The Problem of Displacement

There are nearly 50 million displaced people in the world today – the most since the Second World War – and their unremitting plight has a continuing impact on global security. Of those displaced, the majority live in sanctioned camps, having fled conflict and upheaval in their communities and countries in search of protection and assistance. Yet for those in exile, the hardships continue beyond the initial crisis as short-term refuge often descends into decades of forced encampment. Prevented from returning home by ongoing violence or political turmoil in their countries and prohibited from settling elsewhere, many who become displaced discover that they have become permanent refugees.

Conditions of Exile

While refugee camps were originally intended to provide emergency relief to newly uprooted populations, over 30 countries maintain camps that have been in operation for over 5 years and currently shelter over 10 million people. The average length of time for refugees living in situations of protracted displacement is now approaching 20 years and long-term camps are often disparaged for “warehousing” refugees. Many camps shelter families who are now in their third generation of exile, having been denied indefinitely the right to return to their homes or resettle elsewhere.

In the majority of countries, refugees are prohibited by law from leaving the camps to find work, an education, or their own place to live. Confined within the camp’s borders, refugees become unable to provide for their basic needs of food, shelter, clothing, or medical care and must rely on the host government and foreign aid for a subsistence living. Children are born and raised in the camps, and like their parents, face an emotional and physical struggle for survival. While resettlement opportunities exist, they are unpredictable and inadequate and contribute to a rising sense of desperation among the displaced. The majority of youth will remain in the camps for years, their safety and wellbeing threatened by extreme poverty, poor education, and a lack of meaningful opportunities in their lives.

The Displaced Community

The loss of one’s community, along with the benefits of a socially and economically supportive network, compound the personal challenges endemic to protracted refugee situations. During flight, friends and families are often separated or killed, and large portions of the population dispersed. Camps commonly host a wide range of nationalities and barriers of language and culture can negatively impact cooperation and co-existence amongst individuals and groups. Lack of unity within the camp population thwarts efforts toward common goals, from improved access to food and health care to proper training of teachers. Legal and policy restrictions initially implemented to establish order in the midst of massive population flows can disrupt long-term community development by infringing on rights and contributing to a disempowering environment. Camps, by design temporary and impersonal, devolve over time into settlements of dispirited people, disconnected from each other and physically and socially isolated from the world around them.

Outlook for Refugee Youth

In most camps, diminishing educational returns beyond primary school impact the livelihoods of youth, with further repercussions upon the long-term health and stability of the community. Worldwide, only six percent of all refugee students are able to attend secondary school (citation). The decline in educational attainment as a function of age is an issue endemic to protracted displacement and illustrates a host of barriers including cultural and traditional practices unfavorable to girls and vulnerable children, poor and under-resourced facilities, a shortage of qualified teachers, and lack of donor aid for refugee education. Deprived of an adequate education, youth reach adulthood to find themselves part of a disadvantaged community of adults, stripped of many of their basic human and legal rights and lacking the capacity to advocate on their own behalf. For young adults, increasing years of confinement distort their perception of a meaningful future: goals and incentives fade, to be replaced by feelings of helplessness and frustration. Disempowered by the lack of control in directing the course of their lives, refugees who endure the trauma of protracted exile struggle to lead productive and purposeful lives.

The Solution

Recognizing that situations of protracted confinement are not amenable to standard solutions of resettlement or return compels an emphasis on new strategies to maximize human potential in refugees. As part of a more holistic approach to the challenges faced by refugees, the UNHCR Education Strategy, 2012-2016 targets “learning of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ skills such as skills for peaceful living, peace building/conflict resolution, and human rights and citizenship, as well as job preparation and business management skills, with the goal of improving livelihoods, promoting inclusion in the world of work, and supporting community and individual agency.”

UNHCR now supports high quality education at all levels including training programs aimed at increasing leadership capacity in students and adults. Programs that promote effective and ethical leadership through personal and professional development, in conjunction with increased access to secondary and tertiary education, are critical in settings of long-term displacement. Enrichment and leadership programs can offer direction for refugee youth and adults by increasing their scholastic and livelihood opportunities both in and outside the camp, and strengthening their ability to contribute to their families and communities. The advantages of education and leadership training for refugees extend to critical social and economic improvements, including a more skilled workforce, expanded professional networks, greater integration within the global community, and enhanced capacity to identify and implement innovative and peaceful solutions to ongoing challenges

The Role of LEEP: Mission Statement

Promoting refugee-led solutions to issues associated with displacement and confinement is critical to enhancing autonomy and dignity in protracted situations while catalyzing individual and community change. The Leadership Education & Empowerment Program (LEEP) is a global initiative of TerraShare, a US-based non-profit, non-governmental organization with the mission to empower and educate children affected by poverty and conflict. LEEP was designed by uniting the core components of TerraShare’s domestic programs for displaced youth in the US with best practices from international organizations serving at-risk and under-resourced populations.

In long-term refugee situations, improvements to quality of life and community health are critical to assuring a meaningful impact. The mission of LEEP is to bring transformative change into the lives of children and adults in protracted exile in camps and settlements by assisting those living under such highly disadvantaged conditions to attain a large measure of their potential in personal development and life achievement. In partnership with the refugee community, LEEP provides refugee-led academic and leadership programs for youth and adults.

LEEP programs for primary and secondary school youth emphasize scholarship, leadership, and community engagement, and are administered by adults recruited from the refugee community and trained as program leaders and instructors. LEEP programs help students reach their potential scholastically and interpersonally, while staff develop skills and knowledge that generate increased local and global opportunities for them to utilize their talents. As students and staff strengthen their capacity to both learn and teach, they are able to position themselves as new and important leaders in their families and communities. The success of LEEP is measured by the growth of a healthy and healing community of participants committed to the goals of personal development, positive relationships, academic and professional accomplishment, and meaningful efforts toward the common good.