A growing body of international laws and norms aims to protect children and young people under the age of 18 in situations of armed conflict (for a comprehensive analysis, click here). However, these protection standards remain primarily aspirational – that is, they outline the rights that children theoretically have, but do not necessarily guarantee that these rights are respected on the ground. So, how do young people in situations of conflict-induced displacement act in this void between the rhetoric of protection and the reality of daily insecurities that they face as refugees?
Let us consider the case of young Congolese refugees in Uganda. Research was undertaken with more than 400 young people over an 18-month period in Kyaka II refugee settlement – a rural area designated to host refugees in western Uganda – and Kampala, Uganda’s sprawling capital city. Using in-depth interviews, observation, writing exercises, and focus group discussions, the researcher asked about young people’s views on their situation and the ways in which they attempted to improve it by influencing decision-making and decision-makers. In this way, the study focused on young people’s political survival and approaches to protection.
The first major finding of the study was that Congolese young people living as refugees in Uganda believe they have an active role to play in their own protection. One young male defined protection as being able to “meet our own needs, like any other human being.” Similarly, a female participant suggested that protection is “where you can work in peace.” This contrasts with dominant perceptions of young people as inherently vulnerable, and thus passive recipients of protection assistance from others, including parents, teachers, elders, community leaders, governments, and refugee organizations.
Indeed, data gathered during the research suggest that young people actively seek out a variety of protection strategies, especially when the adult duty bearers listed above fail to provide adequate protection. These strategies are intensely political: They reveal young people’s nuanced understandings of power relations, and their consequent attempts to leverage access to decision-making processes and actors.
One protection strategy many young people in the study employed was collective action. In Kampala, they had formed an official organization: the Refugee Youth Association. Similarly, some young people in Kyaka II had created a clandestine organization to document alleged abuses in the refugee settlement. There was also an official youth representative on the Refugee Welfare Committee within Kyaka II. These fora allowed young people to raise their protection concerns to representatives of the government, the United Nations, and refugee agencies. Such opportunities available to groups of young people superseded individual capacity and interests. As Refugee Youth Association members explained, “God sends rain, but people must organize to collect water.”
Congolese young people in the study also used the ostensibly non-political forum of the Refugee Youth Association’s music club to mobilize other refugee young people and advance protection interests. As the music club’s leader explained,
UNHCR [the United Nations agency responsible for refugees] tells us not to talk about politics. But everything that happens is political. We are here because of politics. Even if in the refugee convention it says that refugees can’t talk politics, that penalizes refugees. [...] We want to send messages through music. Our songs can go even in areas where we can’t.
Education was another way Congolese young people attempted to protect their interests, especially in the long term. All young people in the research study, including those who had never had access to formal education, aspired to further studies. When probed about their reasons for wanting to go to school, young people revealed political rationale: Education was linked to white-collar employment, class, and socio-political status. Historically, under Belgian rule, Congolese with formal education occupied special status as “évolués.” After independence, évolués consolidated their status as members of a political elite.
Refugee young people in this study believed in the continued causal relationship between education, on the one hand, and socio-economic status and leadership opportunities, on the other. For example, in individual writing exercises, students in Kyaka II, wrote, “In the future, I want to be a doctor because someone who has an education has a right to speak in the community,” and, “If you are talking in public, they will listen to you.” Similarly, in a focus-group discussion with male secondary students, one remarked, “My plans are very big. I don’t know if they will come. I want to study. Then I can be a leader and do my best to explain the problems facing refugees in public ... in the UN.” Young women in a focus group saw education as a way to secure better marriage and negotiate daily power relations: “If you’re a career girl, you can win a man at the same level. Without education, you only get a village boy.”
Finally, young people migrated independently – i.e. without a parent or guardian – in order to access different socio-political resources and opportunities. For example, many young people attending secondary school in Kyaka II settlement had migrated there alone specifically to access the school. Similarly, some young people in Kampala had come without family to the city looking for employment. The young people’s decisions demonstrate a conscious – and complex – balancing of costs and benefits of migration. These strategies undermine assumptions that “unaccompanied minors” are the result of involuntary separation and tragedy. Indeed, once on their own, some young people chose to remain with peers, even after they had found older relatives or family friends.
This research demonstrates that young people actively seek to advance their protection interests, even in the context of very limited opportunities. Indeed, in some cases, young people felt like they needed to take action precisely because their protection needs were not being met, despite the rhetoric of child rights. For example, after an international non-governmental organization visited the settlement to train young people on the Convention on the Rights of the Child, several high-school students led a demonstration against school fees at the secondary school in Kyaka II settlement. In their view, the fees were preventing them from realizing their right to education. In response, the settlement authorities brutally repressed the students and put many of them in jail without charge or access to a lawyer to “teach them a lesson” and prevent similar “unruly behaviour” in the future.
This incident – and other data reviewed in this article – not only underscores the importance young people accord to education and collective action, but also reveals the disconnect between the rights young people have on paper and the realities they face as refugees. Those of us working with young refugees need to recognize young people as important agents of their own protection, rather than just passive recipients of adult assistance. We also need to pay closer attention to the unequal power relations that may inhibit the realization of young people’s protection rights.