August 11, 2017

Creating Opportunities for Refugee Youth

By Rebecca Wexler

Never in history has the global community had more young people to celebrate than on this International Youth Day, as the world recently hit the largest global youth population ever recorded.

While birthrates are declining in most of Europe and other Western nations, the youth populations in Africa, Asia and the Middle East are soaring— with nearly 90% of people between the ages of 10 and 24 in the developing world.  In Africa alone, 70% of the population is under the age of 30 – and that number is expected to double by 2045. In the Middle East, nearly 65% of the population is under 30.  Meanwhile, more than 300 million Indians are under the age of 15. As Kristin Lord, CEO of IREX, recently noted in Foreign Policy, “To put the size of this generation’s numbers into perspective, consider this: If these children formed a country, that country would be the fourth-largest in the world.”

While these numbers mean the aid community is doing lots of things right – like reducing child mortality, improving childhood vaccination rates, and generally improving the health and well-being of the world’s youngest citizens – an extraordinary confluence of global events is putting unprecedented pressures on this population and making investments in their future more important than ever.

In some the very same countries and regions where record numbers of youths are seeking food, jobs, and schooling, the worst refugee crisis is funneling even more children into these already stretched environments. According to the UN, roughly half of the estimated 65 million people currently displaced globally and fleeing violence and desperation in their home countries are children.

In Niger – the “youngest” country in the world with an average age of just over 15 – tens of thousands of Nigerians fleeing Boko Haram have settled in the Diffa region, most of whom are women and children. Meanwhile, nearly 5 million Syrian refugees have fled to countries like Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon. Approximately half of all Syrian refugees are children under the age 18, and six years of continuous war have left most of them with minimal access education, not to mention a place to call home.

The mix of large numbers of youths in already overstretched communities with limited access to education and jobs could be explosive. The International Labour Organization has cautioned that increases in youth unemployment are highly correlated with social unrest.

Thankfully a unique public-private partnership – with some mega-watt star power – has recently stepped in to help fill some of the immense void in refugee education. At the beginning of August, the Clooney Foundation for Justice announced that with the help of UNICEF and Google, it will provide funding for seven existing public schools in Lebanon to stay open after hours to provide Syrian refugee children with formal schooling. Nearly one-third of the million Syrian refugees in Lebanon are children who are not enrolled in school.

In announcing the project, George and Amal Clooney said, “Thousands of young Syrian refugees are at risk — the risk of never being a productive part of society. Formal education can help change that…We don’t want to lose an entire generation because they had the bad luck of being born in the wrong place at the wrong time,” said George and Amal Clooney.

Google first announced its support for the project in September 2016 after signing on as a founding partner of the White House Private Sector Call to Action, which sought to engage the private sector to make significant commitments to the refugee crisis. Its partnership with the Clooney Foundation for Justice is just one example of the significant work it has done to support refugee education. In total, Google says it has committed more than $16.5 million to refugee relief efforts and 90 employees have contributed more than 1,200 hours on projects like installing Wi-Fi along refugee migration routes.

Empowering these children who have already faced so much hardship will give them the opportunity to be part of the generation that helps tackle some of the world’s most pressing crises, rather than simply being victims of them. With an ongoing migration crises and existing youth population that will soon create a youth bulge of its own, it has never been more important to invest in the next generation.