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'We are part of the solution', say young refugees


'We are part of the solution', say young refugees

Youngsters make their voices heard at talks to transform how world responds to refugee crises.
10 May 2018
Portrait of a young woman standing against a grey background.
Refugee youth delegate Laura Elizabeth Valencia Restrepo, 21, from Colombia, is attending a high-level meeting in Geneva devoted to finding sustainable solutions for refugee children and youth.

GENEVA, Switzerland – For Mohammed Badran, a 24-year-old Syrian who found safety in the Netherlands, being a refugee is not an identity, but an experience that can be used to bring communities together.

“When we are only perceived as vulnerable beneficiaries of assistance, the opportunity to have a say in decisions that affect us is taken away from us,” Mohammed told delegates this week at talks on a new comprehensive refugee response that is being developed by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. “We need to rethink what it means to be a refugee and to include this vision in the compact."

“To succeed, the global compact must be owned by refugees.”

Mohammed was among young refugees who brought a fresh perspective to the talks. With the help of other Syrian refugees, Mohammed founded the NGO Syrian Volunteers in the Netherlands (SYVNL), which already has more than 600 members working to bring Syrian refugees and local Dutch communities closer. For him, refugees should not only be included in consultations on the compact, but also in the planning, monitoring and evaluation.

“For it to succeed, the global compact must be owned by refugees,” he said.

Mohammed is also part of the Global Youth Advisory Council (GYAC) that was formed by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. GYAC delegates have spent months conducting consultations with refugee and host community youth, community leaders and government authorities to gather feedback on initial drafts of the global compact.

As the number of people forced to flee their homes continues to climb, the compact aims to transform the way the international community responds to refugee crises. UNHCR was given the task of developing a global compact on refugees by the UN General Assembly in 2016, and it is expected to be adopted by the UN General Assembly at the end of 2018.

Threatened with female genital mutilation and forced marriage, Mariama Saran Sow fled Guinea at age 17. She found safety in Germany but has struggled to cope with her trauma.

“I suffered a great deal of violence at home, but I feel like psycho-social support for refugees who have gone through traumatic experiences is still missing,” she said. “Children need to participate in activities when they first arrive to take their minds off their worries. Women also need safe spaces to talk about abuses they may have suffered. When we arrive, more often than not we do not speak the language of the host country. We need women interpreters with whom we can talk.”

Other delegates also stressed the importance of working closely with host communities.

“Host communities and local authorities are the first responders helping refugees,” said Simon Marot Touloung, who fled South Sudan as an unaccompanied minor in 2000 and recently completed his bachelors’ degree thanks to a DAFI scholarship. He founded the African Youth Action Network, a refugee-led organization supporting coexistence initiatives in Kampala and South Sudan. “In Uganda, local communities agreed to give parts of their land to South Sudanese refugees, as a way to say thank you for when South Sudan helped Ugandans in the 1970s.”

“Host communities are more welcoming to refugees when they do not view them as competition."

Denis Adhoch, a 30-year-old Kenyan, said host communities must be recognized for their generosity and given additional support.

“Urban refugees live in informal settlements alongside locals who also struggle to make ends meet,” he explained. “When refugees receive services that locals cannot also benefit from, the perception that refugees receive preferential treatment and resentment may grow.”

Through his work in Kalobeyei – a settlement next to Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya – Denis has seen how integrated services, that enable both refugees and host communities to access education, health, water and youth services, can help to facilitate integration.

“Host communities are more welcoming to refugees when they do not view them as competition for the same resources,” he said.

“We greatly value the input of young refugees and we need to look at how to make sure the voices of youth refugees and host communities are translated into global policies,” said Volker Türk, UNHCR’s Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, who co-moderated the event alongside 21-year-old Colombian Laura Elizabeth Valencia Restrepo from the GYAC.

UNHCR is now midway through the formal consultations, which conclude in July and aim to ensure that the global compact on refugees can be adopted by consensus.

Laura, who fled to Ecuador in 2007, knows how vital refugees themselves will be to its success. “We are part of the solution and we have the skills to be part of that,” she said.