A refugee living in Zaatari refugee camp, Jordan.

New research into the problems young refugees face when transitioning into adulthood can help us understand and tackle the issues they face, write Professor Lorraine van Blerk, Doctor Laura Prazeres and Doctor Wayne Shand.

Displacement and forced migration has become an issue of global importance.

With 51 percent of the world’s refugee population under the age of 18 and some 600 million young people living in fragile or conflict affected areas across the globe, there is an urgent need to understand how youth are affected by displacement. The implications of severe disruption to life courses for the construction of pathways into adulthood for these young people must also be comprehended.

The UK Department for International Development has responded by commissioning a team at the University of Dundee to conduct research on this issue through funding from UKAID.

This reflects an increasing policy interest in displaced youth and the challenges young people face in their trajectories towards adulthood in situations of protracted crises. This research project takes a geographical approach to understanding the impact of forced migration on youth transitions to inform better policy and programme design.

Researching issues faced by refugee children in Uganda and Jordan

Using a participatory and youth-led approach, the project conducted research with young refugees in Uganda and Jordan. The research was also carried out in collaboration with partner organisations in each of the target countries – the Uganda Youth Development Link in Uganda and the Information and Research Center at the King Hussein Foundation in Jordan.

In Uganda, the participants were young refugees from Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. In Jordan, the young refugees that participated in the project were Syrian, Iraqi and Palestinian. A total of eight young refugees in each country were trained as ‘Youth Researchers’ to collect data among their peers.

In both countries, participants were drawn from camp and urban settings, with 505 young people involved in surveys, 80 in focus groups, 92 giving narrative interviews and 25 producing story maps that give deep insight into youth experiences. More information on the research can be found in the detailed Synthesis Report, Methodology Report and in the online story map.

The youth-led research has provided new insights into the challenges of transition to adulthood for young refugees. The findings indicate that the experience of being a refugee creates a rupture to their transition towards adulthood, which has multiple consequences for young people trying to establish adult lives in host countries.

Problems preventing young refugees transitioning to adulthood

The project identified key disruptions and barriers of youth transitions to adulthood as education, work and livelihoods, and family life.

Education is often a prerequisite for obtaining quality employment, and the loss of certificates through conflict and displacement has made it difficult for young refugees to recommence their education. Many feel like ‘failures’ for not completing their schooling and for being unable to find ‘good’ work.

In addition, the costs involved with education (i.e. material and uniforms) are prohibitive for many young refugees, while language barriers in Uganda and discrimination and harassment in both Uganda and Jordan further hinder young refugees’ participation in education.

Work and livelihoods are an important marker for adulthood. Yet, the lack of labour market opportunities in Uganda, as well as the lack of qualifications and social connections in both countries for young refugees, has created obstacles for finding work and sustaining a livelihood.

In a similar way to gaining access to education, the language barriers in Uganda also create a barrier to finding employment. In Jordan, the legal restrictions on the types of work available to refugees and the lack of a national ID number for many young refugees – combined with discrimination and exploitation in the workplace – add to the many obstacles young displaced people must face in accessing work.

Family is a central focus of young refugees’ present and future lives. Marriage and family formation is viewed as a means to establish social status, but the cost of a dowry and wedding expenses prevent young refugees from attaining this rite and transition to adulthood.

Yet financial issues are not the only obstacle. The lack of a suitable match, discrimination, a sense of instability where marriage may worsen conditions for everyone involved, as well as conflicts with future aspirations such as permanent relocation, can all delay marriage and the means to building household assets.

Helping young refugees to build productive adult lives

The research has demonstrated that youth transitions in protracted crises are fraught with complex barriers and obstacles. Despite very different contexts, young refugees in Uganda and Jordan face similar challenges in achieving their goals for adult life.

By advancing our understanding of transitional pathways and the conditional factors that influence opportunity and decision making, this research contributes the necessary knowledge required to target assistance to displaced youth and support their efforts to build productive adult lives.

The transition from youth to adulthood marks a stage in the life course when aspirations are realised and decisions are made for the long-term regarding education, work and livelihoods and family life. Since displacement and forced migration ruptures young people’s plans for their adult lives, specific support is needed to ensure that changes to transition pathways are addressed in a positive manner.

The nature of conflicts and crises make it difficult to prevent these ruptures, but agencies and governments can tailor support to be more responsive to the realities of being a young refugee.

Professor van Blerk, Doctor Prazeres and Doctor Shand were all part of the team who completed the Youth Transitions research project for the University of Dundee.

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