Like Richard, who has spent much of his adolescence in refugee camps, many young people around the world have been forced to flee their homes to escape the horrors of war, civil conflict and other disasters. In 2005, there were approximately 12.7 million refugees in the world, roughly half of them children under the age of 18.(1) In urgent need of assistance and protection, adolescent refugees are vulnerable to violence, neglect, exploitation, and abuse in a variety of forms.
In a crisis, the family support so vital to young people often collapses. The social and cultural networks that provide protection, support, information and role models disintegrate. Young refugees and displaced persons are deeply affected not only by their exposure to violence, deprivation, and personal traumas such as the loss of family members, but by the disruption of education, employment and a clear path to the future.
Even community members, families, and peers can pose a threat to displaced children and young people. They may be forced into labour by their families and subjected to various forms of abuse. Girls may be forced into early marriage as a means to secure income or physical safety for themselves and their families.(2) Adolescent refugees rarely have access to education.(3) If they do, families may keep girls especially out of school to help with family tasks, or for fear of their safety. Displaced young women are especially vulnerable. The violent break-up of stable relationships and the disintegration of community and family life sweep away the social norms governing sexual behaviour. Sexual contact in such circumstances is often violent and always dangerous, especially for women, whose risks apart from physical injury and unwanted pregnancy include greater vulnerability to HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections. Insurgency groups regularly force young men to commit rape, traumatizing both the men and women involved. The risks for women extend beyond the conflict itself: partners and wives of returning ex-combatants are also at risk.
In Liberia, nearly 80 per cent of displaced girls underwent abortions by the age of 15 after exposure to sexual exploitation and violence.(4) In Uganda, it is estimated that 80 per cent of girls abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army were HIV positive when they returned to their communities.(5)
Once they reach the “safety” of refugee camps young women are not necessarily protected from gender-based violence. Rape, unprotected sex and unwanted pregnancies are common in refugee camps. Stigmatization of girls and women subjected to rape and unwanted pregnancies is extreme.
Young men in refugee camps may be ex-combatants, abductees or displaced by violence. They have lost their sources of self-esteem and find themselves frustrated by inaction and powerlessness. They have few opportunities for education or employment, and few other outlets. The outcome is often violence, including gender-based and sexual violence, and substance abuse.(6)
Refugee camps may be vulnerable to attack from outside and domination by violence within. Armed groups can use camps as abduction and recruitment points. Abducted boys and girls often end up as soldiers; girls may be used as domestic workers and sex slaves.
Under international agreements such as the 1951 Convention on Refugees, countries have pledged themselves to give refuge and succour to people displaced from their countries by violent conflict, including children and young people. With support of the international community, countries of asylum should make the maximum effort to understand and respond to the plight of refugees and asylum-seekers.
Most refugees are in developing countries, where governments often find extreme difficulty in providing more than rudimentary support. They need the help of the international community to support young refugees, protect their rights and help those who are unaccompanied to reunite with their families. They should be able to provide not only immediate relief but education, health and psychological rehabilitation to young refugees.
Young people who have been repatriated also need specialized assistance. In countries like Liberia and Sierra Leone, UNFPA has supported faith-based organizations to educate young girls, many of whom have been victims of sexual violence during the war, on HIV/STI prevention, along with teaching them income-generating activities, such as market gardening, poultry farming, and hair styling, so as to help these young girls avoid having to turn to sex work in order to survive. Similar initiatives are being implemented in Cote d’ Ivoire, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
In addition to programmes that promote livelihood opportunities and address sexual and gender based violence, it is of critical importance that young people, including former refugees as well as ex-combatants, are involved in post-conflict reconstruction efforts to restore the social and economic fabric of societies and build lasting peace.