. Given the potential upside for youth if given increased opportunities, this is a very unfortunate missed opportunity on so many levels, beginning with the chance to recognize and build on youth as economic and social assets to their communities.
The tremendous untapped potential in this population can be developed through improvements such as (1) stronger social networks, (2) increased access to financial services and (3) opportunities to develop education and job skills.
The Women’s Refugee Commission’s report identifies these and other key guiding practical principles for urban refugee youth programming. These include creating an enabling policy environment and mainstreaming youth participation in program design and implementation. The principles noted by the WRC highlight the importance of integrated programming to address the inter-related needs of displaced youth in areas such as health, education, job training and life skills development. They also provide background and information to lead to increased opportunities for safe and dignified work and access to flexible, formal and non-formal education and training options that allow youth to continue working. Finally, the principles recognize that youth are hungry for opportunities to socialize and develop relationships with their peers, including those from host communities, as well as with adult role models.
The humanitarian community, including nongovernmental organizations, host governments and international organizations, has a responsibility to recognize and address the unique needs of displaced youth in urban environments. Only through sustained and targeted assistance can young people have hope for a better future for themselves and their families, making them agents of greater stability, security and prosperity in otherwise difficult environments.