Today more than 600 million young people globally live in fragile and conflict-affected areas, many of them in Africa. At some point they are forced to leave their homes to embark on the uncertain and uncomfortable life of a refugee.
The African Union’s (AU) 2019 theme is on refugees, returnees and internally displaced persons. The aim is to shine a light on forced migration on the continent. This presents the AU with a good opportunity to partner with young refugees on the organisation’s goal to ‘silence the guns’ and create the peaceful Africa they deserve.
The AU pledged in 2013 not to ‘bequeath the burden of conflict to the next generation of Africans and undertake to end all wars by 2020’. That commitment was endorsed by the United Nations Security Council on 27 February 2019.
The vulnerable group status of refugees limits their ability to get involved in conflict resolution and peacebuilding. Many refugees, both young and old, live below the poverty line. As second-class citizens, there is little investment by host countries and development partners in empowering them to lead peacebuilding in their home countries.
This year marks 50 years since the signing of the Organisation of African Unity Convention on Refugees, the first regional refugee convention in the world. The convention doesn’t speak to the plight of young refugees. With over 65% of the continent’s population under 35, amendments that recognise this are long overdue. The focus should be on inclusive ventures that improve refugees’ security and empowerment, with youth at the core.
Life for a young refugee in Africa is hard. Having fled war or persecution, refugee youth aged between 15 and 35 are often thrust into an uncertain world. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) young refugees may find themselves at increased risk of sexual and gender-based violence, forced recruitment and exploitation. They can also become targets of xenophobia and discrimination.
The UNHCR offers three kinds of solutions: repatriation, local integration and resettlement. Local integration is dampened by issues of xenophobia, among others, and resettlement is costly and less common. Repatriation is the better option. However, for repatriation to take place in Africa, the AU must find durable solutions to armed conflict. These would be based on sound political interventions with the participation of key stakeholders, including the youth.
During the 32nd AU summit, chairperson President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt singled out post-conflict reconstruction and development as one of his key priorities, promising to host a Forum for Peace and Sustainable Development in Aswan, Egypt. He should link this priority to the AU’s 2019 refugees theme, and make sure that young people are major partners and beneficiaries of any new initiatives.
El-Sisi’s government also recently hosted a World Youth Forum for Arab and African Youth in Aswan. He has since declared Aswan the Capital of African Youth. Although a number of young refugees attended, their role in securing peace in Africa was not on the agenda this year.
Initiatives to include youth in peace and security efforts at the AU and at regional level shouldn’t exclude young refugees. A quota should be allocated for young refugees in youth initiatives by the AU’s African Governance Architecture and the newly formed Youth for Peace Africa Programme to ensure their inclusion and participation.
Through its Global Youth Advisory Council the UNHCR has echoed the same sentiments. It believes that when refugees are perceived only as vulnerable beneficiaries of aid, the opportunity to have a say in decisions that affect them is taken away.
The AU Youth Envoy is expected by the AU Peace and Security Council to work with youth peace ambassadors from Africa’s five geographical regions. These ambassadors will anchor a youth, peace and security agenda in all AU member states. This is a unique opportunity for the AU to show its support for young refugees.
The Youth Envoy should select at least one of the five youth peace ambassadors from this vulnerable group. This will not only add value to this young ambassador’s initiative but bring major insights to conflict resolution from a young person’s perspective.
The AU Youth Envoy has a youth advisory council made up of young leaders from all five regions of the continent. One of them is a young man, Simon Marot Touloung, who has spent most of his life in a refugee camp in Uganda. Touloung, born in Mayom County, South Sudan, can use the AU platform to include refugee voices in efforts to silence the guns and develop the continent.
He told the Institute for Security Studies’ Training for Peace Programme, ‘We need to ask ourselves the right questions. Can we teach our youth regardless of their status (refugee, returnee or internally displaced) that we do not have to kill our way to power and fame? Can we teach them that they do not have to [avenge] the killings of their relatives by killing?’
From a human security perspective, the AU must have youth at the core of its initiatives to silence the guns in Africa. Once youth participation has been mainstreamed, the focus should turn to including vulnerable youth, such as refugees. Young refugees need to be the face of ending conflict in Africa. They have first-hand experience of the consequences of armed conflict and are better placed to anchor conflict resolution efforts.
Muneinazvo Kujeke, Junior Research Consultant, Peace Operations and Peacebuilding, ISS Pretoria
This ISS Today is published as part of the Training for Peace Programme (TfP), which is funded by the government of Norway.
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