Growing up on the run: Global attention on Afghanistan highlights plight of young refugees

Elizabett Yashneva is GPG’s Project Officer. She is interested in exploring areas of international law and social politics related to the promotion of human rights and equal representation. She believes that progress in any aspect of society starts from a comprehensive dialogue between older and younger generations. Elizabett has been involved in projects aiming to raise the importance of youth education and involvement in political life, which included the development of the Verkhovna Rada education programme in Ukraine and organising a forum on youth participation and engagement for the Oliy Majlis Human Rights Committee in Uzbekistan. 

Afghanistan has one of the world’s fastest growing and youngest populations: with approximately 63 percent of the population (27.5 million) under the age of 25. The force and energy which could bring prosperity and rebuild the state must now make a difficult choice to leave in the face of an obscure future for them and their families. Although Taliban leadership is pursuing more democratic and palatable strategies, there is a danger that all the opportunities for young women and men created over the past 20 years could be destroyed.  

Today, it is estimated that 20-30 thousand people cross the border weekly to reach neighbouring countries – Uzbekistan, Iran, Pakistan, – either to settle there or transit further to the European states or the United States. To avoid causing tensions with the new government of Afghanistan and aggravating the pre-existing issues caused by the pandemic and economic factors, the Republic of Uzbekistan is not accommodating refugees on its territory. However, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan provided significant support to Europe and the United States during the evacuation. The Republic of Uzbekistan is not intending to abandon the Afghan people. President Mirziyoyev stated the importance of building stable and peaceful relationships with the Taliban both for the sake of border security and for the people of Afghanistan. ‘If they strive for peace, we will help them’ by delivering supplies from other countries by train, and ‘we ourselves will also contribute to this’, he stated. 

Even before the collapse of the Afghan government, the number of Afghani refugees approximated over 2 million worldwide.  Great influx of migrants is a new challenge for 2021. The 2015 Syrian refugee crisis, during which millions fled war and persecution, demonstrated the limited capacity of receiving countries in dealing with sudden large refugee inflows on a backdrop of xenophobia and exclusion.  

What can be done to avoid history repeating itself? One essential point of focus may be to provide a nurturing environment for young refugees. The large, working-age population is a powerful resource that can contribute to societal growth and development if it receives appropriate investments in the form of education, employment, adequate healthcare, and social and political empowerment.   

Youth at risk: psychological impacts and human trafficking 

Central Asia is both a transit zone and destination of victims of forced labour and sexual exploitation. Although countries of the region are taking important steps to introduce preventive measures, large flows of refugees can hinder efforts in place. The research conducted by GPG on the impacts of Covid-19 on human trafficking and modern slavery in Sudan and the wider Horn of Africa region addresses the similar situation of Sudanese refugees and IDPs as reduced work opportunities increase social isolation “leading to increased risk of entering exploitative or abusive environments”. A campaign on raising awareness about human trafficking and methods perpetrators use for recruitment consequently ought to be one of the primary steps taken to support migrants.  

There have already been cases where Asylum failed to meet the basic needs of displaced persons. Children and young people left without spare clothes, shoes, proper medical attention, legal advice or interpretation, and access to the nearest place of worship. Such poor conditions can further endanger the mental and physical health of the vulnerable groups who have already suffered significant psychological trauma.  

The Norwegian Refugee Council collected the views of young Syrian refugees in Jordan relating to their wellbeing. Their answers highlighted not only how their wellbeing was derived from education and employment but also from opportunities for personal, social, and emotional growth, as forced displacement can lead to the loss of protective social and cultural systems. This, in turn, may drive young people desperate to earn a living to pursue precarious schemes to find employment. Hence, the aforementioned GPG Report emphasizes the importance of increasing “access to healthcare and other forms of social welfare to decrease economic vulnerability and likelihood of targeted recruitment”. 


What responses shall be expected from other countries and the international community? European leaders talk of the urge for Europe to protect itself from the “flows of illegal migration” as the EU cannot take on all the consequences of the current situation. Meanwhile, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) released a non-return advisory for Afghanistan and “a bar on forced returns of Afghan nationals, including asylum seekers who have had their claims rejected.” 

It is impossible to stop migration and inhuman to leave people without support. What might be possible is to cooperate to build mutually beneficial relationships. Young people – this adaptative, flexible, innovative demographic – should be central in pursuing this strategy. Placing an emphasis on the professional development of young people is a driver for sustainable development, particularly in times of humanitarian crisis. The 2019 Guidelines from the Council of Europe to the governments highlighted the importance of this collaboration. The document does not only recommend supporting ‘young refugees in their transition to adulthood to access their rights and in furthering their inclusion in society’ but also in recognising and strengthening the role of youth work in building these relationships.  

Inclusion of young refugees 

In an interview with the UN News Services, DR Ramiz Alakbarov, Deputy Special Representative, Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator of Afghanistan at the UN, stated that Afghani youth is looking forward to enormous educational potential. They want to be members of the international community, to be ‘citizens of the universe, despite all the difficulties, they believe in the future’. Unfortunate circumstances do not allow channelling this energy into Afghanistan, but the best support the international community can give is to provide an environment to nurture their potential to rebuild their nation, if not today, then tomorrow. 

The importance of youth engagement is a prevailing topic of discussion in Central Asia with neighbouring Uzbekistan taking the lead in promoting the rights of young people in the region.  In 2020, together with the support of the British Embassy, GPGF and the Uzbekistan parliamentary Commission on Follow-up and Compliance with Human Rights organised an international Forum on Youth rights and engagement to discuss meaningful political participation from young people. Collaborating with the youth, treating them as stakeholders, learning about the issues that concern them, and working with them on the solutions is fundamental. Being positive and seeking out the voices of those who are not generally heard should be a priority in building relationships with Youth.  

Rita French noted at the GPGF/ Uzbekistan Human Rights Commission forum ‘From Policy to Impact’, that future generations should be educated in their power to build and support a culture of Human Rights across all societies. This concept is well explained in GPG’s Guide to Parliaments on Youth Participation. It promotes an idea to parliaments to build enabling environments and collaborative opportunities accessible to different audiences. Could it be one of the answers to the refugee question? Creating opportunities for the vulnerable – yet strong – will foster stability. To initiate this positive impact, young migrants should be given the right to speak with local communities, governments, youth parliaments, to communicate their challenges, and receive a chance to propose solutions that should prove beneficial in the long-term for all parties.