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The Under-Explored Impact and Potential of Refugee Youth-Led Organisations 

14 Dec 2023
By Dr. Evan Easton-Calabria (UNICEF Innocenti)Shai Naides, (UNICEF Innocenti) and Rahildaris Antonieta Marchena Herrera (Global Refugee-Led Network)


Around the world, there is a rise in recognition of the power and importance of refugee-led organisations (RLOs). Rarely featured in discussions about these however, is the prominent role of refugee youth-led organisations, commonly known as RYLOs. Supporting age diversity within the leadership of organisations created and led by refugees is a key but under-acknowledged area of practice in responding to the needs of forcibly displaced people.  This aspect is even more important when one considers that over half of all refugees are 24 years old or under. The Global Refugee Youth Network (GRYN), for example, aims to support and advance youth-led initiatives through capacity building, networking and advocacy, and provides small grants to RYLOs to implement projects of their own design. 


Role of RYLOs in addressing needs and challenges of refugee youth  

Conversations with members of GRYN and with leaders of other RYLOs and youth-led refugee initiatives reveal the particular value that the perspective and approaches of young leaders brings to these initiatives. Many informants spoke of the deep understanding that fellow refugee youth have of their challenges and experiences, which can be harnessed to improve organizations’ programming. Notably, several informants highlighted the ‘in between’ role that refugee youth often find themselves in within humanitarian and development settings characterized by protracted displacement: they have aged out of child-targeted programming but are not yet old enough to be considered by many agencies as independent adults. However, they also face similar or greater challenges than refugee adults due to their age and particular situations. For example, teenage pregnancy, rape and sexual abuse are key issues that female refugee youth in particular have to deal with. RYLOs have a unique role to play in supporting fellow refugee youth with such challenges and are an important yet under-acknowledged element of the assistance architecture for young refugees.  

 A Congolese refugee who lived in a Ugandan settlement as a teenager started a RYLO to address the stigma that teenage mothers faced and to create a space for community support. She explained,

I started this group because of my own experience as a child mother, because I didn’t have the chance to access education and I lost my identity as a young girl when I lost my parents and was forced to become child bride. All of that pushed me, and when I gained confidence, I founded that group to bring girls to the table, with the same experience as me, to promote girl’s education and girl’s and women’s rights.  


Mismatch between RYLO aims and humanitarian perceptions  

Alongside good practices and models for collaboration like the ongoing support of GRYN by the Women’s Refugee Commission, there is also a worrying mismatch between international organisations’ perceptions of refugee youth-led initiatives and their own aims. RYLOs generally have a large focus on income-generation as many refugee youth are either living alone in cities or are the main breadwinners for their families. However, it is common for humanitarian and development agencies’ programs to target artistic development such as painting, music, and dance rather than livelihoods trainings or other forms of support to income generation. RYLO informants describe these activities as being seen as ways to ‘occupy the youth’ and prevent drug use and/or crime.

This mismatch reveals the lack of appropriate focus by humanitarian and development organizations on youth capacity and their attempts to improve their lives. Skills development and income generating activities play in fact a critical role in the survival strategies of many. Recognising this, many RYLOs offer income generating trainings themselves. Indeed, the existence of youth-led refugee organisations challenges perceptions and constructions of both youth and refugees as vulnerable and lacking agency, which does not account for the broader reality of the large impact that RYLOs have on many refugee youth’s lives.  


RYLOs teach us about true youth-centred programmes design  

These different perceptions also highlight the unique value of RYLOs: unlike big funders and international organisations, RYLOs don’t need to create mechanisms for youth inclusion and youth consultations because their strategies and initiatives are inherently youth-centred and youth-led. This is important as the principles of Human-Centred Design applied to programme development indicate that the most effective strategies and solutions come from those individuals and communities which are closest to the challenges. RYLOs’ insights about the challenges and opportunities for young refugees make them critical partners for systemic change and solution pathways that funders, international organisations and host countries can leverage through supporting and engaging them as legitimate and equal partners.  


Looking Ahead   

Promising progress is being made however, in terms of the evolution of programming and partnerships for RYLOs in ways which recognise and promote the agency and capability of refugee youth.UNICEF and other humanitarian agencies are striving to make youth voices heard. An example of this is UNICEF’s and the Norwegian Refugee Council’s Global Refugee Forum pledge to support the development of Guidelines for Programming with and for young people in humanitarian settings [searchable under ‘UNICEF’]. The International Labour Organization, the UN Refugee Agency, and UNICEF have adopted an initiative to advance young people’s engagement and meaningful participation to improve the prospects of forcibly displaced people in terms of livelihoods and wellbeing (PROSPECTS)

Finally, refugee youth themselves are continuing to advocate and act. For example, a formal statement issued by displaced youth on the climate emergency was released for COP27 in 2022 with messages also keenly relevant to the recent COP28. The positive inclusion of both refugee-led orgaisations and refugee youth in the Global Refugee Forum must continue in broader humanitarian and development programming. Around the world, RYLOs continue the daily work of addressing fellow refugee youth’s needs despite limited funding and other resources. 

As the work of supporting RYLOs continues to expand, the following messages – shared by RYLO leaders and members – are important to heed:  

  • RYLOs exist because young refugees’ needs are not being met. Refugee youth are taking initiative and filling advocacy, programmatic, and funding gaps to improve their lives and the lives of young people in their communities;

  • There is dissonance between the challenges that young refugees face and the type of activities that funders prioritize. Youth-centred approaches to programme and intervention design need to be prioritized; 

  • More research is needed to understand the particular challenges and successes of RYLOs, including intersectional challenges such age and gender. In particular, there’s a need to better understand the contextual factor that enable or hinder girls from establishing and leading RYLOs.  

  • Young refugees and RYLOs should have the right to participation as equal partners in decision-making processes concerning their situation. This requires a shift in humanitarian and development agencies’ perceptions and narratives from refugee youth as merely recipients to agents of change.