Young Syrian refugee volunteer Haliz in Domiz camp in Kurdistan Region of Iraq during a tent-to-tent visit, informing refugees about services available in the camp. Young Syrian refugee volunteer Haliz in Domiz camp in Kurdistan Region of Iraq during a tent-to-tent visit, informing refugees about services available in the camp. Photo: S. M. Abdullah / UNHCR

Youth have always made up a large component of the population covered by UNHCR’s mandate and activities. As refugee youth needs are diverse, multiple programmes – including child protection, education, livelihood and civic engagement – have traditionally incorporated youth. In fact, in a recent global UNHCR survey [hyperlink, see link in footnotes], more than 70 percent of UNHCR field staff reported that they worked directly or indirectly with youth across various sectors. [1]


Due to recent demographic trends, many countries in the world, especially those in the Middle East, have a disproportionally large youth population. Sometimes this bulge is viewed negatively as leading to unemployment and social problems. In a positive light, however, it can be seen as a unique opportunity, as a high number of productive members of society and therefore great potential for growth and innovation.

Commonly defined as the period between the ages of 15 and 24, youth covers a time during which an individual undergoes the cultural and societal transition between being a child and taking on adult roles and responsibilities. Elements in this transition include increased economic, social and family responsibilities, ceremonial events linked to status change and the creation of new family units.

To make this transition, youth rely on social infrastructure and support frameworks. Displacement disrupts these patterns, tearing apart the fabric of societies on a broad and an individual level. A refugee youth may not speak the local language, jobs are more difficult to obtain, education is disrupted or unavailable, and the ability to effectively advocate and participate in community life is substantially reduced. At a stage where so much life planning occurs, refugee youth may be lost in a limbo, unable to move forward and uncertain of the future.  Although youth can be highly resilient in situations of adversity, if they are not supported, youth can also turn to harmful coping strategies, which can impact on the well-being of both the displaced and host communities.  

Syrian youth have faced disruption of their social infrastructure on a massive scale. As of mid-July 2013 there were over 28,000 Syrian youth between the ages of 15 and 24 registered with UNHCR in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq alone.[2] These youth face immense obstacles in accessing the support that they need in order to smoothly transition to adulthood. Realizing the scale of these obstacles, UNHCR has focused increased efforts on ensuring that youth needs are fully taken into account in its Syrian refugee response.

In early July 2013, a Youth Protection Officer, a new position within UNHCR, was deployed to Erbil to focus specifically on the needs of Syrian refugee youth. There are some evident challenges and needs, in the areas of education, livelihood, civic engagement and protection. However, UNHCR is conducting a specific assessment to obtain robust information and eventually develop a targeted strategy. This strategy will aim to increase youth participation in current initiatives and to strengthen youth-focused programming and advocacy, in order to ensure that this growing demographic group can thrive despite adversity.

[1] UN High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR's Engagement with Displaced Youth, March 2013, available at: [accessed 23 July 2013]

[2] UNHCR Registration Data


Additional Info

  • Agency: UNHCR
Last modified on Wednesday, 02 October 2013 10:51


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