AMMAN—The youth engagement that was evident in the protest movements that sprang up across the Middle East in 2011 has subsided into a sense of powerlessness, a new regional research report has found.
Across the region, both displaced and local youth are facing lack of opportunities, harassment, exploitation, discrimination and movement restrictions that dominate their lives. They also feel they are getting little help from the government authorities and those in charge of the humanitarian response to the ongoing crises, according to study titled “A Future in the Balance” and published last week by the Norwegian Refugee Council.
Moreover, the majority of young people surveyed felt that their elders were the ones who made the decisions and women often felt doubly disempowered, due to norms of gender power in many Arab countries. Relatively few opportunities exist for youth to engage in social and civic activities, such as volunteering, despite the positive energy and creativity they could contribute to their communities, the report said.
“What we found is not surprising, but if ignored, the consequences will be shocking,” said Laura Marshall, who heads NRC’s Youth and Education Program in Jordan. “Young people are facing increasing barriers to education and economic opportunities with minimal chances to engage in social and civic life. They are being pushed further into the shadows, feeling disempowered and frustrated, and we all risk losing the vast human capital of this generation.”
While each country has its specific situation, the refugee council’s research found that most Syrian refugee youth are considering leaving whatever country they are in because of harassment, the lack of official residency and the lack of education and jobs.
“There’s no future for us” and “I have lost all hope” were common themes among young refugees in all countries covered by the survey. The lack of opportunities means that many young people who were interviewed said that they were still looking for money to travel to Europe despite the enormous risks. Young people who are citizens of the same countries where refugees are living often shared similar frustrations.
“I think this is probably the most comprehensive report I have read that is written specifically from the point of view of refugee youth and local youth,” said Sally Ward, the British Council regional manager for the Middle East and North Africa, in an e-mail. “It clearly shows that the war has impacted immeasurably on young people—both those who have the ‘right’ documents and those who do not.”
The research was conducted in the final quarter of 2015 and covered four main areas: protection, education, economic opportunities and social/civic engagement. It highlighted the experiences of over 500 youth in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq, drawing from focus group discussions and in-depth interviews. The report also has in-depth portraits of a wide variety of local and refugee youth. “Back in Syria we used to think about the future,” said a 17-year-old Syrian boy. “We used to think about being doctors or teachers. Now all we think about is how to feed our families. We’re carrying a heavy load on our shoulders. It’s beyond our age.”
In spite of the study’s relatively small sample, it was not easy to put together, refugee council staff said. “The scope of the research, across multiple countries, was obviously challenging,” said Martin Hartberg, NRC’s Regional Advocacy and Protection Adviser.
“The research was qualitative rather than quantitative. It lacks the top-line data that journalists/policy makers are often after, but it aims to amplify the voices of youth and allow them to speak for themselves and explain their challenges and how they wish to positively engage in the region—if only they are given the chance.”
One biographical sketch in the report focused on “Reem,” a 20-year-old Syrian woman who was already a widow. She left Syria once after her husband was imprisoned by the regime, then went back to lose him to an airstrike. Now she lives in southern Lebanon with her large family jammed into a small apartment, their only income being four or five days of work of illegal work a month. The family wants to marry off Reem’s 13-year-old sister, as her parents feel they cannot afford to keep her.
Her Lebanese counterparts though, are also unhappy. “Most work opportunities go to Syrian workers because they accept lower wages, and because there are many Syrians, there are no empty houses to rent,” said an 18-year-old Lebanese female, in Tyre. “Because of the lack of work opportunities, many Lebanese are leaving the country. Most of them are going to Germany.”
Despite these bleak stories, the report found the potential for the “civic engagement” of youth is huge, believes Ward from the British Council. “Youth could and should be engaged. The problem is how to do it in a meaningful way,” she said adding that taking youth seriously means trusting them and giving them support and money. “This includes providing spaces for young people to meet and talk. It would be easy to do, but governments tend to focus on control.”
The Norwegian Refugee Council study makes specific recommendations to aid agencies, international donors, and governments that are hosting large numbers of refugees that they should take to ease the alienation of youth. Hartberg says the most urgent suggestions are:
- Provide support and financing for comprehensive national youth strategies to end youth disempowerment.
- Advocate for and support the review and amendment of entry, registration and residency regulations for young refugees, internally displaced persons and their families.
- Support the significant scale up of formal education funding and responses, particularly for youth.
- Ensure continued support for alternative, informal education opportunities with psychosocial assistance for adolescents who do not have access to formal schooling.
Some Syrian youth said the report’s recommendations were too general.
“I wish the recommendations were closer to clear projects that can be implemented, not just general ideas,” said Souhaib Al-Shihabi, a Syrian student and the founder of the Gaziantep-based group, the Syrian Students’ Office of University Services.
The report talked about the lack of voluntary work for youth, he said, but he believes thousands of Syrian youth in countries neighboring Syria have already volunteered to help themselves and their communities. “We need legal protection and financial support to be able to continue,” he said.
To read the full report, click here.