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Sahrawi and Afghan Children and Adolescents

Lessons Learned Report

Children and Adolescents in Sahrawi and Afghan Refugee Households Living with the Effects of Prolonged Armed Conflict and Forced Migration

Refugee Studies Centre

Queen Elizabeth House

University of Oxford

July 2005

Children and Adolescents in Sahrawi and Afghan Refugee Households:

Living with the Effects of Prolonged Armed Conflict and Forced Migration

This study aims to bridge the theoretical and applied divide which is common to much of the research directed at children and adolescents. It is built upon the earlier ground-breaking and innovative study of children and adolescents in Palestinian households in the Middle East. Using a similar participatory research approach and querying the same basic Western assumptions, it examines the ways children and adolescents in Sahrawi refugee households in Algeria and other parts of North Africa as well as in Afghan refugee families in Iran live with the effects of prolonged conflict and forced migration. The primary objectives of the research are two-fold to contribute to a better understanding of child and adolescent development which moves beyond the Western model elaborated by developmental psychology; and to provide local, regional, and international NGOs and IGOs, and national governments with a more nuanced appreciation of the effects of prolonged conflict and forced migration on children and adolescents and their caregivers. The project integrates an organic research design with a practical agenda to improve delivery, policy, and programmes to help practitioners to provide better services. Local practitioners and researchers were integrated into the research programme by first identifying current policies and practices. These were then taken into account in designing a participatory research methodology intended to be implemented by local and international researchers. It should result in improved project, policy and programming delivery, as well as transferable lessons learned and good practice guide for refugee children and adolescents.

Overall Conclusions: Refugee Youth in Prolonged Forced Migration

Based on data collected between 1999 and 2005 and the reflections of team leaders, other researchers, practitioners, and policymakers present at the workshop, the following lessons learned were drawn from the research programme on refugee children and youth in the Middle East and North Africa:

  • 1) Gender and generation are significant considerations to include in studies and projects which seek to understand the experiences of young refugees.

  • 2) The ethical management of research and collaboration with local associations are vital to bridge the gap between academia and practice.

  • 3) Participatory Research Approaches (PRA) that are mindful of social context and ethical issues can be effective tools for identifying the priorities of refugee youth and for encouraging a sense of agency and ownership.

  • 4) Policies affecting refugee youth should a) reflect a holistic and participatory approach; b) recognise the importance of oral history and memory; c) encourage self-reliance, self-expression, and empowerment; and, d) prioritise education and vocational training.

Aims and Organisation of the Research

The project on Sahrawi and Afghan refugee youth (SARC) (2002-2005) is part of a larger research programme funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation which aims to document and understand the experiences of youth in situations of prolonged conflict and forced migration. The SARC study emerged from a previous research effort carried out between 1999 and 2001 among young Palestinian refugees in households located in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. In both projects, the research teams were multidisciplinary, drawing in anthropologists, educators, health care professionals, psychologists, economists and sociologists. There was also an effort to adapt participatory research methods in each of the research sites in order to engage children, as much as possible, at various stages of the research process.

This Lessons Learned Report owes much to the sessions and conversations that took place in Platres, Cyprus, at the Dissemination Workshop (May 2005) for the Mellon-funded research on refugee youth in the Middle East and North Africa. The workshop brought together the various research teams involved in the Palestinian, Sahrawi, and Afghan studies, as well as other academics and practitioners who work with youth. The report points to some of the emerging findings and parallels across the studies, as well as to the broader lessons learned about research with refugee youth, the methods used to study them, and the challenges of linking academic knowledge with policy and practice. As a separate Lessons Learned Report is available for the Palestinian study

The Lessons Learned Report for the Palestinian study, entitled “Children and Adolescents in Palestinian Households: Living with the Effects of Prolonged Conflict and Forced Migration” is available online at Also see Chatty and Lewando Hundt (2005).

, emphasis here is put on the Sahrawi and Afghan components of the research.


Aims of the Study

The broad aims of the study were:

  • 1) To investigate the direct and indirect effects of forced migration on children and adolescents in the Middle East/North Africa region with particular emphasis on:

    • a) the strategies of coping of children and youth in refugee households.

    • b) the effects of forced migration on these households and families.

    • c) the social context of the direct and indirect effects of conflict.

    • d) the attitudes to and incidence of violence within and outside households.

  • 2) To develop a multidisciplinary approach in research on children and households affected by forced migration that can be used in both a theoretical and an applied context.

  • 3) To develop, in cooperation with local practitioners, programme managers and policy makers, participatory research methods relevant to situations of forced migration which focus on children, adolescents and their care-givers.

  • 4) To generate concepts regarding children and households affected by forced migration that are culturally and socially sensitive to local contexts and which can be successfully applied to policy, practice, and programme development.

  • 5) To identify coping structures, strategies and mechanisms from which lessons may be learned and disseminated to researchers, practitioners and policy makers concerned with children and adolescents in the Middle East, North Africa, and elsewhere.

  • 6) To make specific recommendations for policy makers and practitioners that improve the delivery of services designed with the participation of refugee children and their caregivers; and to disseminate these recommendations broadly at the appropriate venues and consultations.

Organisation of the Study

Dawn Chatty, Deputy Director of the Refugee Studies Centre at the University of Oxford, was Principle Investigator for the Sahrawi and Afghan project, as well as for the previous Palestinian study. Gillian Lewando Hundt of the University of Warwick was Co-Investigator of the Palestinian study. Gina Crivello was the Research Assistant on the Sahrawi and Afghan project.

The research among Sahrawi youth was carried out in the refugee camps located near Tindouf, Algeria. Interviews were conducted in the four main districts (wilaya) of El Ayoun, Smara, Dakhla, and Auserd, as well as in the 27th of February camp. The fieldwork was led by Randa Farah a Palestinian anthropologist based at the University of Western Ontario in Canada.

The research among Afghan youth was carried out in Tehran and Mashad, Iran, and was led by Homa Hoodfar, an anthropologist of Iranian origin based at Concordia University in Canada.

A complementary study was added to the original project design examining the way food mediates the construction of social identities among youth in refugee contexts. In the Sahrawi case, the fieldwork was carried out by Nicola Cozza, while Alessandro Monsutti carried out a parallel study among Afghans in Iran. Jeya Henry of Oxford Brookes University contributed to the design of the food-intake questionnaires and the theoretical framework for studying food ways among refugee populations.

Box 1: SARC Research Teams
Children and Adolescents in Sahrawi and Afghan Refugee Households: Living with the Effects of Prolonged Armed Conflict and Forced Migration
  • Project Data
  • Funder: The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation
  • Duration: 2002-2005
  • Principle Investigator
  • Dawn Chatty, Refugee Studies Centre,
  • University of Oxford
  • Research Assistant
  • Gina Crivello, Refugee Studies Centre,
  • University of Oxford
  • Sahrawi Team
  • Randa Farah - Team Leader, University of Western Ontario
  • Radhi-Saghaiar Bachir - Local Research Coordinator
  • Fatimetou Salem - Research Assistant
  • Abdati Breica Ibrahim - Research Assistant
  • Mohamed el Mokhtar Bouh - Research Assistant
  • Mohammed Ali - Research Assistant
  • Noueha - Research Assistant
  • Fatima Mohammed Salem - Research Assistant
  • Nicola Cozza - Food and Identity Researcher
  • Afghan Team
  • Homa Hoodfar - Team Leader, Concordia University
  • Sarah Kamal - Local Research Coordinator
  • Fouzieh Sharifi - Research Assistant
  • Zohreh Hosseini - Research Assistant
  • Shocria Rezabaksh - Research Assistant
  • Malakeh Batour - Research Assistant
  • Massoumeh Ahmadi - Research Assistant
  • Alessandro Monsutti - Food and Identity Researcher
  • Institutional Partners
  • United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO)
  • United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA)
  • HAMI Association
  • The Arab Resource Collective (ARC)

Understanding Children and Childhoods Current Research Practices

The past few decades have witnessed a growing interest in the study and protection of children living in diverse circumstances and locations across the globe. The Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) was signed by 191 countries and represents an effort to place the protection of all children within an international human rights framework. In Article 22, the Convention makes special reference to refugee children, their right to live with their families, appropriate protection, and humanitarian assistance. In response to the growing sense of urgency to protect children exposed to different kinds of violence, the United Nations commissioned the groundbreaking Graca Machel Study, released in 1996, which was headed by the former First Lady of Mozambique and examined the impact of armed conflict on children.

Graca Machel’s report was published by UNICEF (1996), entitled The Impact of Armed Conflict on Children. The report has been made available online at


There has also been a rise in academic research on war-affected and displaced youth (Ayalon 1983; Djeddah and Shah 1996; Elbedour et al 1993; Gupta 2000; Hamilton and Man 1998; Hjern et al 1991; Macksoud 1992; Magwaza et al 1995; McHan 1985; Miller 1996; Sack et al 1986; Ziv and Israeli 1973). The majority is carried out from psychological and psychiatric perspectives which tend to rely on standardized questionnaires aimed to measure and quantify the impact of displacement (or conflict) on the individual child-respondent (Ahmad 1992; Cohen 1985; El Bedour et al 1993, Farhood et al 1993; Gabarino and Kostelny 1996; Qouta et al 1995, Van der Veer 1998; Mghir et al 1995; Mandalakas 2001; Willis and Gonzalez 1998). Psychological perspectives, in general, support a universal model of childhood development (Boyden 1994; Panter-Brick 1998; Scheper-Hughes and Sargent 1999; Wessells 1998). The effects of conflict on children are often framed in terms of trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (Abu Hein 1993, Punamaki and Suleiman 1990, Rossman 1998; Thabet et al 2004; Van der Veer 1998). Such approaches tend to pathologise and medicalise stress and the effects of living in situations of protracted violence or displacement.

Also see Bracken 1998; Bracken et al. 1995; Kleinman et al. 1997 for critiques.


In contrast, an anthropological approach emphasises holism, social context, personal experiences, relationships, values, and culture. Too often, however, the adult members of society are assumed to be the most appropriate spokespeople, based, perhaps, on Western researchers' assumptions about the ability of adults to better articulate knowledge and experience - and the inability of children to do so effectively. The current research programme aims to bring children and youth into the anthropological study of the refugee phenomena and to legitimise their voices, perspectives, and agency.

A growing number of studies suggest that researchers and practitioners are actively seeking the views and participation of children in their projects and programmes. The publication of Children and Youth on the Front Line (Boyden and de Berry 2004) offers detailed ethnographic descriptions of young peoples experiences of war, as both survivors and perpetrators. The authors challenge orthodox assumptions regarding definitions of childhood, and the vulnerability and passive victimization of children affected by conflict and displacement. Save the Children sponsored The Children of Kabul project which is another important example of the use of participatory methods to document the views and experiences of young people, in this case, Afghan children (de Berry 2003). Such child and youth-centred research provides a fuller and more nuanced understanding of the way individuals and their communities cope with the effects of prolonged forced migration.

Research Settings

Characteristics of the Research Groups

The Palestinian, Afghan and Sahrawi refugee communities across the research field sites shared many basic features. For example, they all represent protracted refugee communities of predominantly Muslim peoples.

The Palestinian group, however, had a particularly significant Christian minority.

All three of these societies were largely illiterate prior to their forced migration.

The Sahrawi and Afghan refugee youth shared a background of mobility, one coming largely from a society with a significant pastoral base, the other from a society with a long tradition of male (and occasionally family) migration as a 'rite of passage' to full adulthood (Monsutti 2005). The Palestinian and Afghan refugees were largely agrarian-based prior to their displacement and had the difficulty of adjusting to urban life as refugees.

Legal status varies between and within the groups; all of the Sahrawi camp residents had official refugee status, as determined by UNHCR, receiving humanitarian aid and international protection. Palestinians were officially recognised as refugees by UNRWA, but did not enjoy international legal protection. The Afghan refugees were initially welcomed into Iran and encouraged to self-settle. Over time, however, the Iranian government has become increasingly reluctant to grant newly arriving Afghans "official" refugee documentation, or to renew the documentation of those Afghans already resident in Iran.

Most Palestinian refugees receive their education in UNRWA schools; these are largely understaffed and under-resourced. Sahrawi youth benefit from a highly organised education system, despite the challenges brought on by lack of funds and resources. For Afghan students in Iran, education is a constant struggle. They mainly attend informal schools which are self-funded and managed by members of the Afghan community. They are under constant threat of being shut down by the Iranian government.

Brief historical sketches of the Palestinian, Sahrawi and Afghan refugee communities are described below and offer further points of comparison.

Palestinian refugees

(Map adapted by David Sansom)

A bitter struggle came to a climax in 1948 in the former British-mandated Palestine. Following the1947-8 War in Palestine, the state of Israel was created. This war was known as the 'Nakbah' or Catastrophe by Palestinians and resulted in more than 750,000 Palestinian people leaving their homes and places of work and taking refuge in camps hastily erected by the Red Cross and other humanitarian agencies in the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt.

A special agency was set up in December 1949 by the United Nations, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), to manage Palestinian refugee camps and provide health, education and humanitarian aid. The largest number of Palestinian refugees is found in Jordan, with over 1.6 million registered with UNRWA. Syria acknowledges 391,651 registered Palestinian refugees. In Lebanon, 382,973 Palestinian refugees are registered with UNRWA. Of these, 53 percent live in official refugee camps. In the West Bank, 37 percent of the population - 607,770 Palestinians - is made up of refugees and in Gaza, 852,626 Palestinian refugees comprise 75 percent of the total population. Today, Palestinians rank as the largest refugee population after the Afghans. Globally, one in three refugees is a Palestinian.

Palestinian statistics are drawn from UNRWA (Public Information Office) Statistical Yearbooks, 2003, Vienna.


Sahrawi refugees in Algeria

Western Sahara is said to be the last remaining colony in all of Africa.

According to United Nations' figures for 1998, there were 275,000 inhabitants in Western Sahara, excluding Moroccan settlers in the territory, as well as refugees in neighbour countries.

By 1936, Spain and France formed an alliance to establish Spanish hegemony in the Western Sahara. In 1966, the United Nations General Assembly called on Spain to organise a referendum in which Sahrawis would vote on self-determination. In 1973, the POLISARIO (Frente Popular para la Liberacin de Saguia El-Hamra y Rio de Oro), the armed forces of the Sahrawi liberation struggle, was formed by a group of Sahrawi students living in Rabat, Morocco.

On February 27, 1976, the day after the Spanish officially withdrew from the territory, the POLISARIO proclaimed an independent Western Sahara (Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, or SADR).

Two years later, in 1975, Spanish General Franco died and the International Court of Justice (ICJ) published its advisory opinion on Western Sahara, rejecting Moroccos and Mauritanias claims to the territory and maintained the right of the Sahrawi people to self-determination. Soon after the ICJ announced its position, the Moroccan King, Hassan II, assembled the Green March, where an estimated 350,000 Moroccan civilians crossed into the former Spanish Sahara to annex the northern two-thirds of the territory for Morocco.

Makeshift camps inside the Western Sahara sprung up to temporarily shelter those who fled their homes but these were bombed soon after in a series of raids by the Moroccan air force. While young men generally stayed behind or eventually returned to fight, many of their family members sought refuge further a field across the Algerian border where they remain to this day.


Between 150,000 and 200,000 refugees from the Western Sahara currently live in one of the four remotely located camps set up in the harsh desert 30km from the western most Algerian town of Tindouf.

The Smara, Auserd, and Aaiun camps are located in close proximity to one another and each claims around 40,000 – 45,000 residents. The fourth camp, Dakhla, is located at some distance from the other camps and claims a higher population of between 45,000 and 50,000 residents. Each camp is intended to function as a self-contained “wilaya” or province of SADR. Each “wilaya” is divided into six “daira” or districts, with Dakhla claiming seven due its slightly higher population. Each “daira” is subdivided into four “hay” or sub-districts.

Some of those who settled in the camps had come from a tradition of nomadic pastoralism; others had fled from the larger urban centres such as El-Ayoun, Dakhla, La Guera, and Smara. They live in tents provided by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), while most families have added on sand-brick buildings alongside. Trucks bring in water to the camps, as well as food, medicine, and other basic supplies. Limited access to water makes subsistence agriculture next to impossible. Therefore, international aid groups provide most of the food consumed by camp residents.

Photo: By Nogues Alain / Corbis Sygma

Photo online at

Despite the remoteness and isolation of the refugee camps, many of the camp residents maintain transnational networks that link them to families and institutions abroad. Educational networks are particularly necessary in order for students to continue their education, as agreements have been established with schools in such countries as Algeria, Cuba, and Libya in order for Sahrawi youth to complete university degree programs.

The Vacaciones en Paz (Vacations in Peace) program is also an important channel that links youth to Spain and is organised by the Asociación Amigos de Pueblo Saharaui (registered in 1986 as a national Spanish NGO). Vacaciones en Paz is an annual holiday program that allows between 7,000 and 10,000 Sahrawi children between the ages of eight and thirteen to be hosted by Spanish families in their homes for a two-month period during the summer.

During their stay, the children receive medical examinations and treatment, as well as gifts of clothes, toys, and money which they take back with them to the camps. The relationships established during the program often endure beyond the summer months, as strong proto-familial relationships form between the children and their Spanish host families, and return trips reinforce such cross-border bonds.

Afghan refugees in Iran

The presence of Afghan refugees in Iran was seen initially as temporary, and the government, in a gesture of Muslim fraternity, generally welcomed them. The majority of Afghan refugees in Iran arrived during the period of Soviet military presence in Afghanistan in the 1980s and up through 1992.

Many were afforded substantial benefits, including food subsidies, health care, and free primary and secondary level education for theirlion or more. However, only 22,000 are believed to live in camps, or less than 1.6 percent (ICRI 19981). Instead, they are largely self-settled and scattered throughout the countrys villages and cities. ates reach 2 milchildren (BAAG 19968). In 1998, the Ministry of Interiors Bureau of Aliens and Foreign Immigrant Affairs (BAFIA) estimated Afghan refugees in Iran at 1.4 million. Other estimates reach 2 million or more. However, only 22,000 are believed to live in camps, or less than 1.6 percent (ICRI 19981). Instead, they are largely self-settled and scattered throughout the country's villages and cities.

The British Agencies Afghanistan Group (BAAG 19965) identified the major flows of Afghans into Iran and grouped them into 1) Those who prior to the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan were working in Iran as economic migrants; 2) Those who fled the Soviet invasion during the 1980s

By 1998, their official numbers reached some 2.35 million and by 1992, nearly 3 million.

; 3) Hazaras who fled in 1991 as a result of massive flooding of their lands; 4) Heratis who fled the Taleban takeover of their land in 1995; 5) Kabulis who went to Iran as a result of economic hardship following Taleban takeover of the capital; and, 6) Economic migrants who entered since 1979.

Those who arrived prior to 1992 were issued "green cards" which afforded them legal recognition and entitled them to subsidies on health, education, transport, and provisions upon repatriation to Afghanistan (BAAG 1996:5). Temporary cardholders and undocumented refugees have little or no legal access to jobs and social services. A number of Afghans who had at one time held proper documentation lost their status after they decided to repatriate to Afghanistan. When they again sought refuge in Iran as conditions in Afghanistan worsened, they found themselves undocumented and at risk of being arrested and deported. Currently, those who do not hold proper refugee documentation do not have access to health care nor education for their children.


Education has emerged as an important priority among Afghan families living in Iran. However, the Iranian government has banned Afghan children from Iranian schools in an effort to encourage their families repatriation to Afghanistan. In response, Afghans adopted different strategies to try to overcome the barriers to their childrens education; some borrowed the identity cards of Iranians or from Afghans who had legal rights to education. Others mobilised to create informal, self-directed, and self-funded schools for their children. During the course of the present study, most of the contact and interaction with the youth took place within these informal schools, though they were constantly under threat of forced closure by the government.


In the early planning stages of the Palestinian study, all of the team leaders agreed to use a similar research methodology. This included:

  • 1) An initial Participatory Research Approach (PRA) to gather basic socioeconomic data and to identify potential households with children between the ages of 8 and 18 to take part in the study. This included the administration of a participatory psychosocial "worry questionnaire" in classrooms.

  • 2) An in-depth household approach in order to generate data with children and their families through a variety of anthropological techniques, including :

    • a) semi-structured interviews and the collection of life histories

    • b) natural and focus-group interviews

    • c) social mapping

    • d) participant-observation

The household approach was chosen because it moved away from studying 'the child' in isolation by situating their narratives and experiences in a tangible, yet dynamic, social unit. Households were selected purposively to be reasonably representative of the socio-economic range present in the refugee populations. The narratives and life histories that were collected focused on critical incidents from children and adults of different generations within the same households. The team leaders and their assistants also carried out participant-observation in order to place the narratives and other interviews within the contexts of coping, forced migration, and generational and household dynamics.

The Sahrawi and Afghan studies intended to use a similar core methodology in order to promote the possibilities for comparison across the three groups of youth.

In each of the Palestinian field sites, approximately twenty households were sampled (totalling around 100 households), while the Sahrawi and Afghan studies each focused on fifty households.

The process of 'selecting' households was shaped by social and political factors specific to each site. Access to the Palestinian families was negotiated through contacts established with local participants and, in some cases, through rapid participatory appraisals. The individuals who attended these exercises were asked to help the research teams identify families they were familiar with who they thought would fit the selection criteria 1) households of three generations, 2) with at least one member of the 1948 'Nakbah', and 3) and with children between the ages of 8 and 18.

The Sahrawi government-in-exile, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), provided research clearance for the Sahrawi study and facilitated access to the schools where much of the interaction with children took place. Each of the camps had a resident research assistant. The latter relied on snowball sampling to contact households and interview their members.

The Afghan research was based primarily in informal Afghan schools where after-school youth clubs were formed, in keeping with the participative approach of the overall study. These clubs facilitated participant-observation, extended contact with the youth, and eventual access to the participants' families. The research committees formed in the clubs decided who would be interviewed for the research and therefore whose families would be asked to participate in the study.

Photo: The youth club’s “volleyball team of the future-building girls of Afghanistan” on their final day.

A number of researchers have begun to explore the way participatory methods can be applied to studies and programs that focus on children.

See, for example Boyden 2001; Boyden and de Berry 2004; Boyden and Ennew 1997; Chalwa 2001; de Berry 2003; de la Cruz et al. 2002; Hart 2002; Protacio-de Castro et al 2002; West 2001; Wilkinson 2000. While promoting participatory methods, Boyden (2001) and Hart (2002) have also written about the limitations and challenges of children’s participation in the context of forced migration. Kapoor (2002) explores the theoretical limitations of Chambers’ work on participatory development.

Such methods encourage the vocality and visibility of refugee youth, which is especially important in social and political contexts where they feel marginalized.


A participatory approach with youth assumes and promotes their agency within the research process. This requires the researchers to relinquish a certain degree of control over some aspects of the project if the specific concerns and priorities of the youth are to be reflected in the research. Thus, in their espousal of participatory methods, the research teams came up against numerous challenges in their quest for a degree of methodological-commonality.

Box 2: Research Questions
The following questions were based on insights gained from the Palestinian study and guided the subsequent research with young Sahrawi and Afghan refugees:
  • 1) Do the experiences of girls differ from those of boys in terms of exposure, opportunities, constraints and responsibilities within the household and the community?

  • 2) What impact does legal status have on the lives of refugee youth and how is that mediated by gender?

  • 3) Do age, birth order, and sibling composition affect the experience and coping strategies of children and youth?

  • 4) How do the past experiences of forced migration amongst the older generations impact on children and youth?

  • 5) What impact does religious commonality (Islam) and past livelihood (pastoral and agrarian lifestyles) have on children and adolescents as refugees? How do children and youth from societies that have a tradition of mobility integrate the experience of forced migration in their current circumstances?

  • 6) How and when do children and youth involve themselves in political causes and what mechanisms are involved?

  • 7) What impact does formal, recognised education and non-formal, generally community organised education have on children and adolescents?

  • 8) What roles do children and adolescents play in the informal economy and how is that mediated by gender?

  • 9) What differentiation in terms of the ability to cope with forced migration can be made between the protection and services of UNHCR (Sahrawi), the services of UNRWA (Palestinian) and the charity of the Islamic Republic of Iran (Afghan refugees)?

Common Themes Refugee Youth in the Middle East and North Africa

During the dissemination workshop, portions of the final reports of the research team leaders were presented in order to identify the cross-cutting themes across the three sites. Team leaders from the Palestinian project were also present, as well as a number of their research assistants. Workshop participants were self-assigned into working groups where more detailed discussions around the particular themes took place. In addition, each working group was asked to discuss methodological and ethical concerns in relation to their group topics, as well as the policy and practice implications. It became clear during the discussion that many of the concerns outlined below overlapped and were inextricably linked, underscoring the suitability of the projects holistic approach.

A summary of the emerging findings from the Sahrawi and Afghan data, extracts from the interviews with youth, and the main points which emerged during the working groups are presented in the sections below. These are drawn from the research teams final reports, working papers, and discussions held throughout the research period. The methodological concerns are discussed in the final section.


Box 3 - Thematic Clusters
Group 1 Group 2 Group 3 Group 4
Gender and Generation
  • Role of humanitarian assistance

  • Economics

  • Transgeographical networks

  • Education

  • Citizenship

  • Politicisation

  • Impact of host society

  • Identity and identity politics

  • Integration

Gender and Generation

One of the aims of the research was to investigate the way gender mediated the experiences of young refugees. Another question investigated intergenerational relations and the impact of the elderly's past experiences of forced migration on the younger generations.

Among the Palestinian, Sahrawi and Afghan refugee networks, social relations and hierarchies are deeply embedded in the family. Both gender and generation organise obligations, responsibilities, and power within households. Young people across the Middle East/North Africa region are embedded in strong family and kin relations in which elders play an important role in terms of status, authority, and respect. Elders are often regarded as symbols of the homeland and represent a physical and immediate connection to the past and family history. Oral history is important to transfer knowledge across the generations.

Photo: A group of Sahrawi girls preparing to do a skit as part of a participatory exercise

Sahrawi children and adolescents imagine the 'homeland' as the place that will restore their dignity and end their status as refugees. To them, the homeland is not so much a particular village or town, but Western Sahara, and a 'way of life'. This way of life is imagined as nomadic, mobile and a place that is more 'green'. Their current circumstances in the camp stand in contrast to this imagined way of life.

The discourse on the significance of the family and family ties contrasts with the conditions that force Sahrawi family members to separate, especially those which result from educational needs. Students are forced to leave home in the refugee camps when they are young in order to continue their education in Algeria, Cuba, Spain, or elsewhere. This produces an emphasis on family relationships, and at the same time creates a parallel social network comprised of peer groups, upon which individuals depend and seek support while away from home. Fathers, mothers and siblings are also separated by the conditions arising from the developing informal economy and the requirements of the SADR, as well as travel/passport/visa restrictions.

Because mothers are themselves so active in community and municipal affairs, older generations step in to play an important role in the education and care of younger children. The latter are taught to respect elders and authority and, in turn, children are generally treated gently and with respect.

The lack of appropriate youth spaces was a concern expressed across the three sites, though their particular needs differed. Palestinian youth in particular worried about threats of physical violence in their schools and neighbourhoods. They also talked about overcrowding, unlike Sahrawi youth, though they also live in refugee camps.

For the Sahrawis, the desert region, combined with a culture of 'mobility' and respect for human dignity, provides them with a sense of social and physical space. Sahrawi girls, unlike Palestinian girls of comparable ages, have a sense of freedom to move around. Nevertheless, this desert environment is limiting, despite the children's creativity to make the most of it.

The difficult weather conditions, especially the pervasiveness of sand 'everywhere' causes ear, eye and chest related illnesses. In the summer months, the heat is suffocating. The lack of special spaces and equipment, such as games and toys where children can play indoors, are also absent.

The Afghan youth who participated in the study do not live in camp settings; their families tend to be self-settled in neighbourhoods largely inhabited by other Afghan families. Interviews with them revealed the importance of the informal Afghan schools for providing a space where they feel a sense of safety and belonging.

In general, Afghan girls are much more restricted in their movements than Afghan boys, and when allowed to leave the home unaccompanied by parents they are advised to go in small groups of four and to strictly observe the Islamic dress code. Boys, on the other hand, avoid walking the streets in groups, as they are often targets of harassments.

One of the research goals was to determine whether refugee generation has a strong affect on Afghan refugee youths' sense of identity. The majority of our sample was comprised of refugee youth who had no memory of Afghanistan, having either been born in Iran, or born in Afghanistan and migrated to Iran before 5 years of age.

This meant that they experienced a high level of anxiety about having to return as well as had a much harder time in dealing with their exclusion and discrimination by the wider society as an Afghans.

Extracts from Youth Narratives

On Intergenerational Relations:

My grandmother informed me that her forced departure from Palestine was the hardest experience of her life. She told me many stories about lots of things in Palestine, even about the cows in our barn and how people used to earn their living by selling oranges. She told me how they were forced to migrate, and how people escaped from the massacres of the Jews and how they thought they would return to their homes soon. Before her death, she gave me a gown and she asked me to hide it to be used in collecting her bones and burying them in her own village in Palestine when we return. (Palestinian, Syria, 17 years old, male)

I like to use [my parents'] experiences and I think that their opinions will be 90% important in my decision making (for who I will marry). But the rest of the relatives are not important. (Afghan, 12 years old, male)

My father and mother’s consultations are very much important and I will act on them 100%. (Afghan, 16 years old, male)

On the Need for Space:

Football is my favourite game; we play in the street of our camp because we do not have a playground to practice. People in the neighbouring houses often shout at us and order us to play away from their houses. We are always scared of being hurt by passing cars. (Palestinian, Syria, 12 years old, male)

Here one cannot live without the knife, but if you have one there is a problem and if you don't it is a problem too. If you have one and the police catch you, you go to prison for God knows how long. If you dont you may be attacked. These problems can start in grade five and up. (Palestinian, Jordan, 17 years old, male)

On Gender:

We are very traditional. We, the Palestinians, have been like this for generations. At home, I treat my children in the same manner. But outside the home, it differs. I pressure my girl much more than I pressure my boy. My parents treated me the same way. I trust [my daughter]. I know what I raised. Still, I have to know where she is. (Palestinian, Lebanon, 32 years old, female)

At home, there is discrimination between girls and boys. Boys can go any time with their friends and come back at any time, but girls cannot do that. They are forced to stay home... If I go out anywhere, it is only if my brothers take me to my uncle's house. [T]here are only youth centres for the young men, but nothing for us. (Palestinian, Jordan,17 years old, female)

Discrimination is in Afghan's blood. Yes, there are many kinds of discrimination in our family. He (my father) is ready to sacrifice three of us for his only son. He always tells him that whenever he wants to get married (she pauses and swallows her sigh and continues) my brother can choose any of us to be exchanged for his wife. Yes, in our society (tears roll down her face) woman is considered an animal. When I argue with my brother he says that if I bother him he would throw me out of the house. So in our house it is whatever my father and brother say. If they tell us that we have to die then we have to die at the moment otherwise then my father starts beating us with his belt. In our house my brother has to eat more and better food and he has to dress better than us. My mother has to ask permission from him if she wants to go somewhere and if he doesnt let her she can't go. (Afghan, 15 years old, female)

In our family, our father was providing living facilities but had a bad opinion regarding school-going girls. Most of the girls weren't covered so my family didn't let me go to school. They told us that it is better that we stay home and weave carpet, and we obeyed. We thought it is better that people not talk about us. My brothers didn't let us either. (Afghan, 15 years old, female)

[M]y father is very sensitive about these things. He cared for us equally... I believe that each human being has his special abilities and we can't discriminate men and women. (Afghan, 16 years old, male)

Working Group Recommendations: Gender and Generation

The working group agreed that programs and policies should be supported that promote the awareness of gender and age-based rights. The older generations should be brought into policy that targets children and links between the generations fostered. The working groups suggested that efforts should be made to document and create points of access to the memories of older generations. Children should be directly involved in these projects and trained to interview members of their own families and neighbourhoods.

The working group suggested that safe, gender appropriate spaces for play, debate, and discussion should also be created.

Practitioners should work to encourage the people targeted in their projects to gain a sense of ownership of and involvement in their programmes. Gender and generation should be prioritised components of refugee research, with an emphasis on building skills and leadership roles for girls and women within their respective social networks and communities.

Participatory methods with children and youth were recognised as important to cultivate a sense of ownership of the project, and to learn priorities and perspectives, but a number of challenges were also identified, especially in regard to capacity, lack of resources, and ethical concerns.

Role of Humanitarian Assistance, Economics and Transgeographical Networks

One of the points that emerged as important in the research was the impact of transgeographical, or transnational, networks on the social, economic, and cultural relations within refugee communities.

In the Afghan case, only one local (state-sponsored) Organisation, HAMI, serves the needs of Irans refugees, directing much of its energy towards women and children. Although there are two UNHCR offices in Iran, they are very rarely referred to by Afghans without education and money. The most important UNHCR function that the Afghan low income community has ever mentioned is their occasional support for medical expenses. Middle-class educated Afghans, however, do use the office, particularly for requesting to be re-settled in a third country.

Sahrawi camp residents, on the other hand, depend almost entirely on humanitarian many of them Spanish, have bases in the camp. However, interviews with Sahrawi camp residents revealed the widespread belief that the humanitarian aid they receive is both unreliable and insufficient. The harsh desert environment makes self-reliance impossible, and only in recent years have small, informal, markets emerged in some of the camps' neighbourhoods.

Economic activities comprise a large part of the lives of many of the Afghan youth in our sample. About 56% of the youth interviewed generated income for themselves or their family. The importance of work to their lives was reflected in the topic of the photography competition held in the Tehran youth club - "Afghan adolescents and youth at work".

Photo: Photography competition entry by two Afghan boys, one of whom is pictured working his usual job as a garbage collector.

Vacaciones en Paz

In the Sahrawi case, the Vacaciones en Paz program represents an important transgeographical link between the thousands of Sahrawi and Spanish families who have taken part in the hosting scheme. The program has been criticised on the grounds that it exposes 'poor' refugee children to a life and a standard of living they could never achieve or experience in the camps. They live in Spanish 'paradise' for two months then are obliged to return home to the harsh desert environment.

Contrary to this image, most Sahrawi youth reflect on the differences that distinguish the Spanish lifestyle from their way of life without glorifying Spain. For the most part, they describe their experiences in Spain positively, without denigrating their life at home. For those who have been to Spain or who have spent even longer periods of time away from home studying abroad, the 'pull' factor back to the camps is based on two fundamental concerns. First, there is a strong sense of loyalty to the family.

Photo: Sahrawi children prepare for their trip to Spain

The interviews with students who have been abroad and returned include references to how they remembered their families while away and felt homesick. Second, a strong political culture exists where the national struggle underpins their sense of obligation to the collective cause. This concern, however, is a more significant concern among parents and grandparents. The younger generations are beginning to have political questions about their future.

The narratives from Sahrawi young people often refer to the desire to be able to 'study in one's homeland' and to use one's own national resources. Such statements reflect the special influence the impact studying abroad has on Sahrawi children and reinforces their desire to have their own country so that they can study near their families and on their own land. They regularly participate in national celebrations and commemorations at home; their politicisation occurs because of the obvious -- they are refugees, their lives in camps indicate that their situation is not normal. Once they leave to other countries, they feel the difference even more.

Extracts from Youth Narratives

On the Struggles of Work:

What can I do? I tried to work but there are no jobs around here and it is difficult for me to work and study at the same time. (Palestinian, Gaza, 15 years old, female)

I have been to Spain and to Algeria, but now I am working in the camps. It is difficult to support my family, because even though the refugees receive humanitarian assistance, it is difficult, because you have to buy meat, bread, gas, cloth, vegetables, and other things. It is very difficult to live like other people in other countries...I used to be a member of my football team, but since I had to work late, I no longer have time for games, or play. I spend all my time trying to secure a living and fulfil the needs of my family. I sometimes work in a small shop to sell goods. Even my mother has opened a small shop to sell the basics, such as bread, milk, sugar, tea, tomato paste, sweets, etc. Sometimes I think it is better to go to Mauritania and work there, or to Spain. (Sahrawi, 15 years old, male)

I have always worked all my life and I am tired of working. I know that I cant continue my education any more. I will just say that I would like to stop working for one week. Of course my other brothers also work but I don't know why we don't get a bit rich. I am tired of working. (Afghan, 11 years old, male)

Sahrawi Reflections on Spain:

We did not know what the sea was until we went on the summer vacation program...we werent familiar with many things, like the buildings, animals...we saw these and we saw elephants and lions...we learned from them (Spaniards) how to wear clothes differently from what we were used to. There it is different from the camps. In the camps, there are only the tents and adobe huts; there they have big buildings and everything. They have large forests and different animals. They also have a different kind of upbringing... Our children do not know the sea, or the animals; they only have stones and sand. There the land is different; they have paved roads and they dont get dirty like here and they can take showers whenever they want. When we saw all those things, we wished so much that we were an independent nation so that we can have those things that they have. (Sahrawi, 14 years old, male)

I went to Andalusia and I saw the sea, swimming pools, and buildings. My (host) families used to take us to different places. There are things that we do not have here and there they do not have tents. I wished we had swimming pools here and the possibility of keeping things clean. I wish we had markets and toys to play with. (Sahrawi, 12 years old, female)

I went to Spain many times, but I do not like Spain. The people have very different customs. They do not respect the elders and they go out without clothes, naked! (laughs) That is difficult for the Sahrawis to do. I was shocked when I was in Spain and since then I refuse to go back. I study Arabic, French, and Spanish and I continue to go to Algeria where people have great respect for us. (Sahrawi, 17 years old, female)

Working Group Recommendations Role of Humanitarian Assistance, Economics, and Transgeographical Networks

The working group considered the potential role of humanitarian groups in recognising, working through, and strengthening transgeographical networks. Local NGOs should be regarded as potential assets and their cooperation with UN Organisations should be strengthened. One area in particular where local NGOs can play a crucial role is in education. UN assistance programmes mainly target primary school education, to the neglect of secondary school education and vocational training. The latter should also be prioritised in assistance programmes.

Education, Citizenship and Politicisation

The impact of education on the lives of young refugees was a recurrent theme throughout the research and was reflected in the data presented to the working group. The data suggest that education, both formal and informal, in the three refugee contexts, is used as a tool in nation-building; it shapes individual identities and collective memory. It has a key role to play in rights-awareness, citizenship, and politicisation. However, refugee youth, especially in the Sahrawi and Afghan cases, confront a number of barriers that prevent them from putting their degrees and skills to use. The degrees and certificates granted through formal education may impart self-confidence and thus encourage individuals to contribute and participate in their communities and the larger society.

Sahrawi refugees and education

In the past, especially in the seventies and eighties, education was a primary goal for Sahrawi refugees. Eradicating illiteracy was a strategic objective for the SADR. The SADR, families and individuals had a great deal of enthusiasm, believing an educated population was an important contribution to the collective national struggle and a necessary step to improve upon individual conditions of displacement. This sentiment was also widespread among Palestinian refugees and the PLO in the 1960s and 70s.

Over time, and especially following the cease fire, the return of a large number of educated Sahrawis to the camps, who are neither needed on the battle front nor able to use their skills and knowledge effectively, is creating frustration and anxiety regarding the future. The number of returning students is ever increasing and the SADR, with its limited resources, is less effective in providing a complete primary, secondary, and tertiary education and employment than they were able to for the relatively smaller population of the 1970s and 80s.

Photo: Inside a sixth grade classroom, Sahrawi camps

For the age group between 8-14, the main issues were 1) Lack of educational facilities conducive to learning, including necessities such as books, copybooks, libraries, and other educational materials. There are no libraries, labs or computers in the classrooms; 2) Lack of toys and games, especially those that can be played indoors; 3) Extra curricular activities during the holidays and weekends; and, 4) Better nutrition is also needed.

Older youth in the camps, aged 14-18, expressed the following concerns regarding education 1) The educational standards are low and teachers are not effective in camps; 2) They encounter problems keeping up with the standards in other countries; 3) Having studied Spanish as a second language in the camps, they find the switch to French in Algeria particularly difficult; and, 4) Nutrition is still lacking. Poverty is more an issue for students who study abroad. Lack of money to purchase educational materials, clothing and proper food affects their general ability to do well.

Afghan refugees and education

Many of the Afghans who fled to Iran during the 1980s were escaping what they saw as the threat of the Soviet-backed government to their customs and to Islam. When the government introduced a marriage law which legislated the consent of the bride as essential and designated the minimum age of girls for marriage as sixteen, this was seen by many as Russias desire to destroy Islam and Muslims. The idea of education as 'un-Islamic' persisted and the proposed reforms were used as rallying points against the Soviets.

Some of the Afghan families in our study had returned to Afghanistan after Soviet withdrawal in the early 1990s but returned to Iran when the Taleban took control. Interviewees explained that the closure of schools and the extreme limitation of education for girls in Afghanistan was a major factor in their decision to (re)migrate to Iran in the second half of the 1990s. Education is now widely viewed by Afghans in Iran as an Islamic obligation.

While the easy access of Afghan youth to Iranian schools during the 1980s did not particularly support the development of Afghan identity and solidarity among young Afghan refugees in Iran, this changed with increasing discrimination and the subsequent emergence of a number of informal Afghan schools. The emergence of an Afghan supra-identity and corresponding Afghan nationalism has far reaching consequences for the social and political development of Afghanistan, and should be taken into consideration. Furthermore, these developments have important implications for policies dealing with children and youth with regards to general and educational needs of long-term refugees, at the national (host and country of origin) level as well as for NGOs, humanitarian organisations, and international agencies dealing with and overseeing refugee needs.

The discrimination and hostile treatment many young Afghans faced in the Iranian school system was dispiriting if not devastating, especially for those who had focused on 'Muslimness' as the main axis of their identity. Having established informal Afghan schools, young people began to speak more with each other without fear of interference from Iranian students or teachers, and their pride in being Afghan and their desire to know more about Afghanistan germinated and grew. In some ways, an unintended consequence of informal Afghan schools was that youth brought up in Iran were encouraged to think of themselves as being Afghan, and began, at least ideologically, to want to go back to Afghanistan and feel a sense of belonging.

The Afghan data speak to the need for unambiguous educational policies to deal with long-term refugees, particularly in cases of large scale exodus. Policies must be devised for the basic needs of refugee communities, including and prioritising education. If the host country is reluctant to incorporate the refugee population, it must provide institutional support for education geared towards the needs of their country of origin, so that refugees can develop a sense of identity and nationalism that will facilitate their return home. Such schooling should not necessarily separate long-term refugees from the main educational system of the host country, but at least provide some enrichment programming and curricula, and the establishment of special youth centres or clubs where refugees can develop a sense of shared identity and belonging.

Extracts from Youth Narratives

On Palestinian Education:

Palestine is located in the Middle East and in 1948 the Jews occupied it because of its strategic and important location. The Jews are a group of people who are spread throughout the whole world; they don't have a country so they occupied Palestine and claimed that it is their own land. I got this information from school because the teacher asked us to collect information about Palestine. I also get some information from my grandmother and grandfather and mother. Last year we had an exhibition to demonstrate Palestinian folklore; I myself took a scarf and an embroidered dress. (Palestinian, Syria, 11 years old, female)

On Sahrawi Education:

The main problem that students face is education. It is the hope for us all and we cannot do without it. Our country (SADR) does not have the resources, such as proper places for teaching, therefore they send people on the summer program (to Spain), but also to friendly countries such as Algeria, Spain Libya, Syria, and others. ..."if the school educates one person it educates the whole nation as well". School is what produces all this; it is indispensable. (Sahrawi, 16 years old, male)

I respect teachers and professors. I remain grateful for all they have done... Despite our exile and hardships, we study and we educate ourselves to become doctors and we struggle to return to our land and we teach the new generations and the old. I hope that I will continue until I finish and receive a high diploma, so that when we achieve our independence I can work (Sahrawi, 17 years old, female)

I studied my primary school here in school in Dakhla (camp). Here we are far from everything...The cold is bitter and school is far from home...[T]hen I went to the October 12 School between Smara and Dakhla. It is a boarding school...I went to Algeria and enrolled in the seventh grade...I miss home and always think about the camps here. (Sahrawi, 18 years old, female)

On Informal Afghan Schools:

I am among my people and nobody teases and despises me and since our teacher is Afghan she explains everything to us and speaks about Afghanistan more and we write essays about Afghanistan and its future. (Afghan, 14 years old, female)

I studied up to fifth grade in Afghanistan and I quit school for two years after we came to Iran. Then I studied fifth grade in our Afghan schools and then I attended pre-high school...Considering the stories that students tell about Iranian schools, in our schools it feels like we are in Afghanistan and we never feel like strangers in this school. Our friends that are studying in Iranian schools feel bad since all their classmates are Iranians...[T]hat is why we study here and we are happy since I am with my own kind and I can study easily. (Afghan, 17 years old, male)

When I came to this school I was very happy that I was with Afghans and we would sympathize and it has had a very positive impact on me and I like it very much. Here I feel that everything belongs to me and we are friendly and we don't have bad feelings regarding each other and we don't tease each other about our nationality. (Afghan, 15 years old, female)

Working Group Recommendations Education, Citizenship and Politicisation

The working group emphasised that as long as refugees are denied rights within their host societies, they will remain at a legal, structural disadvantage in relation to full citizenship. Education can raise awareness of this structural inequality and fuel the movement towards policy and practice that gain rights for refugees. Degrees and certificates granted through formal education in the host society should have a recognised equivalency in the event that refugees return to their home countries to work or continue their studies.

Impact of Host Society on Refugee Experience, Identity and Integration

The legal status of refugees within their respective host societies establishes a certain framework of limitations and/or opportunities that impacts their lives. The legal position of refugees and the general attitudes of the public towards them changes over time.

Interviews with Afghan youth, previous research data, and the published scholarly works do not indicate the prevalence of discrimination or bullying against Afghan youth in Iranian schools during the 1980s.

However, the situation changed in the early 1990s with a shift in ideology from Muslim solidarity to Iranian nationalism. Discrimination against Afghan students became socially and legally rampant; nonetheless, there is little evidence to suggest that a collective effort on the part of the Afghan community was made to deal with grievances related to youth discrimination. The emergence of Afghan informal schools in the latter half of the 1990s provided a forum for youth to talk about and deal with their experiences as unwanted refugees; they were able to develop awareness, opinions and perspectives on collective and individual rights, and principles of tolerance.

In conversations with members of the research team, many used the language of social justice and human rights, some invoking an international or Islamic (hoghogh-i-islami insane) human rights framework. The stories told by the Afghan youth indicate an identity crisis that went unaddressed by older members of their communities until the advent of the informal schools. It was the comparison of the experiences of youth in both Afghan and Iranian schools that focused attention on the significance of their Afghan identity and newly formed sense of belonging.

The Sahrawi case differs markedly from the situation of Afghans in Iran. Unlike the self-settled Afghans, Sahrawi refugees live in a camp setting and are entirely dependent on humanitarian aid for their survival.

Interviews with young Sahrawis reveal a generally positive attitude towards their Algerian hosts. Many of them had studied in Algerian schools and made friends with Algerian classmates. Nonetheless, the physical isolation of the Sahrawi camps from the rest of Algeria contributes to their social exclusion and inability to fully integrate into the larger society. The youth clearly prioritise national independence from Morocco rather than integration into Algerian society.

Photo: Youth newsletter committee at work, Mashad, Iran.

Extracts from Youth Narratives

On Difference and Discrimination:

A nation does not turn racist and chauvinist in one generation. You would not hear from Afghans complaints about discrimination in Khomeini's era. Not that they did not have problems or that everybody treated them well, but that when it happened they did not feel it was part of a collective discriminatory and exclusionary approach, but things have changed now. The government does not want us here. We, the Afghans are blamed for everything that goes wrong here, from serial killings to high unemployment, to spread of diseases. But the problem is that most of us have nowhere to go back to... (Afghan youth)

The game we played as children was 'Arabs and Jews'. In this game the Arabs would attack using stones and the Jews would retaliate with guns. Children were divided into those who played the role of Jews while others were Arabs. Children who represented the Jews in our games were those who assumed the power and were stronger, while others chose to represent the Arabs and refused to be part of the Jewish group. Our games had violent elements; I thought that it was a useful training for the future. In our play it was always victory for the Arabs. (Palestinian, Gaza, 17 years old, male)

Working Group Recommendations Impact of Host Society on Refugee Experience, Identity and Integration

The working group concluded that policy and practice should prioritise the protection of choice and the dignity of refugees.

They suggested documenting the regional and international laws and policies towards specific refugee groups in their respective host countries. They stressed the importance of gauging how these policies are being carried out in practice and the possibility of devising a system capable of measuring the degree to which refugee rights are protected in practice in particular contexts.

This working group argued that refugees need to be given access to the same rights and services as the local population. Credible studies need to be carried out and publicised that analyse the contributions refugees make to their host societies (economic, social, cultural, etc.). This can hopefully allay some of the worries held by locals that prejudice attitudes towards refugees.

Other research can survey the attitudes of the host society towards the integration of refugees, as well as the attitudes of refugees towards their integration.

Methods and Ethics of Research with Refugee Children and Youth

Photo: Sahrawi boy improvises a toy.

Drawing on the wealth of experience represented by the participants at the Cyprus workshop and the specific insights gained from the Palestinian, Sahrawi, and Afghan fieldwork, several points were made regarding the methods and ethics of child-focused research in refugee settings.

Research with youth should foster an open environment for their participation. The group identified local schools as ideal locations, as they often represent an environment of familiarity. Alternative sites should be made available, however, as some students associate school with teacher cruelty and punishment.

The workshops, exercises, and activities aimed at drawing children into the research should be sensitive to social context. What works with one group may be inappropriate for another. The working group emphasised the need to make a special effort to provide appropriate spaces for girls and women to participate.

The benefits of informal methods were discussed, as these are often more effective for building the trust and rapport necessary for research intended to span months or years.

The age and attitudes of the researchers are also important to build relationships; researchers should respect children and children's opinions and not reinforce age-based hierarchies.

Training sessions can teach young people to use a variety of media to document personal and family histories of older generations which can be archived in a central location and made available to the local population, with possibilities for sharing more broadly via the internet.

Assets mapping was suggested as a tool to identify the various resources created by and available to children, their families, and communities, including, for example, social networks, educational resources, monetary resources, humanitarian aid and local NGOs.

The importance of managing expectations was also emphasised and requires that the scope and aims of the research are clearly communicated to the youth and their families. In this way, a common vision regarding the project and the community's involvement may be established for the short and long-term. Promises should not be made that cannot be kept. The research teams must always be conscious of the power relations that mark their relationships with the target populations.

The value of combining qualitative and quantitative research methods was also underscored in the discussion. Linking the micro and macro levels of analysis is something toward which we should strive. In the Palestinian, Sahrawi, and Afghan research, the narratives of youth and their families were contextualized with basic socioeconomic data which will allow us to compare attributes across the three groups.

One of the aims of participatory research should be to build local capacity - with the individuals involved, local researchers, and NGOs. One of the challenges to participatory research is that in order for it to be effective it often requires extensive training. This requires time, staff, and resources, often unavailable to local NGOs or other groups interested in using participatory methods. Creating vertical and horizontal links may contribute to this capacity-building. Links between various sectors, from universities, to researchers, to local NGOs, can help to create webs of resources, knowledge and practice.

Summary of Workshop Conclusions

  • Gender and generation should be prioritised in research which seeks to understand the experiences of youth;

  • Understanding the dynamics of transgeographic networks is important;

  • Management of expectations is ethically important throughout research;

  • Collaboration with local associations and local dissemination can bridge the gap between academia and practice;

  • Participatory Research Approaches (PRA) can be effective tools for understanding the priorities of young refugees;

  • PRA need to be designed mindful of social context and ethical issues;

  • PRA can encourage agency and a sense of ownership:

  • Policies should encourage self-reliance, self-expression and empowerment;

  • Policies should provide the tools for 'rights holders' to advocate for their own interests;

  • Policies should raise individual, household and group 'rights awareness';

  • Policies affecting refugee youth should reflect a holistic and participatory approach;

  • Policies should recognise the importance of oral history and memory;

  • Policies should prioritise educational and vocational training.

Overall Conclusions Refugee Youth in Prolonged Forced Migration

Based on data collected between 1999 and 2005 and the reflections of team leaders, other researchers, practitioners, and policymakers present at the workshop, the following lessons learned were drawn from the research programme on refugee children and youth in the Middle East and North Africa :

  • 1) Gender and generation are significant considerations to include in studies and projects which seek to understand the experiences of young refugees.

  • 2) The ethical management of research and collaboration with local associations are vital to bridge the gap between academia and practice.

  • 3) Participatory Research Approaches (PRA) that are mindful of social context and ethical issues can be effective tools for identifying the priorities of refugee youth and for encouraging a sense of agency and ownership.

  • 4) Policies affecting refugee youth should a) reflect a holistic and participatory approach; b) recognise the importance of oral history and memory; c) encourage self-reliance, self-expression, and empowerment; and, d) prioritise education and vocational training.


We would like to thank all the researchers, field assistants, interviewers, and local representatives who contributed to different aspects of the research. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation provided generous financial support for the three case studies. Most of all, we express our gratitude to the Palestinian, Sahrawi, and Afghan youth, as well as their families, whose cooperation and support made this project possible.

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Last updated Sep 21, 2011