Karam* fled Afghanistan when he was 16, after his father was killed in a U.S. bombardment of Kabul in 2002. He now lives on the streets of Quetta, Pakistan, working as a “garbage picker” to support himself, his mother and three younger siblings. His job carries many health risks, and he faces harsh discrimination, but Karam has hope for the future. He receives support and literacy training from a local group, the Center for Street Children and Women. He wants, one day, to continue his education and become a doctor.
Youth are particularly vulnerable to the upheaval of conflict and disaster. In fleeing their homes, they often lose any chance of getting an education. They are stripped of the stable communities that served to guide their growth. Most importantly, many refugee youth are forced to become breadwinners and caretakers for their families. Desperate and impressionable, they are vulnerable to exploitation by employers, human traffickers and child militia recruiters.
But with proper support, displaced youth can avoid these hazards. The right work opportunities provide many benefits, including a source of income, a chance to learn new skills, a way to pay for future education, a place within the local social structure and a source of self-esteem. And livelihood programs are vital to the well-being of their host society: recent research from the International Peace Research Institute in Oslo has shown that in underdeveloped countries, failing to integrate youth into the local labor market may increase political violence.
Youth have specific needs and capabilities, and the Women’s Refugee Commission’s Livelihoods program takes these complexities into account. In 2008, we developed a Market Assessment Toolkit for Vocational Training Providers and Youth, and in 2009 we conducted field tests of this model in northern Uganda. In these and other efforts, we ask for direct input from adolescent and young adult refugees, and we seek to ensure that livelihood strategies are driven by sustainable market demand and fit well with the youths’ interests, skills and available resources.
*Name changed for anonymity.