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Promoting Inequality And Fairness In The Treatment Of Refugee Youth: Reflections From The 2023 Refugee Law Initiative

Author: Kate Pincock

Promoting Inequality And Fairness In The Treatment Of Refugee Youth: Reflections From The 2023 Refugee Law Initiative

How can inequality and fairness in the treatment of refugees be strengthened? This was the focus of the 7th Annual Refugee Law Initiative (RLI) Conference that took place at the School of Advanced Study at the University of London from 21–23 June 2023. The first in-person RLI conference in four years brought together academics, practitioners, policy-makers and students to reflect on the theme of ‘Inequality and Fairness in Refugee Protection’. While discussions across the conference panels largely focused on how laws and policies can address different forms of inequality and unfairness in the definition and treatment of refugee populations, refugees’ everyday experiences were widely recognised as key to understanding the consequences and impacts of institutional directives.

Submissions were invited that explored how laws and policies at the national and international levels redress inequalities experienced by refugees in their enjoyment of civil and political rights. Drawing on research with adolescent refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and Ethiopia, the contribution of the Gender and Adolescence: Global Evidence (GAGE) study to these discussions was a poster that examined how state approaches to refugee recognition shape civic identity formation among displaced youth in each distinctive context. Young people’s civic participation is increasingly framed within global policy as key to the creation of equitable and inclusive futures; yet the United Nations Global Compact on Refugees also makes no reference to young people. At the same time, although the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) emphasise young people’s participation, refugees are largely overlooked. This issue matters because young people under the age of 18 comprise more than 40% of refugees globally. The majority live in situations of protracted displacement, many of them in countries that do not provide formal recognition and avenues for citizenship.

The Jordanian state has actively implemented policies that enable social and economic integration for refugees, whereas in Lebanon, the government has placed significant restrictions on refugee integration, at least in part due to a complex consociational governance system, which the country’s very high proportion of refugees (the world’s highest) threatens to disrupt. In Bangladesh, which is not party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, exclusion of refugees is taken further, with young people excluded from formal education, employment and social services.

Although legal recognition is important, GAGE research has found that other dimensions of equity and inclusion play a key role in the political and civic orientations of young refugees. Policies that enable access to services and opportunities, as well as social attitudes towards refugees, play a significant role in how young people relate to host communities and governments, and navigate refugee and nationality-based identities. In Jordan, young Syrian refugees report lower levels of discrimination; whereas in Lebanon, Palestinian refugees who have lived there for their whole lives still experience interpersonal negative attitudes, contributing to a sense that they will never truly belong in the country. The same is true in Bangladesh, where attitudes of local communities lead to serious safety concerns among Rohingya refugees.

These divergences in political orientations of young people from different refugee communities within the same country underline the importance of both socio-historical dynamics and ongoing political events in the formation of their political identities. Palestinian refugees participated in the Lebanese civil war (1975–1990). Syria had also occupied Lebanon between 1976 and 2005; this is compounded by the fact that demographically, the proportion of Syrian refugees in Lebanon is higher than in Jordan. This leads young refugees in Lebanon to feel that there are still tensions and distrust that originate in this shared history, despite it often predating their own lives.

Laws and policies that enable access to services for refugees play a vital role in social inclusion on one level, but they cannot address exclusion at the interpersonal and community level. This underlines the need to take an integrated and multi-scalar approach to operationalising the principles of fairness and equality. Programming that works with both host and refugee communities to foster participation and engagement can offer a complement to laws that explicitly promote inclusion and protect rights. The UNICEF Makani (‘My Space’) programme in Jordan, which provides adolescents with empowerment services and life skills classes to help them develop communication and negotiation skills, offers a key example of how to address social exclusion through this lens. Efforts must also be appropriately adapted to specific contexts, populations and legal environments if they are to successfully address ongoing inequalities in young refugees’ participation.