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Rohingya Muslim women stretch their arms out to collect sanitary products distributed by aid agencies near Balukhali refugee camp, Bangladesh. Image Credit: AP

Conflict and insecurity have created staggering socioeconomic consequences in the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region. According to Unicef, there are about 71 million people in need of humanitarian assistance across the Mena region, including 35 million children. In addition, 37,000 people are forced to flee their homes every day due to conflict and persecution.

Challenges and dilemmas arise in implementation of humanitarian action. While governmental and non-governmental organisations share the responsibility of delivering timely and equitable humanitarian action, the scale and chronic nature of crises in the region have aggravated ground realities to the extent where simple things are proving to be the difference between life and death.

Ask any disadvantaged local youth of a community that hosts refugees about their issues and she or he will reiterate that while they are sympathetic to the refugee cause, they have their concerns too: Will they turn out to be a burden we cannot afford to bear in the long run?

Similar feelings and concerns are expressed wherever there are issues created by the influx of displaced people. To address this, we need to better understand the needs and aspirations of the hosts in order to formulate viable solutions that serve both the hosts as well as the refugees.

Main challenge

While government and non-government actors attempt to address these challenges, the high variability of needs compounded with existing structural problems in service delivery as well as limited resources remain ongoing challenges.

One of the main challenges today is to redefine the image of refugees, from recipients of financial aid to people with rights who, if properly empowered and supported, can find sustainable solutions beneficial to themselves and the country they reside in. This follows the fact that before becoming displaced and labelled as refugees, they were productive citizens in their home country, and contributed to their economy and society in various fields. They can continue to do so even as displaced refugees.

Proactive youth volunteers have created several applications to help refugees learn the local language of the host countries, in addition to advice and tips on how to deal with challenges and obstacles

- Mariam Al Hammadi

With this in mind, host countries can seek to promote increased social cohesion and employability among their youth with volunteering opportunities in the most vulnerable communities hosting refugees; and soft skills training as well as psychosocial awareness and community-building activities.

Youth volunteering is an effective and efficient mechanism to alleviate some of the increasing and unmet needs of both refugees and their host communities. Volunteering can put youth from the host community at the centre of development and empower them to become agents of change, by enabling them to identify and find solutions to the most pressing problems afflicting them and their own communities.

The youth hosts can help defuse tensions by inducting the refugee youth into the volunteer group and work towards shared goals, thus building more cohesive societies through citizenship development. Volunteering is also believed to improve the employability of participating host youth, by enabling them to participate in unpaid work.

More on the topic

The role of youth gains importance also from the fact that they are the ones who come up with new ideas using the latest technologies and communication tools to create new programmes and initiatives that aim to ease the burden on refugees and help them regain a sense of normality.

New culture

For example, one youth group in Brazil suggested converting buses into food trucks used by refugees to make and sell dishes from their home cuisine to the local community of the host country. This opened a cultural window for the local community to be introduced a new culture, as well as gave refugees a sense of accomplishment and motivation to lead a normal and active life in their new environment.

Proactive youth volunteers have created several applications to help refugees learn the local language of the host countries, in addition to advice and tips on how to deal with challenges and obstacles, and ways to access basic services in the new country.

In the second phase of the youth volunteer projects, refugee youth in the targeted communities can be inducted and trained to serve their communities alongside their host peers.

Such projects should include a psychosocial support component which will promote awareness among participating youth of the mental health challenges afflicting refugees. They should provide opportunities for interaction between participating youth and citizens and refugees living in the targeted host communities through psychosocial and community building activities.

Volunteerism and soft skills training do in fact have an impact on youth employability and social cohesion.

The scale-up of these programmes will empower youth to become agents of change and promote improved service delivery and social stability throughout the host countries and help alleviate the refugee issue.

— Mariam Al Hammadi is the director of The Big Heart Foundation.